FLORHAM PARK, N.J. (AP) — Isaiah Trufant watched the football bounce in front of him and waited a split-second to judge where it was going.
Into his hands, the New York Jets defensive back hoped — while blocking out the 80,000 screaming fans at MetLife Stadium.
“Man, the whole time I was like, ‘Please! Good bounce, good bounce!'” Trufant said. “And then, it bounced good and I just took it. It was wild, man, just crazy.”
The well-traveled Trufant, promoted from the practice squad 24 hours earlier, completed one of the biggest plays of the Jets’ 27-24 season-opening win over the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday night by returning Joe McKnight’s blocked punt 18 yards for a touchdown that tied it with 5 minutes left. It was a lucky bounce for a guy who has bounced around quite a bit while trying to pursue his NFL dream.
“He’s an amazing little guy,” coach Rex Ryan said, “and the more he plays — he just looks short to me — he doesn’t look small anymore. He did a great job.”
The diminutive Trufant — he’s generously listed at 5-foot-8 and 170 pounds — went undrafted out of Eastern Washington in 2006 and has since played in the Arena Football League and the United Football League, and hopes he now can stick in the NFL. The younger brother of Seattle’s Marcus Trufant wasn’t even expecting to play in the opener until the day before the game.
“Man, it was a roller-coaster ride, really,” Trufant said. “You work hard everyday to hopefully get that opportunity to be active and when you do, you’ve got to try to take advantage of the opportunity you have. I was just able to make a play off a great block.”
The past few weeks have been a bit of a blur to Trufant, who was in camp with the Philadelphia Eagles this summer, cut on Aug. 30 and signed by the Jets the next day — after taking a cross-country flight back home to the Seattle area.
“That was a little bit rough,” he said. “I got in around midnight and then the next morning around 10 a.m., I received a call from the Jets to hop on the red-eye that same night and fly back to the East Coast. It was all appreciated and all worth it.”
Trufant’s head kept spinning, though, because he was waived by the Jets three days later, signed to the practice squad the following day and then elevated to the active roster on Saturday.
“It’s one of those things where you see we brought him back last week and you don’t question it because you realize what type of player he is,” safety Jim Leonhard said. “That’s what Rex likes, that’s what (special teams coordinator) Mike Westhoff likes. They don’t care what you look like. It’s all about production and passion for the game, and he definitely has that.”
Ryan checks in with the team’s three coordinators about the last few active spots going into games and nearly had former Cowboys safety Andrew Sendejo up so he could play against his former team.
“But at the end of the day, we went with the speed,” Ryan said. “And, it was the right move, obviously.”
Ryan raved about Trufant’s effort, which earned him a game ball. And it wasn’t only about the return.
“The best play wasn’t the touchdown Trufant had, it was on a kick where he was the first guy down the field,” Ryan said. “Here’s a guy that is small for Summit (High School) standards, and he ran down there, hits the wedge, there’s three blockers on him, and then he goes and makes the tackle.”
That’s the kind of stuff Trufant has had to do his whole career, playing bigger than he appears — definitely a guy after Leonhard’s heart.
“He might not look the part, but he’s a football player,” said Leonhard, who at 5-8 faced similar challenges early in his career. “It’s great to see people like that that some teams would just look at height and weight and say, ‘We’ll cross you off the list.’ Rex has done that his whole career, giving guys shots.”
After a solid college career, Trufant played for Spokane, Kansas City and Arizona in the AFL before going to the UFL in 2009. He won two UFL championships with the Las Vegas Locomotives, and was selected as the league’s defensive MVP last fall. Trufant had a league-record four interceptions, including one in three consecutive games, along with 30 tackles and a fumble recovery.
That performance earned Trufant a shot with the Jets late last season, and he made his NFL debut in the regular-season finale against Buffalo. But he was waived in January and then had to wait out the lockout to see what the next step in his football journey would be.
“It’s pretty tough, just the reality of it,” said Trufant, who has one son and another on the way. “You’ve really got to hold onto your money because you never really know what could come from week to week, and having a family, that also takes a toll.”
Trufant has had several conversations with his brother Marcus, a former first-round pick in his ninth NFL season who has encouraged him to keep pursuing his dream no matter the circumstances. Performances like the one he had Sunday might finally allow him to call the NFL home.
“It has definitely been crazy, but I’m just riding the wave,” Trufant said. “I’m just trying to do what I can to stay active and be prepared for whatever I need to do. I’m ready for anything.”
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.