Winston Rose is never far removed from his past.
In seven stops over the last five years of his journey through the cutthroat world of pro football, he’s carried the reminder of his godbrother, Ashton Crosswell.
Crosswell, 17, died accidentally as a result of gun violence, caught in a crossfire in L.A.’s Watts neighbourhood eight years ago.
Under his football gear, Rose dons a worn memory shirt, inscribed with “In loving memory of Ashton Crosswell.”
The shirt features a collage of commemorative photos and the dates when Crosswell’s short life began (Aug. 18, 1995) and ended (Nov. 14, 2012).
His death caused so much sorrow, yet Rose plays for him, finding motivation from his memory every day.
“For sure he’s on my mind,” the 26-year-old cornerback said earlier this week. “It’s funny you ask, because the other day I was looking up in the sky and I was kinda talkin’ to him. (I said,) ‘You’re supposed to be here to witness all of this odyssey. You’re supposed to be in the NFL with me, you know.'”
The odyssey of which he speaks has landed Rose in Cincinnati, where he’s currently toiling on the practice roster of the NFL’s Bengals.
In 2019, he capped a phenomenal three-year rise in the CFL as a key performer for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in their run to a Grey Cup victory over the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
Rose led the CFL in interceptions with nine, and was named a league all-star, triggering free-agent NFL interest in the off-season. He worked out for the Philadelphia Eagles, Los Angeles Chargers and Cincinnati before accepting a contract offer from the Bengals.
It didn’t hurt that his old Los Angeles area high school coach, Scot Ruggles, had ties to Bengals defensive co-ordinator Lou Anarumo.
At training camp, he was committed to making a quick transition back to the NFL game and showcasing his ball-hawking skills.
“From Day 1, I was trying to show the coaching staff that I was a competitor,” said Rose, “For it to be my first — well it wasn’t my first (NFL training camp) — but my first adjusting from the CFL to the NFL, I would say that I had some adversity but at the same time I felt like I made plays. I did enough to feel comfortable…
“I think the only thing I can say is I just wish that I got my hands on more balls, as far as getting interceptions instead of pass deflections.”
Rose, who suited up for three pre-season games with the Indianapolis Colts in 2016, had a built-in disadvantage upon joining his new team. The schedule, reconfigured after the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, did not include exhibition games.
“Those games are kind of like a security blanket or reinsurance for the coaches, that, ‘OK, what are you doing in practice is what you’re gonna do in a game,'” said Rose, who was released during the final cutdown on Sept. 5 before being added to the 16-man practice squad the next day.
“So I just wish I would’ve played in pre-season games to show my ability more against opponents, but all I’m grateful for everything that has happened and grateful for the position I’m in right now.”
Although he remains one of two corners on the practice squad with Torry McTyer, Rose plans to be ready at a moment’s notice. The Bengals will be in Philadelphia for Sunday’s Week 3 matchup and the club has four corners on its active roster. Yet injuries and illness can happen at any time.
“I feel prepared,” said Rose. “The coaches prepare you like you’re a starter. So in special-teams meetings, offensive and defensive meetings, you take notes like you’re the starter. One of the new rules they passed this year is that up to 90 minutes before a game you can be called up to the active roster.”
While Rose works to readjust to the NFL he’s grateful to be playing for head coach Zac Taylor, who spent the 2007 season as a backup quarterback on the Blue Bombers’ Grey Cup finalists.
“It’s more understanding to have a coach who played up there and knows the ins and outs about the rules and stuff like that — a player coming from a league where players get a running start,” said Rose. “Most of the time you do have to explain to coaches. For a coach like him, I don’t have to explain that.”
The Bengals are off to an 0-2 start but supporters have a renewed sense of optimism with the inspired play of rookie quarterback Joe Burrow, the No. 1 overall pick in the draft.
“In a nutshell, he’s not playing like a rookie — let’s just say it like that,” said Rose. “His composure and his attitude towards games. It’s not like a deer in the headlights.
“It’s like he been here before and I feel like it’s kind of a confidence booster that ‘OK, we’ve got a quarterback who if we’re down, we were down five last game, he would definitely turn it around.’ ”
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.
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