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Tampa Bay Buccaneers draft pick Sammie Stroughter already has won one battle

As a senior, Sammie Stroughter caught 70 passes for 1,040 yards and seven touchdowns. In 2006, he was a third-team All-America punt returner.

BRIAN CASSELLA | Times

As a senior, Sammie Stroughter caught 70 passes for 1,040 yards and seven touchdowns. In 2006, he was a third-team All-America punt returner.

TAMPA — Too short, too slow, too small. …

Labels are a staple of the NFL draft. Teams put players in little boxes, and the nitpicking commences.

It's one thing to overcome the fact you lack ideal size. It's quite another to do what Buccaneers seventh-round pick Sammie Stroughter did: live down the stigma associated with depression.

But on Saturday, there was Stroughter, a former Oregon State receiver, running precise routes and making impressive catches on the second day of Tampa Bay's rookie minicamp. Along the way, he opened the eyes of his coaches while rewarding an organization's faith in him.

"Stroughter's been one of the pleasant surprises of the camp," coach Raheem Morris said. "You talk about mentally tough, talk about a guy who can go inside and make plays and get vertical, he's impressive. I like everything about him."

Stroughter, 6 feet and 186 pounds of energy, has a legitimate opportunity not only to make the team, but see considerable playing time as a slot receiver. Offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski already is raving about Stroughter's upside in that role.

But no one ever said he lacked talent given his two 1,000-yard receiving seasons for the Beavers. It's the sticky topic of his off-the-field matters that kept teams at bay.

"(Teams) talked to me about it and interrogated me about it," he said.

He fully expected that.

His depression, brought on in 2007 in part by the death of two family members, was widely publicized because of Stroughter's status as a high-profile player. He was a third-team All-America punt returner the previous season (after returning three for touchdowns) while putting up 1,293 receiving yards, fourth most in school history.

But he walked away from the game when his depression deepened, and the constant support of coach Mike Riley and a dedicated family convinced him the decision was right.

"This game is important, but it's also just a game," he said. "Life is much bigger. Coach Riley took me under his wing like a son and told me, 'Let's forget about football. Let's talk about Sammie Stroughter the person.' "

During his leave of absence, Stroughter was treated and learned about life. He also learned about himself. Just his willingness to talk about his issues shows how far he has come. It's not as if this is a topic anyone is eager to discuss, which is why most don't.

"It's easier to conform than to be different," Stroughter, 23, said of his decision to go public. "I put it out there. You can't question my manhood. People can say what they want to say. I had a stumble, and I'm ready to redeem myself.

"I've shown that I can get through the tough times. I have a great support group. A lot of people, especially rookies, don't know what's out there. I've been tested. I've been through the battle. I have an understanding, and I know I have to prove myself every time I'm on the field."

Granted an extra season of eligibility because of the depression and a lacerated kidney, Stroughter used 2008 to do precisely that. He caught 70 passes for 1,040 yards and seven touchdowns.

"Last year answered a lot of questions," said Stroughter, from Granite Bay, Calif. "Everybody wondered. The sky is the limit."

But there remained one huge question: Would the NFL agree?

For the Bucs, determining if Stroughter was a sound investment was not simple.

"You get as much information as you possibly can and understand what he went through," general manager Mark Dominik said. "It's about your comfort level. For me, I was obviously comfortable enough to say, 'You know what? I believe it. I think he's fine.' It's a decision, basically."

Given the lack of depth at receiver, it's a decision that could pay dividends.

Ask Stroughter his take, and you learn, for him, it's not a matter of if.

"I'm in the right place," he said with a wide smile that belies the depths he reached. "I feel like Tampa Bay got a steal. They got a gem."

Stephen F. Holder can be reached at sholder@sptimes.com.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers draft pick Sammie Stroughter already has won one battle 05/02/09 [Last modified: Sunday, May 3, 2009 7:21am]
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