Commentary

The catch to Greg Camarillo

Miami receiver's path to the NFL wasn't easy, but he capitalized on every opportunity.

Originally Published: October 12, 2009
By Anna Katherine Clemmons | ESPN The Magazine

High school senior superlatives are usually forgotten after graduation. But the one attached to Greg Camarillo is still being talked about by his classmates at Menlo-Atherton High School in California, for its surprising accuracy.

"Greg was voted the most athletic and the highest likelihood to succeed in sports," says his good childhood friend Ryan Borcherdt. "That was probably the only senior superlative in our class to come true."

It's safe to say Camarillo has succeeded in sports. He's a starting wide receiver for the Miami Dolphins.

[+] EnlargeGreg Camarillo
Doug Benc/Getty ImagesThis is Greg Camarillo's version of "The Catch" and run. In overtime against the Ravens, it kept Miami from a winless 2007 season.

Not that it's been an easy path to the National Football League and a "Monday Night Football" matchup against the New York Jets this week. Camarillo had to convince Stanford's football coaches to let him try out for a walk-on spot, and his first NFL shot came courtesy of a Chargers practice squad tryout rather than through the draft or a post-draft free-agent offer. He transformed that look from San Diego into another chance with the Dolphins, who picked him up off waivers in 2007.

Now he has a place in NFL history. Camarillo's 64-yard touchdown reception in overtime against the Ravens in mid-December that year won the game and saved the Dolphins from a winless season.

This year, he's returned from an ACL injury suffered in November to his role as a starting receiver for the Fish.

Many fans know the "dream killer" (a nickname given him on "Rome Is Burning" after Camarillo 'killed' Jim Rome's 'dream' of an NFL team's going through a winless season) for his 2007 catch, but they know less about Camarillo's Mexican-American heritage. Camarillo's father, Al, born and raised in Compton, Calif., lays claim to being one of the first Mexican-Americans in the 1960s to pursue a Ph.D. and enter the field of higher education. Al is a professor of Mexican-American history and culture at Stanford, specializing in ethnicity and race in America. And though Greg never took any of his father's courses during his time at Stanford, a lot of learning happened at home.

"We celebrated most of the Hispanic holidays, especially Cinco de Mayo," Al says. "We made a conscious effort to raise our kids multiculturally."

Greg's grandfather immigrated to the U.S. from Quiringuicharo, Mexico, and his mother's family came to the U.S. from Hungary with Jewish heritage. Greg's grandfather was Catholic, so the Camarillo household celebrated both Christmas and Hanukkah.

Camarillo's high school circle was a diverse group, and most of his friends realized the Camarillo family put a great emphasis on culture and learning.

"Acceptance, openness and being culturally aware are all stressed in their house," Borcherdt says. "Greg was always very proud of the fact that he came from a different cultural background, and quick to point out that he was Mexican, not white."

Last year, Al took Greg and his brother, Jeff (a school teacher in Compton), to Quiringuicharo, where their grandfather -- who passed away before Greg was born -- lived until he was 12 years old.

Camarillo's first brush with pro football actually came before he'd finished at Stanford. During his redshirt fifth year, he flew to New York City for an Arena Football League tryout with the New York Dragons. Three days later, they offered to sign him, but he declined.

[+] EnlargeGreg Camarillo
Otto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesHe broke in with the Chargers, but Camarillo didn't become established until he joined the Dolphins.

"I'd spent way too much time and effort on school to give it up," Camarillo says.

A few days before his final home game at Stanford, he spoke at a booster club breakfast. During questioning, the Stanford announcer asked him, "How does it feel knowing you're going to play organized football for the last time in your life?''

"Even if that's how you felt, you probably shouldn't say that," Camarillo says about the stinging remark. "But I responded that there's other options to keep playing football. Still, that stuck in my head, particularly now."

Camarillo admits, though, that even he thought the NFL might be "too much of a long shot" before he got the nod from the Chargers at a summer tryout.

"My buddy called it an extended summer internship," Greg says, laughing, of his one-shot-turned-contract-offer.

He stepped up in training camp, making the practice squad for the 2007 season.

"That was the greatest thing ever," Camarillo says. "The first time my bank account hit 10,000, I thought I was rich."

But he saw little playing time that season, and San Diego eventually cut him. Miami picked him up off waivers, giving him another chance.

There, he proved he deserved a roster spot, at least, even if his role was very limited. But that all changed with "the catch" against the Ravens.

"I was a nobody, really. I had one catch for 2 yards before that," Camarillo says. "It was that moment that brought me into the light and gave me more opportunities once coaches learned I could be trusted with the ball. My whole career has really been about taking advantage of quick opportunities, and that one shot provided a bunch more."

Camarillo moved into a starting role in 2008, racking up 55 receptions for 613 yards and two touchdowns through 11 starts. He led the Dolphins in receptions and receiving yardage when he signed a three-year, $6 million extension on Nov. 20. Four days later, he suffered a torn ACL in his left knee and was finished for the season.

[+] EnlargeGreg Camarillo
Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesCamarillo made this catch against the Broncos last year, three weeks before he tore an ACL.

Teammate Ronnie Brown had returned from the same injury, so Camarillo talked to him for motivation, and worked on his recovery every day in the offseason. By the time the regular season opened this year, he was back to full form.

Despite the Dolphins' rough 1-3 start, Camarillo has proven himself as a starter again, staving off competition from draft choices (Miami took two receivers in the 2009 draft) as well as his replacement last season, Davone Bess.

"He's a very smart player," says Bess. "Obviously, he took the long road getting here, so he's definitely taking advantage of the opportunity."

Camarillo uses his celebrity off the field as well, running a program with his brother called Charging Forward, which encourages students to work hard in the classroom by offering football-related incentives, such as tickets to a Chargers game. He also is involved in various community-related events in Miami.

His biggest hurdle in not connecting with more Hispanic fans? Camarillo doesn't speak Spanish.

"I get on him about that all the time, telling him, 'How can you be Hispanic and not speak a lick of Spanish?'" Bess laughs. "Still, he's definitely very respectful of his culture."

Camarillo says he's working on mastering the language. In the interim, he's reaching out in any way he can.

"It's sort of difficult without speaking the language, but if I can represent the Hispanic community through my heritage, I'd love to play that role model," Camarillo says.

Anna Katherine Clemmons is a reporter for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

Anna Katherine Clemmons is a contributing writer for ESPN The Magazine.