KAPOLEI, Hawaii -- Peyton Manning probably wouldn't mind if he didn't see Antonio Cromartie again. Mention the cornerback's name and that sheepish Manning grin that has sold everything from deodorant to wireless phones to cookies quickly vanishes.
Cromartie made his first career start against the Colts in Week 10 and picked off three Manning passes in a rain-soaked, nationally-televised game -- evoking images of another Florida State cornerback who reveled in "Prime Time."
Cromartie also got to Manning again in the Chargers' 28-24 win over the host Colts in the playoffs, though Manning is quick to point out the ball was tipped. Even so, Cromartie's interception and electrifying runback for a touchdown (that was nullified by a holding penalty) helped cement Cromartie as one of the league's most electrifying players in 2007. Not to mention one of its top cornerbacks.
So has Cromartie taken the time to thank Manning for propelling him into the spotlight and into the 2008 Pro Bowl (Sunday, 4:30 p.m. ET, FOX)?
"No, he hasn't," Manning said while milling around during the Pro Bowl's annual picture day on Friday morning.
But it's nothing personal, Peyton. Cromartie said that he cherishes all of his interceptions, not just the ones off of the future Hall of Fame quarterback (though he does admit that is a little bit sweeter). Cromartie is thankful for his opportunity and enjoying his moment in the Hawaiian sun.
And who can blame Cromartie, considering what he has gone through to become one of the NFL's elite?
Cromartie was selected the 2002 USA Today High School Defensive Player of the Year as a senior at Lincoln High in Tallahassee, Fla. He chose to stay close to home and attended Florida State where he flashed signs of brilliance as a nickel back and receiver during his freshman and sophomore years. He was an All-ACC selection his sophomore year, despite only starting one game (a trend he has carried to the NFL).
A torn ACL in his left knee cost Cromartie his junior season at Florida State and he then raised some eyebrows when he entered the NFL draft after playing just two seasons of college football. The Chargers selected him in the first round of the 2006 NFL Draft, banking on his potential and need for a play-making cornerback.
Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman calls Cromartie possibly the best athlete he has seen during his three years in the NFL, and possibly ever.
Cromartie has always been long on potential but he really started living up to his promise during his second NFL season. Defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell, who just finished his first season with the Chargers, has quickly found out how good he could be.
"I didn't know a lot about him," Cottrell said. "But as I started watching him I became aware that he was a real good athlete with good range, good hands and great speed. I thought, 'Man, we have the possibility of having a heck of a player, here.'
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|Antonio Cromartie could become a fixture at future Pro Bowls.|
"We were using him on third-down situations and he started knocking down balls against Green Bay (in Week 3). He actually dropped a couple of interceptions. Things really started to click for him in Week 4. You could see him getting more confidence each week. We finally inserted him as the starter and then he intercepts Peyton three times and the rest is history."
A big reason for Cromartie's success, Cottrell notes, is not just his athletic ability but how much time he spends watching film. He takes the extra time to study quarterback's tendencies and always puts himself in the right spot at the right time. If it looks like Cromartie is all over the field, it's because he takes the time to study and understand the position to be in the best spot.
Cromartie finished the season with a club-record 10 interceptions and scored three touchdowns - on an interception return, fumble return, and a 109-yard field goal return; which is a record that will never be broken and is Cromartie's favorite touchdown.
Cromartie was one of the keys for the Chargers, who staged a dramatic turnaround to win their second consecutive AFC West title.
His play wasn't not lost on his teammates.
"He's a real ball hawk back there," Merriman said. "When you have a guy like him back there, it makes it a lot easier to rush the quarterback."
Cromartie is thinking big for next season, with a goal of 15 interceptions. That would break the current NFL record of 14 set by former Rams cornerback Dick "Night Train" Lane in 1952.
The record could be a little bit tougher for Cromartie now that his secret is out and quarterbacks will be looking at the other side of the field. But Cromartie admits that he looks forward to the challenge and hopes that quarterbacks still try to test him.
Will Manning still look his way? The quarterback wouldn't tip his hand.
"He's a special player and a great athlete," Manning said. "He has the ability to be one of the top cover cornerbacks in this league for a long time."