NFL's oldest rookie? Divorced college dropout from Owosso finds unlikely new life as a kicker

NFL's oldest rookie? Divorced college dropout from Owosso finds unlikely new life as a kicker

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NFL's oldest rookie? Divorced college dropout from Owosso finds unlikely new life as a kicker

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He was getting a divorce, which was miserable enough, but the worst part was that he wasn’t going to see his son every day. This was especially difficult to accept because he had moved to Ft. Myers, Fla. — some 1,300 miles away from his home and family near Lansing — to save his marriage and stay with his son. He left Michigan in June, and by August divorce papers were filed.

So here was Justin Rosenbaum in the summer of 2005, 25 years old, a college dropout, working as an electrician, living in an apartment a two-day drive from just about everyone he had ever known.

Who could imagine that seven years later, Rosenbaum would be a month from a spot in a regional NFL Combine in Los Angeles and four months from a likely invite to an NFL training camp?

Once, Rosenbaum was such a good goalie that he traveled with an Olympic development soccer team during his high school days in Owosso. After high school and a semester of college, he started in the family business — a booming electrical contracting company. If he had stayed, said his biological father, Steve Cole, he was looking at a “cushy, stable life” with vacations and lake houses.

Instead, his choices led him to Florida and the summer of 2005, mostly alone, occasionally tagging along with co-workers to knock back a few post-shift beers, wondering what to do with his life.

At least it was warm and sunny.

Now look at him: 185 pounds of fast-twitch muscle, punting footballs on the beach, capable of booting 65-yard field goals, five months from a college degree.

Rosenbaum is 32. And if he makes an NFL roster this fall, what a story he will have to tell. He could begin in 2005, although his journey begins much earlier.

The early years

Rosenbaum’s parents divorced when he was a toddler. He was raised in Owosso by his mother, Chris Rosenbaum, and stepfather, Bob Rosenbaum. His stepfather later adopted him.

“Of his first two words,” said Chris, “ball was one of them. He broke almost every window in the house.”

Errant throws and kicks aside, Justin was “good at anything he tried,” said his mother.

But he was little, too little for junior high football, at least as far as she was concerned. So Justin played soccer. He was quick and could anticipate, and a natural in goal. His leg was so strong that he got called up for free kicks and penalty kicks. And set a school record for goals scored by a goalie.

By the time he was a sophomore in high school, Justin decided he wanted to give football a try as a kicker. He asked the varsity coach — who doubled as a math teacher — if he could kick for him. The coach told him he already had a kicker.

So he focused on soccer, traveling for matches, spending his weekends on the road. It was fun. It also was a grind.

Rosenbaum graduated from Owosso High School in 1999. In the fall, he moved to Kalamazoo to attend Western Michigan University. He barely got C’s and lasted one semester.

“It wasn’t for me,” he said.

At least not yet.

He moved to Arizona — where his mom had moved — and attended a community college. That lasted a few months. He returned to Michigan and enrolled in a community college in Lansing. Again, it didn’t work.

He was 19 and lost.

Justin was close to his mother and adopted father. Yet because his parents’ divorce had been messy, he had little relationship with his biological father for most of his childhood. He figured it was time he reached out.

Steve Cole was living in Pinckney when Justin began coming around in 2000. Cole found a directionless son seeking a path. Justin found a father full of regret.

For the next four years, the son and father built a relationship. Justin worked for his stepmother’s family electric business, delivering equipment and material, starting what he thought would be a nice climb up the ladder. He lived in Lansing. He reconnected with a high school sweetheart. He got married. She got pregnant. Life was good.

Then she wanted to move to Florida to be closer to family. Justin figured why not, even as his family worried things might fall apart for him down there. Besides, they didn’t want him to leave the family business.

He moved in June 2005. Three months later, the marriage was over.

“We tried to warn him,” said Steve, “but it’s one of those things you have to discover for yourself. You have to find your own way.”

That fall, Justin spent many hours trying to figure out what went wrong, what he might have done differently, and what he really wanted to do with his life. Then this: Rollerblade. Shoot hoops. Kick a football. Avoid stasis. Get off the couch.

“It just dawned on me that I was happiest when I was running around, playing sports,” he said.

So he took to the courts, parks and fields in the Ft. Myers area. One day he was in Lehigh Acres at a sports complex messing around, launching cannonballs off his foot 60 yards down the field when a man approached him.

“Who do you play for?” he asked.

“No one,” Rosenbaum said.

“Well, you should be,” the man told him.

The encounter got him thinking. For the next year, he punted. And kicked field goals. And lifted weights. And ran. And rollerbladed. And worked. With no formal training and not a single down of organized football, Rosenbaum could kick a field goal 65 yards and boot a kickoff through the end zone.

He developed a small following when he would practice as young kids offered to shag balls. The sound he made when his foot connected with the ball was mesmerizing — a low-octave, concussive thud that reverberated so violently others stopped to watch.

He had been walking around with a freakish leg for a decade and never fully realized it. Kickoffs were his favorite.

“I could just go up there and rip it, like ‘Happy Gilmore,’ ” he said, referring to the carefree title character of the Adam Sandler movie in which a low-level hockey player discovers a talent for hitting golf balls 400 yards.

The road back to college

After practicing for a year or so around Ft. Myers, he was laid off. He wanted to stay in south Florida to remain near his son, Griffin, who was living with his mother in the Naples area. He found work at a condominium project in Miami and moved there is early 2007.

When not working, he visited his son and kept kicking, holding on to the words of that man in the park in Lehigh Acres. Late that year, he heard about the Miami Magic City Bulls, a semipro team. It was full of former college players and burly dudes who had never played but always figured they could.

There was no pay. The games were held on glorified high school fields. But it was football.

Rosenbaum did a little Internet research and tracked down the team’s practice schedule. He was going to force the coaches to look at him. He had learned from high school, when he accepted the coach’s decision without making him watch what he could do.

He arrived at the Bulls’ practice with a ball and began to punt next to the team.

“Hey,” a coach hollered, “you want to punt for us?”

“Sure,” I told him.

Boom. 55 yards. Boom 60 yards.

“You want to do kickoffs, too?”

“Sure,” I told him.

And he launched the ball out of the back of the end zone. The team had a regular field-goal kicker, but because his leg was so strong, the Bulls trotted him out to attempt whenever they needed a 50-yarder or longer. He ended up as the minor league rookie of the year.

He played for the Bulls the next two winters. The team won the semipro title each time.

Then the housing crisis hit south Florida. He lost his job. He was 28 with no degree and a couple of winters of semipro ball on his résumé.

A coach with the Bulls told him he should consider college. He knew some coaches at Ft. Valley State in Ft. Valley, Ga. It was a historically black school near Macon, NCAA Division II, a place with few resources, a football field covered in ankle-high grass and pockmarked with divots filled with sand.

Sure, Rosenbaum told his coach, who sent Ft. Valley some film of him kicking. The coaches there couldn’t believe their luck and offered him a scholarship immediately. And so in August 2009, the 29-year-old freshman enrolled in college once more.

This time, he was mature enough to handle it.

Said his special-teams coach, Haskel Buff, “His attitude was, ‘I’m going to go in, get a chance to better myself. I’m here to kick … and go to school.’ He is a worker and was always about his business.”

To compensate for the lack of income, his parents helped him pay child support. They also helped send him to off-season kicking camps, including one in Wisconsin, where Rosenbaum nailed two 65-yard field goals last summer to win the camp contest, beating out 100 kickers who had arrived from Division I schools across the country.

“When a guy strikes a ball and it comes off that fast,” said Jamie Kohl, who runs Kohl’s Professional Kicking, Punting and Snapping camps, “that is what every team is looking for. We might see a couple of guys each year that can hit a ball like him.”

Kohl is almost certain Rosenbaum will get an invite to a team’s camp. Rosenbaum is hopeful, too, as a punter, field-goal kicker and kickoff kicker.

At Ft. Valley State, he made all-conference on defense (for his punts and kickoffs) and on offense (for his placekicking). He averaged about 44 yards a punt and 63 yards a kickoff; he owns a career-long 57-yard field-goal record.

Still, there is much work. Next month is the regional combine in Los Angeles. Two months after that is the draft. The month after that is graduation from college — he will earn a business degree.

There is his son, Griffin, 8. There is his family, his father and stepmother in Michigan, his mother and adopted father in Montana — they moved there two years ago for work — there is a younger brother who is fighting cancer. And there is his agent, who reached out to him when he saw tape of that golden leg.

Rosenbaum is grateful to be part of the lives of all of them.

“I’m blessed,” he said of his second chance.

So he kicks, determined not to waste his gift, waiting to see where his leg will take him.

Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or swindsor@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.

More Details: Meet Justin Rosenbaum

Who: Kicker, Ft. Valley State University.

Age: 32.

Hometown: Owosso.

Vitals: 6-2, 185 pounds.

Why you should know him: Rosenbaum has a booming leg and is angling for an invite to an NFL training camp.

Rosenbaum records

Justin Rosenbaum holds several Ft. Valley State special-teams records:

* Yards per punt: 44

* Longest field goal: 57 yards

* Career field goals: 37

* Field goals in a game: 3

Coming of age

If Justin Rosenbaum manages to make an NFL roster and appears in a game next season, he’d be just the sixth rookie older than 30 in the past 13 seasons. The others:

Sav Rocca

Rocca debuted in 2007 at 34, making him the oldest rookie in NFL history. The Australian has spent six seasons in the NFL after playing 15 seasons in the Australian Football League.

Ben Graham

Graham took the AFL-to-NFL route before Rocca, debuting at 32 in 2005. The Australian has bounced around the NFL lately, most recently spending 10 games over the past two seasons with the Lions.

Remy Hamilton

Hamilton, a standout at U-M, bounced around the Arena Football League before getting his NFL shot. He was cut from Bears camp in 2005 at 31, but caught on with the Lions.

Ola Kimrin

Kimrin, a Swede, kicked at UTEP before returning to Europe. In 2002, Kimrin landed in Broncos camp, where he made a 65-yard field goal in an exhibition game. Finally, at 32, he made his debut, playing in five games.

Michael Lewis

A Louisiana native, Lewis never attended college, working his way up through the AFL and driving a Budweiser truck. He made his debut in 2001 at 30 and became the Saints’ leading punt returner.

Tommy Parks

Parks, a two-sport star at Mississippi State, bounced around baseball’s minor leagues for years before working his way into the NFL as a punter. He lasted one NFL game, launching five punts for the Jets in 2001 at 31.

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NFL's oldest rookie? Divorced college dropout from Owosso finds unlikely new life as a kicker
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