Catawba’s Rolle and McCray worked their way onto NFL rosters

Published 12:00 am Monday, April 13, 2015

By Mike London

SALISBURY — Jumal Rolle and L.J. McCray didn’t play Saturday, but they still were the stars of Catawba’s spring football game.

“It’s great that they’re here and it’s great that all our guys can see them with their own eyes and see that it can be done,” Catawba head coach Curtis Walker said.

Rolle, 24, is a cornerback for the Houston Texans, while McCray, 23,  is a safety for the  San Francisco 49ers. Neither was drafted but both have worked their way onto NFL rosters.

Rolle and McCray were teammates at Catawba not long ago. Both were recognized on Division II All-America teams.

Rolle (6 feet, 188 pounds) wasn’t heavily recruited but he  became a playmaker for the Indians. He had 51 pass breakups and his 16 career interceptions are tied for fifth in school history.

McCray (6-0, 210) played a man-among-boys role for the Indians. He thumped receivers and running backs as a bruising safety, but he was also fast enough to blow by people and is the top  kickoff returner in Catawba history. McCray had a record-setting 2012 season returning kickoffs (1,022 yards) and holds the school career mark with 2,212 kickoff return yards. There was a game against Tusculum in which McCray amassed 304 yards in kickoff returns. He went all the way twice that day.

It was emotional for McCray returning to his college field and seeing guys he played with and played for.

“There are a lot of people out there (San Francisco) who can’t pronounce it, but Catawba was great for me,” McCray said with a smile. “This is where it started for me in a lot of ways. Catawba helped me grow up. Catawba helped me be who I am.”

When McCray headed to the 49ers as an undrafted free agent last spring, he had someone in his corner. New head coach Jim Tomsula was the 49ers’ defensive line coach then. Tomsula played and coached at Catawba. He  knew who McCray was, knew where he was from, knew the enthusiasm he would bring to the table.

“A lot of people didn’t know we were from the same school,”McCray said. “But he kept my spirits up. He let me know his door was open if I ever needed anything. It was good to know you had a man like that in your corner.”

McCray understood if he was going to make the 49ers it was going to be for his special-team skills.

“My goal is to be a starting safety,” McCray said. “But I knew going in that to make the team I had to show what I could do outside of safety.”

In his first preseason game at Baltimore, McCray made four tackles. That helped.

“I remember looking at that crowd and that stadium and thinking you could put three of Catawba’s stadiums inside it.” McCray said. “A crowd that big, you get amped up.”

McCray’s most important special-teams contributions for the 49ers came  as a gunner on punt coverage. He played in 14 games and made nine tackles.

McCray is excited about Tomsula’s elevation to head coach, but he understands he has to prove himself all over again, has to work even harder to stay in the league than he did to get into the league.

“The thing that makes it easy for me to keep working is that it’s not just about me,” McCray said. “This is about my family, this is about Harding High School, and this is about Catawba. I’ve kind of built an underdog edge for myself since I was very young, and I don’t want to ever lose that. If I do, I won’t be the player that I am.”

A native of Wilson, Rolle lost his mother, Letitia, before his senior season at Catawba. He says he can still hear her yelling from the 50-yard line at Texans games the same way she did when he was playing for the Indians at Shuford Stadium.

His path to the Texans had detours. He was with the Buffalo Bills, New Orleans Saints and Green Bay Packers. He had an impressive preseason with the Packers, making five tackles in one game, but he didn’t make  the active roster.

Houston signed him off the Packers’ practice squad on Oct. 1, a month into the 2014 season.

On Oct. 5, he was on the field for Houston in a game at Dallas.

“I was a little nervous, but at the same time I was anxious to show my talent and anxious to show what kind of players represent Catawba College,” Rolle said.

A home game on Nov. 2 against the Philadelphia Eagles was a breakout performance for Rolle. His first NFL interception was followed quickly by his second.

“You’re playing with guys who are older and more experienced,” Rolle said. “But you get acclimated to the speed of the game, and then it’s just football and you’re trying to make plays. There were moments of awe. The first time I walked onto the field with (teammate) J.J. Watt, that’s a moment you don’t forget because he’s a guy that represents not just the Texans but the whole league.”

Rolle made his third interception in late November against the Tennessee Titans. He also made a season-best six tackles in that game, Despite the late start, Rolle finished with 19 tackles. Besides the three picks, he broke up four passes.

Houston’s coaches regard Rolle as an instinctive player. He’s expected to be a nickel back this season, but he has the potential to become a starter.

Rolle has been through a lot. His son, Jumal Jr., had surgery to remove a brain tumor last September. He plays for his son as well as for his late mother.

“I’m in the league, but I know I still have to prove myself every day,” Rolle said. “I can envision myself being in the league a long time, but at the same time, it’s a persistent league where they’re always looking for new guys. It’s a business.”

It’s a business that Rolle and McCray are a part of, but they haven’t forgotten where they came from.

“These two guys are proof that you can come to Catawba and meet every football goal you have,” Walker said. “It can happen.”

Rolle and McCray will be on opposite sidelines the first week of the NFL preseason when the 49ers visit the Texans.