Rashad Ross is inspired for one more shot in the NFL by his father, Zach, who is battling liver cancer.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Carolina Panthers have a lot of important storylines as they begin offseason workouts. Cam Newton‘s shoulder rehab. The transition of the defense to multiple fronts. The search for new leadership with team captains Julius Peppers, Thomas Davis and Ryan Kalil gone.
But for one player, the level of importance is elevated more than others. This is the start of what wide receiver Rashard Ross considers his last chance to make an NFL roster, to make his dying father more proud of him than he already is.
Ross, 29, will begin his ninth stint with an NFL team. Carolina recently signed him to one-year deal after Ross led the defunct Alliance of American Football with seven touchdown catches.
While Ross’ focus during organized team activities is on getting to know his new teammates and playbook, his thoughts will be in California where his father, Zach, is battling stage 4 liver cancer.
“He just wants to see me get back to the NFL and be successful,” Ross told ESPN.com. “It’s made me just work harder and really focus on doing what he wants me to do since he doesn’t have much time to live.
“I’m trying to make him proud while he’s still around.”
The elder Ross, 59, already is proud.
“It’s about him,” said Zach Ross, his voice weak and faint. “I know he wants it to be for me. He’s got to do it because that’s what he wants to do.”
The want is there.
“I look at every day as a last chance,” Rashard Ross said.
Ross has been an underdog for much of his football career. He initially struggled to make his high school team and in 2010 went to Butte College, the same school where Aaron Rodgers first earned attention, because Ross’ grades weren’t good enough for a Division I scholarship. He transferred to Arizona State in 2011 and made a name for himself as a kick returner because of his speed.
He earned the nickname “Rocket Ross” from his agent after he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.34 seconds at Arizona State’s pro day, and that got Ross to the NFL in 2013 as an undrafted player with the Tennessee Titans. That began a journey of bouncing from one team’s roster or practice squad to another.
The two still talk and work out on the track together when they can.
Ross made Washington’s 53-man roster in 2014 after leading the Redskins in receptions (25), yards receiving (266) and touchdown catches (4) during the preseason. He became the kickoff returner in 2015 and quickly made an impact with a 101-yard touchdown return in a Thursday night game against the New York Giants.
Later that season, he recovered a blocked punt in the end zone for had a touchdown and a 71-yard touchdown catch from Colt McCoy.
“My biggest downfall was leaving Washington [in 2016] when they wanted to put me on the practice squad, thinking I had proven everything I really needed to,” Ross said.
Ross spent the next three years between Detroit, San Francisco, Buffalo and Arizona, never playing in a regular-season game.
He appeared washed up. Then came the AAF, and Ross got another chance with the Arizona Hotshots, where 2018 Panthers intern Jennifer King was one of his position coaches.
“The first day we met he told his story and all the teams he had been with,” King said. “Then I realized this guy is 29 years old and still out there. Once I got to see him on the field, you could see why he’s still around. He has a knack for making plays, good hands, speed. … All the attributes you want from a receiver at the NFL level, he has.”
Speed was the biggest asset.
“He’s explosive,” King said. “I don’t know what his 40 time is now, but he ran past a lot of people.”
Carolina coach Ron Rivera ran into King recently at the NFL owners meetings in Phoenix and asked if Ross could return kicks. She said yes and the Panthers signed Ross to a one-year deal.
He’s now one of six former AAF players on Carolina’s 90-man roster.
“In the AAF there’s more people who are hungry because they know this is their last chance,” Ross said.
Ross’ hunger was fueled by his father’s illness. After almost every Arizona Hotshots game, he flew to the San Francisco area to assist with daily care as his father underwent chemotherapy that is taking its toll.
Watching his father fight for his life made Ross fight harder for his career.
It didn’t go unnoticed.
“It definitely showed a lot about his character,” King said. “It was impressive to see.”
The trips home will be longer now that Ross is in Charlotte, but he’s willing to do whatever it takes to help. He’s also willing to do whatever it takes to make the Carolina roster.
There’s a legitimate chance to make the team as a return specialist and fifth or six receiver. The Panthers moved on from 2015 second-round pick Devin Funchess and utility receiver/returner Damiere Byrd, leaving Torrey Smith (30), D.J. Moore (21), Curtis Samuel (22) as the only legitimate roster locks at receiver.
Ross actually is the second-oldest receiver on the roster, so he brings a certain level of veteran leadership to the group.
“Not just my age, but me bouncing around and still fighting and showing the younger guys, showing the free agents how I practice, how I play,” Ross said. “This is not guaranteed. Never give up, because one day you’ll have a chance.”
Ross’ hope is his father gets one more chance to see him play on Sundays.
“I want him to have it and love it for me,” Zach Ross said. “But my main thing is do it for himself.”