Walking onto the Scene

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Wide receiver’s talent has been revealed this season after years in the shadow By Simon Samano, Assistant Sports Editor When junior wide receiver Robert Ortiz first stepped onto Montezuma Mesa in 2001, he had no idea it would be the beginning of a frustrating road to recognition. A local product from San Diego’s Horizon High School, Ortiz didn’t receive attention from any major college football programs. Instead of calling it quits though, Ortiz did the only thing he could to keep his football career alive. He stayed home and walked on at San Diego State. After playing just three games his junior year of high school, Ortiz went down with a back injury that would sideline him for the rest of the season. He bounced back from it with a strong senior season – one in which he thought he was good enough to play Division I-A college football. But to his surprise, nobody came knocking on his door. “I was overlooked in a way,” Ortiz said. “A lot of the colleges started coming around after my junior season to talk to other guys on my team but not really me because I was injured. I felt I was good enough to earn a scholarship after my senior season, but I guess I wasn’t. I’ll just say I wasn’t ready.” As a redshirt freshman, Ortiz was limited to the scout offense, and the frustration brought about during the recruiting process continued. Under then head coach Ted Tollner, Ortiz’ beginnings at SDSU were full of disappointment and not much else. J.R. Tolver – who now plays for the Miami Dolphins – was in his junior season and on the verge of stardom; Derrick Lewis started opposite Tolver; and Jeff Webb had just arrived as a highly touted recruit. Though disappointed with his role on the team, Ortiz managed to persevere after hearing advice from a knowledgeable source. His cousin, Jaiya Figueras, a former player for the Oregon Ducks, tried to help him understand that sometimes, even the best players go unnoticed. “It was tough because I don’t think the coaches that were here really saw me as a future wide receiver for San Diego State,” Ortiz said. “They kind of pushed me to the side because they were focused on the other guys that were here at the time. I knew I had to work hard. “My cousin told me not to worry about it and just to play hard. He told me, ‘You can’t really worry about the coaches. You got to play hard and prove to them that you belong on this team.'” So, that’s exactly what he did. Toward the end of the season, Ortiz felt like he was earning some respect from Tollner and his staff, and was hoping it would translate into on-field action. Tollner, however, was fired after that year, and Tom Craft stepped in to lead the program in 2002. Unsure if Craft would acknowledge the strides he had made while redshirting, Ortiz would have to prove himself all over again. It was a challenge that worked to his advantage. “It helped me because he (Craft) basically wiped the slate clean,” Ortiz said. “He knew he had J.R. (Tolver) and the other guys, but he didn’t know what he had behind them. It was another opportunity for me to work hard and show him I can play.” After just one season of observing Ortiz’ ability, Craft was impressed enough to put him on scholarship. “I felt like he was good enough, so I did it,” Craft said. “And he’s gotten better and better every year. He’s gotten stronger, he’s gotten faster, and he has more knowledge of our offense. Those three factors have been significant in his improvement.” This season – Craft’s third as head coach – Ortiz has been at his best. After catching just two touchdowns in the previous two seasons, Ortiz matched it on opening day against Idaho State. Last week at Michigan, he had seven catches for 125 yards and a touchdown, including an acrobatic catch along the sidelines that induced “oohs and aahs” from the stands – all this while playing with eight stitches in his right foot after stepping on broken glass three nights before the game. “Robert’s a real blue-collar guy,” Craft said. “He’s mentally and physically tough, he’s accountable, and he’s very consistent. We know what we’re going to get from him everyday – nothing but the best. We’ve got to have more guys like him that are blue-collar.” After going unnoticed the last few years, Ortiz is finally getting his just due. But it means nothing to him just yet as he realizes that there is still a lot of football to be played. “It feels good, but I have a long way to go,” Ortiz said. “I have to show that I’m consistent and that I can do it every game. I can’t just have two games and that’s it. I have to keep coming with it strong and not let up.”