May 10, 2017
By Bill Koch
CINCINNATI – The last time University of Cincinnati basketball coach Mick Cronin saw Rodrick Monroe was at Hofheinz Pavilion in Houston last Jan. 7 when the Bearcats were there to play the Cougars.
It wasn’t unusual for Monroe to show up at UC games whenever they played in Texas, whether it was in Houston or in Dallas when the Bearcats were playing SMU.
“He brought his brother and his nephew to our game at Houston,” Cronin said Wednesday. “He was in our locker room. I would always tell our guys, this is Rod, he played in ‘96 and ‘97. He owns the bench press record, all that stuff.”
Monroe, who died Sunday in Houston at the age of 41, played basketball at UC in 1996 and 1997. UC officials said they didn’t know the cause of death.
Monroe averaged only 3.9 points and 2.7 rebounds at UC, mostly as a backup forward to All-American Danny Fortson, but he left his mark with his gentle demeanor, his overwhelming physical strength, and his move from basketball to football that led to a five-year NFL career as a tight end.
When Monroe played basketball at UC, Cronin was just beginning his coaching career as the video coordinator under head coach Bob Huggins. He became close to Monroe after assistant coach John Loyer, who recruited Monroe out of McLennan Community College, in Waco, Texas, was suspended during an NCAA investigation of the basketball program.
“When John got suspended, he became like my guy,” Cronin said of Monroe. “He’s a small-town guy (from Hearne, Texas). He was lost here. I made sure he got to class, showed him around, all that. We were extremely close. Rod wasn’t a man of many words, but if you knew him, he talked a lot and he was funny. He was the nicest guy in the world. Always had a smile. If Rod didn’t like you, you wouldn’t know it because he just wouldn’t say.”
Monroe, a seventh-round draft pick by the Dallas Cowboys in 1998, was a member of the 1998 Atlanta Falcons, who played in Super Bowl XXXIII, although Monroe was not on the active roster for the game. Just a few years earlier, the 6-foot-4, 240-pound Monroe had walked into the office of then-UC football coach Rick Minter and asked if he could play football, even though it had been four years since he had last played it in high school.
Minter said he would be willing to give him a shot, but only if he took care of some academic work that was lacking. He figured that he would never see Monroe again.
He was wrong.
“By the time August rolls around, I’m sitting in my office getting ready for all of our guys to come in and sure enough, in walks Rod,” Minter said during a telephone interview. “So I called down and got it all OK’d by the academic people. He was in good shape. He busted his butt over the summer, made up some classes and got it done. So he joined us for camp.”
Minter, now the defensive coordinator at Division II Florida Tech, was willing to give Monroe a shot based on the respect he had for Huggins and his basketball program.
“Huggins and I had a good relationship down through the years,” Minter said. “We were always kidding each other about his guys playing football. He’d say, ‘I wish you’d take every one of my guys and put them through spring and beat the crap out of ‘em.’ That was in jest, but Bob always supported being physical, being tough and always thought it was cool that guys played football. In fact, (former UC basketball star) Bobby Brannen tried it for three or four days.
“When Rod got done playing basketball in the spring of ’97 he tried to go through all the NBA tryout camps that all of Huggs’ guys tried and somebody told him, I guess, ‘Listen, Rod, you’re not gonna make it. You’re probably not going to be an NBA basketball player, and you’ll probably have a limited European career. Why don’t you play football?’”
Getting Monroe into football shape wasn’t a problem. By then, he had secured the UC bench press record for basketball players that still stands by benching 415 pounds along with a leg press of 1,180 pounds.
“I had the bench press record for about three years,” said Terry Nelson, who played basketball at UC in 1992 and 1993. “I was bench pressing like 345. So Rod comes in in ’96 and (former UC strength coach Mickey Marotti) is looking at him and he says, ‘I want you to get this record.’ He goes, ‘I’ll get the record. How much I got to lift?’ So Mick put 225 on the rack and said, ‘Lift this ‘til I tell you to stop.’ He did it like 15 or 16 times. Mine was 12 times and that equalled 345. He did it 16 times and then he stopped. He said, ‘How much is that?’ Mick goes, ‘390.’ He said, I’m done.’ The following year he did 415, and that’s still the record.”
Shortly after he joined the UC football program, Minter said, Monroe injured his thumb. He was given two options: He could have surgery, which would force him to sit out the season, or he could tape it up and play, putting off getting the problem fixed.
He chose to play. It’s a good thing for UC that he did because starting tight end Josh Anderson tore his ACL against Houston on Oct. 18, pressing Monroe into the starter’s role for the rest of the season.
"We coached him up at tight end and he started growing in the position,” Minter said.
Mostly valued for his blocking ability, Monroe started four games and caught two passes for 33 yards and one touchdown, a leaping 9-yard reception in UC’s 34-31 double overtime win over rival Miami (Ohio) in Oxford. The Bearcats finished with an 8-4 record and were invited to play in the inaugural Humanitarian Bowl in Boise, Idaho.
Four months later, to the surprise of many, Monroe was one of five UC players taken in the NFL draft. He played five seasons in the NFL, finishing his career with the Cleveland Browns in 2001.
“Rod was a great guy,” Minter said. “Number one, coming out of Huggins basketball, he was not afraid to work. His philosophy with his players was always to be in the weight room. Just that alone was probably one reason that attracted Huggs to start with because he fit his physical profile. So when Rod comes over to play football, it’s not like this guy all of a sudden has to get on the protein powder. He looked like a football player. He played that way in basketball and he certainly carried that over into football.”
Bill Koch covered UC athletics for 27 years – 15 at The Cincinnati Post and 12 at The Cincinnati Enquirer – before joining the staff of GoBearcats.com in January 2015.