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Rochell on cusp of NFL

by Mitchell Gladstone | April 30, 2021 at 2:32 a.m.
Central Arkansas defensive back Robert Rochell (right) defends against Clemson wide receiver Cornell Powell during a Senior Bowl practice in January. (AP Photo/Matthew Hinton)

Scott Wooden remembers sitting poolside at a Baton Rouge hotel as Robert Rochell jumped into the water without hesitation.

Nine-year-old Robert didn't know how to swim, but he was determined to make it across. Wooden laughed along with Rochell's mother, Monique, as the fifth-grader fought his way through the water.

Rochell, a budding track star, was in the Louisiana capital because he was competing in the state's annual elementary fitness meet. He never had a problem getting anywhere on land.

The pool made for a nemesis.

"His body was going 100 miles per hour, but he was kicking and trying and he was not giving up," Wooden said. "Every second, he was going maybe 3 or 4 inches. He was not going anywhere. But he made it from one side to the other and it took forever."

That constant effort didn't surprise Wooden, Rochell's gym teacher at the time, nor his mother. It's been a part of his mentality since he started picking up a ball at 3 years old.

It's also emblematic of where he's come from. A no-star recruit out of Shreveport, Rochell -- then a running back and wideout at Fair Park High School -- didn't have a serious Division I offer until the University of Central Arkansas gave him the chance to play as a cornerback.

And it's that same steady improvement that has carried Rochell to this stage as he's poised to become the highest-drafted player in UCA history. Rochell, who's ranked by The Athletic's Dane Brugler as the No. 13 cornerback prospect, is projected to come off the board in either the third or fourth round of the NFL Draft, which continues tonight at 6 with the second and third rounds.

Monique believed her young son could one day make the Olympics as a sprinter. When his focus shifted to football, her prediction changed with it.

"Once he got the [UCA offer], I told him, 'What did I tell you?' " Monique Rochell recalled. "'It doesn't matter whether you're at LSU or Alabama, in Miami, in Hawaii playing -- if it's meant for you to go to the NFL, they're coming to the University of Central Arkansas to get you.'"

Giving 100

A little more than a year after that trip to Baton Rouge, Rochell picked up the phone at his house. His grandmother was on the other end.

Rochell's father, Robert Johnson, had died as the result of a drive-by shooting the night before.

It shook Rochell, who was set to enter seventh grade that fall. And it altered the lives of the entire Rochell family.

Monique started working three jobs -- after spending her days at a nursing home from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., she'd pick her four kids up from school and take them to the Boys and Girls Club, where she worked until 8 p.m. Monique would then work the night shift at a local bar on weekends, not making it home until well after her kids were asleep.

Robert, as the oldest sibling, took on more responsibilities. He'd watch after his sisters, often cooking for them whenever Monique was working. His specialty was chili dogs.

Robert always saw his mother doing whatever was required to ensure her children's success.

"The thing I've told Robert his whole life is that as long as I see him giving 100 [percent], I'm giving 100," Monique said. "I always have told him that every time we pull up to a practice or a game or anything, if you're not here doing 100, we just need to go back home."

Although Rochell played football as a freshman, he didn't give up track. He ran leadoff for a Fair Park 800-meter relay team that finished fourth in the state, meaning football Coach Mike Greene never had to worry about his standout staying in shape during the offseason.

"He would leave the weight room with us -- some of the guys were going to do agilities -- but Robert would be grabbing those hurdles," Greene recalled. "He'd have one on each shoulder and he was going to work on the hurdles. You had to run him off and lock up the equipment."

'A consistent presence'

Central Arkansas knew what kind of athlete they had on their hands when it signed Rochell. His personality was there, too, but it took time and a growing comfort in Conway for it to manifest.

UCA Coach Nathan Brown worked with Rochell regularly. He pushed him to be more vocal, to take a leadership role.

He redshirted his freshman season and remained relatively quiet throughout his first two on-field seasons, despite playing all 22 games.

"He was the type of kid that had a lot of adversity in his life and worked hard to get to where he was, and it was hard for him to trust people," Brown said. "It was him learning to trust me and really just staying consistent with him and showing him what a consistent presence was.

"That had nothing to do with football. That had to do with social life, just caring about who he was as a person -- much more than football -- and once we developed that bond, I don't think there was any looking back."

The 2019 season brought a new level to Rochell's game. He started 13 contests and added another five interceptions. His 13 pass breakups led the team. He earned All-Southland and All-American honors.

NFL teams began to sniff around as well.

Some scouts insisted Rochell could garner NFL Draft consideration after his junior year. Instead, he returned to Conway for his senior season.

Monique rarely ever missed one of Robert's games. She attended every high school contest he ever played in. She only missed two, maybe three, games in his UCA career.

The pair have developed a pregame routine. Robert looks into the stands and picks out his mother in the crowd. Monique returns the favor, blowing him a kiss as he heads onto the purple-and-gray stripes of Estes Stadium.

"It's kind of a chemistry thing," she said. "He can spot me out of anywhere. I don't even have to tell him where I'm at."

'A great bonus'

To this day, Wooden keeps the blue ribbon Rochell won at that 2008 meet in his truck.

It's a reminder of why he still teaches; that he can be a catalyst for kids, even at such a young age.

"The main goal was ... getting a diploma," Wooden said. "Get that piece of paper and then the rest is just a bonus. Now, of course, hopefully this is a great bonus."

At just under 6 feet and 193 pounds, Rochell has the upside of a starting outside cornerback and the athleticism to continue to develop as a professional. It's part of why NFL teams value him as a legitimate mid-round prospect.

Should Rochell be picked where he's been pegged, it would represent a watershed moment for UCA.

Although the Bears have had multiple draftees in recent years, including Tremon Smith in 2018 and Robert Woodard in 2016, Rochell could be the highest player ever selected in program history -- a title that currently belongs to Larry Hart, a fifth-round choice by the Jacksonville Jaguars with pick No. 143 in 2010.

"When you see him, this is a kid that is humble, worked hard and those are the kind that you pull for and you want to sit in the stadium [to watch]," Greene said. "Sometimes, the good guys finish first."

Rochell never played at Bryant-Denny Stadium or amid the fervor of "Tiger Bait" chants in Death Valley. Rather, his college football career played out in a town of 66,000 people in the middle of Arkansas.

It's for this reason whenever Rochell hears his name called this week, he'll be in the place where he "started his second life."

"Conway's always going to mean something," Rochell said. "Louisiana's a different type of place. And coming to a different state for five years, this is where I started over and built up to this, in this city around people who supported me. It means a lot."

Monique will be in Conway, by Robert's side this weekend. So too will his siblings, Brown, and former UCA teammates and coaches.

This contingent is what's put Rochell in the position to hear his name called in the 2021 NFL Draft. But in his own words, his happiness comes in seeing others smile rather than himself.

This weekend, whenever he's selected, there will be plenty of smiles to go around.

"I've lost a lot of friends that had the same goals as me, a lot of family members who have put in [time] for me, a lot of people who have invested into my dreams taken away from their life," Rochell said. "So that moment is definitely going to be for those people who took away from their lives to put into mine."

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