The NFL has long been known for its vast array of stars and franchise players.
They are the athletes the brand thrives on and the fans pay good money to see.
With so much focus on the league’s top talent, journeymen are often overlooked.
Journeymen typically have the talent to play in the NFL, but they aren’t quite good enough to stick with a team for very long.
Their careers are spent bouncing from franchise to franchise as a body to fill a roster spot.
Rarely are these athletes celebrated for their ability to contribute to an organization and win a championship.
There have been exceptions, of course.
One such journeyman who defied expectations and succeeded was Ricky Proehl.
Twenty-one years ago today, Ricky Proehl gave us one of the best moments in St. Louis sports history. pic.twitter.com/5tg0GPIPQ9
— Dave Cline (@davidtcline) January 23, 2021
Proehl was drafted in 1990 and played 17 years for six teams.
Along the way, he appeared in four Super Bowls, winning two.
Proehl was a model of consistency who made big plays when his teammates needed it the most.
This is the story of Ricky Proehl.
New York Born
Richard “Ricky” Scott Proehl was born on March 7, 1968, in the Bronx, New York, but he grew up in Hillsborough, New Jersey.
It wasn’t long before Proehl made a name for himself in the youth sports programs in Hillsborough.
Proehl then took his competitive fire to Hillsborough High School where he was a standout athlete in baseball and football.
Ricky Proehl, who graduated from Hillsborough in 1986, set a record for NJ alums by playing in four Super Bowls (winning two) in his 17-year NFL career. The WR won with the Rams in SB XXXIV and the Colts in SB XLI. He had 669 career receptions (54 for TDS) totaling 8,878 yards. pic.twitter.com/Q2U8QJQXyK
— NJSIAA (@NJSIAA) February 2, 2019
As a receiver, Proehl was quick, elusive, and fast.
He never grew more than six feet tall, but Proehl didn’t let that stop him.
During his senior season, Proehl caught 42 passes for over 900 yards and an eye-popping 13 touchdowns.
That brought him first-team All-State and Somerset County Player of the Year honors.
Hillsborough benefited from Proehl’s play by winning the conference championship.
Quite a few colleges vied for Proehl’s services. He chose to travel south to North Carolina.
He was heavily recruited by Wake Forest coach Al Groh who saw something special in the kid from New Jersey.
Sure enough, Proehl played in every game as a freshman for the 5-6 Demon Deacons. He caught 18 passes for 263 yards.
After the 1986 season, Groh left for the NFL, and former Virginia Tech head coach Bill Dooley took over in 1987.
Dooley led Wake Forest to a 7-4 record while Proehl led the team with 54 passes for 788 yards and six touchdowns.
He also had 35 rushing yards for another score.
As a junior in 1988, Proehl led the 6-4-1 Deacs once again with 51 passes for 845 yards and eight touchdowns while gaining 97 yards and three touchdowns on the ground.
Wake Forest Struggles while Proehl Thrives
It can be assumed that every college senior who plays sports hopes to go out as a winner.
Unfortunately for Proehl, the Demon Deacons could only muster two wins in 1989.
On the flip side, Proehl had his best season yet, leading the team with 65 receptions for 1,053 yards and 11 touchdowns.
He also rushed for 135 yards.
His receiving yardage made Proehl one of just nine former Deacons to reach 1,000 yards or more in a single year.
Ricky Proehl, Wake Forest pic.twitter.com/Dm2pTVoZbP
— Dennis Clem 🇺🇸 🐊 (@ClemDennis) July 30, 2020
Furthermore, his senior stats led to an All-ACC selection.
During Proehl’s college career, he caught 188 passes for 2,949 yards and 25 touchdowns.
He also had 267 rushing yards, four rushing scores, and returned 23 punts for 176 yards and 18 kicks for 344 yards.
Proehl led Wake Forest in receptions three times and was a four-year letter winner. As of 2022, he leads the Wake Forest program in career receiving yards, receiving touchdowns, and 12 career games with over 100 yards receiving.
Additionally, his total receptions are good for third in program history.
After the 1989 season, Proehl was selected to play in the Blue-Gray All-Star Classic and the East-West All-Star Game.
Third Round Pick
Although Wake Forest played below expectations in 1989, Proehl stood out and was noticed by NFL personnel.
The Phoenix Cardinals picked him with the 58th overall selection in the third round of the 1990 NFL Draft.
— Mark Dalton (@CardsMarkD) May 2, 2015
The Cards had a few good pieces on offense, including receiver Roy Green and fellow rookies Johnny Johnson and Larry Centers.
Even second-year quarterback Timm Rosenbach was solid.
However, the offensive line wasn’t great, and Rosenbach was sacked 43 times that year.
Proehl cracked the starting lineup twice and hauled in 56 passes for 802 yards and four touchdowns.
Despite his limited starts, Proehl led Phoenix in receptions (the first Cards rookie to do so since 1950) and set a franchise record for reception total as a rookie.
In just his second year as a pro, Proehl started all 16 games in 1991.
While Phoenix won only four games, Proehl had 55 receptions for 766 yards and two scores.
Proehl Proves to be an Anomaly
By Proehl’s third year in 1992, he was established as one of the best young receivers in the NFL.
However, he was also recognized as one of the few white starting receivers in the league.
For several decades, white players were front and center on NFL rosters, especially during the period between 1933 and the late 1940s.
That’s when NFL owners banned black players, primarily due to the influence of owners such as the Washington Redskins George Preston Marshall.
After black players were permitted to play again post World War II, the racial configuration of the sport began to change.
By the 1990s, that changed as black players made up a majority of NFL rosters, and black pass catchers were leading the league in receptions.
Proehl was an anomaly as one of only five white starting receivers in the NFL.
— AKD_56 (@AKD_56) January 24, 2016
He was aware of his unique place in the game every time he played or practiced.
“Most cornerbacks take it personally when they get beat by a white guy,” Proehl said in 1992. “Even in practice, when I beat a corner deep, I get compliments. It’s like I’m not supposed to do it.”
NFL coaches also acknowledged the changing racial landscape although it was attributed to how the game had evolved.
“You don’t get the white receiver running 4.5 in the 40,” said Miami Dolphin receiver coach Larry Seiple. “Twenty years ago, when it was less of a speed game, you could use Howard Twilley, who ran 4.7. Today you need speed guys, and obviously the black guys are faster.”
Proehl had 60 receptions for 744 yards and three touchdowns in 1992. Even so, he confirmed to Sports Illustrated that he was considered an outsider at the position even before he went to college.
“When I was in high school trying to get a college scholarship, most of the college coaches would shy away when they found out I was white,” said Proehl.
In the end, it didn’t matter to Proehl who was playing as long as the team won.
However, Proehl felt for what his black teammates had gone through.
“Now I can understand how a black guy feels when he walks into a bar and everyone stares at him because he’s the only black guy in the place,” he said.
Trade to Seattle and a Year with Chicago
For the next two years, the Cardinals continued to fight for wins while Proehl racked up stats.
In 1991 and 1992, Phoenix won only eight combined games before winning seven in 1993.
Meanwhile, Proehl had career-highs in receptions (65) and yards (877) for seven touchdowns.
Happy 53rd bday Ricky Proehl! In 5 years with Cardinals to start career he averaged 57 receptions for 768 yards & scored 21 TD. Set career highs in 1993 with 65-877-7 line. Matched the 7 TD with the Bears in 1997. Played parts of 17 seasons, caught a TD in 4 different postseasons pic.twitter.com/Mt4f6cbtaQ
— Scott F (@TheFrizz87) March 7, 2021
Then, in 1994, coach Joe Bugel was fired. Former Eagles head coach Buddy Ryan was hired (while the franchise was re-named the “Arizona Cardinals”).
Arizona improved to eight wins. Proehl started every game, catching 51 passes for 651 yards and five touchdowns.
After the ‘94 season, Proehl was traded to the Seattle Seahawks.
In two years with the club, Proehl acted primarily as a backup
He had proven himself in Arizona, but Proehl was also forced to take a pay cut to play with the Seahawks.
In 1995 and 1996 combined, Proehl started seven games and caught 28 passes for over 300 yards and two scores.
— Timothy C. Kulla (@TCKooo) November 28, 2021
Thankfully, after two years in purgatory, Proehl signed with the Chicago Bears in 1997. He led the organization with 58 receptions for 753 yards and seven scores (which tied his career high).
Proehl Becomes a Member of the “Greatest Show on Turf”
Before the 1998 NFL season, Proehl signed with the St. Louis Rams.
Initially, it looked like he was going to yet another woebegone franchise, especially after the Rams went 4-12 in ‘98 under second-year coach Dick Vermeil.
Proehl still contributed 60 catches for 771 yards and three touchdowns.
Then, in 1999, Proehl started two games and wondered if he was soon to be shown the door yet again.
“I’m the one they always want to get rid of,” he said. “They always want bigger, slicker, faster models than a Ricky Proehl.”
However, the ‘99 Rams caught fire, especially behind the feel-good story of quarterback Kurt Warner.
Elevated to starter in the preseason after Trent Green went down, St. Louis took off with Warner, especially with receivers Isaac Bruce, Az-Zahir Hakim, rookie Torry Holt, and running back Marshall Faulk.
On this date in 1999, the St. Louis Rams defeated the 49ers 42-20, ending a 14-game losing streak to SanFran.
The Greatest Show on Turf era begins pic.twitter.com/KfWiUYn17N
— tim godfrey (@timgodfrey_) October 10, 2020
The offense scored seemingly at will as the team went 13-3 and beat the Minnesota Vikings in the Divisional round, 49-37.
At that point, Proehl was stoked to be a member of a winning team.
“So many seasons of being 4-and-12, 4-and-12, 4 and-12,” he sighed. “Until this year, the best any team I ever played on was 8-and-8. I never played in a playoff game until this year.”
Proehl’s Catch Takes St. Louis to the Super Bowl
The 1999 NFC Championship game was brutal.
In the Divisional round, the Rams only had to outscore Randy Moss and the Vikings.
One week later, St. Louis met the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the contest was like two heavyweights going toe to toe.
Tampa Bay’s 27th-ranked offense was nothing to write home about.
For the first three quarters, the Bucs’ defense kept the Greatest Show on Turf bottled up and barely led, 6-5.
Then, in the fourth quarter, the Rams’ Dre Bly intercepted Bucs quarterback Shaun King.
St. Louis took over and drove to the Tampa Bay 30-yard line.
Before the next play, the Rams called a time-out, and Proehl convinced Warner to look for him.
“… during the week, we had worked on running a slant-pump or just going a nine-route, where Kurt would try to pump the slant to get the corner to settle his feet, and we’d just run by him,” Proehl continued. “So there was a time out, and I just reassured Kurt that, ‘Hey, if that safety blitzes, I’m going deep,’ and that’s what happened.”
Warner dropped back, spotted Proehl, and sent a pass his way.
On this day in 2000, the Rams beat the Buccaneers 11-6 in the NFC Championship game thanks to this touchdown from Ricky Proehl 🏈
Exactly 22 years later, the two teams meet again.
— Pickswise (@Pickswise) January 23, 2022
Proehl jumped up and outleapt Bucs defender Brian Kelly for a 30-yard touchdown with 4:44 left and an 11-6 lead (the Rams’ two-point conversion try failed).
“It was so loud,” he continued. “I mean, that place was deafening. It was crazy how loud that place was, and for me, it was one of the most memorable experiences of my career.”
Just minutes later, Tampa Bay was driving. King threw a pass on second down and 23 to receiver Bert Emanuel.
It looked to everyone that Emanuel caught the 12-yard pass.
On further review, the referees believed that the ball contacted the ground, and the pass was ruled incomplete.
22 years ago today! The Bert Emanuel Catch game.
— Johnny Ulecka (@Johnnyu9322) January 23, 2022
To this day, the call is still disputed. The play led to the “Bert Emanuel Rule” which helps determine disputed catches that touch the turf.
“Probably in today’s game, it probably would have been a catch, but I don’t know,” Proehl said in 2016.
Eventually, St. Louis took over on downs and ran out the clock.
The team was moving on to the Super Bowl and the primary reason was Proehl, who ended the day with six receptions for 100 yards and his game-winning score.
Super Bowl XXXIV
Super Bowl XXXIV started out well for St. Louis as the team staked a 16-0 lead against the Tennessee Titans with barely seven minutes remaining in the third quarter.
Little by little, the Titans crept back into the contest as they scored 16 unanswered points of their own to tie the game with 2:12 left.
On the Rams’ first play of the ensuing drive, Warner threw a bomb to Isaac Bruce who caught the ball and ran 73 yards to put St. Louis back in the lead, 23-16.
Then, on the Titans’ next drive, quarterback Steve McNair miraculously led Tennessee to the Rams’ 10-yard line.
On the final play of the day, McNair found receiver Kevin Dyson for a short pass that Dyson caught near the five-yard line.
Just before he could reach the end zone, St. Louis linebacker Mike Jones made a tackle heard ‘round the world by grabbing Dyson’s legs and hauling him down a yard short.
Super Bowl XXXIV came down to one play…and one yard.
— NFL (@NFL) April 14, 2020
Although Dyson tried in vain to reach the ball across the line, the Rams won the game.
Proehl, the hero of the NFC Championship game, caught just one pass for 11 yards, but he was thrilled to win a championship in his tenth year.
St. Louis Returns to the Super Bowl
One year after starting only two games, Proehl started four times for St. Louis in 2000 and caught 31 passes and four touchdowns.
The Rams won 10 games but lost to New Orleans in the Wild Card round.
Then, in 2001, Proehl was limited to two starts again but still caught 40 passes for over 500 yards and five scores.
St. Louis won 14 games for the first time in franchise history and defeated Green Bay and Philadelphia in the playoffs.
The team then faced Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVI.
Although the Rams scored first to take a 3-0 lead, the Pats answered with 17 points of their own.
With just over nine minutes remaining, Warner ran in a two-yard score to close the gap to 17-10, New England.
After forcing the Pats to punt after three plays, the Rams quickly drove down the field before Warner found Proehl for the game-tying 26-yard touchdown.
Deacs and the #SuperBowl: Ricky Proehl
— Wake Forest Football (@WakeFB) January 26, 2020
Most of the world watched in amazement as Brady and the Pats decided to try and score again with barely 90 seconds left on the clock.
Miraculously, New England drove to the Rams’ 30-yard line.
Kicker Adam Vinatieri then trotted out to make a 48-yard field goal with time running out and help the Pats win, 20-17.
Proehl’s contributions in the contest were three receptions for 71 yards and his game-tying score.
Proehl Becomes a Panther
In 2002, Proehl started two games for St. Louis and caught 43 passes for over 400 yards and four touchdowns.
After the season, he was released and signed as a free agent with Carolina.
— Sporting News NFL (@sn_nfl) February 3, 2016
As luck would have it, the Panthers were gearing up for something special in 2003.
The organization had a rough couple of seasons before Proehl arrived. They had won only one game in 2001 before new head coach John Fox coaxed seven wins from the team in 2002.
Peete won the starting job to begin the year but found the going rough in Week 1 against Jacksonville.
During halftime of the contest, Fox turned to Delhomme and told him he was the starter for the second half.
Delhomme then proceeded to turn a 17-0 deficit into a 24-23 win.
Better yet, the winning points came courtesy of a Delhomme pass to Proehl on fourth down with 16 seconds remaining.
“I remember it like it was yesterday, Jake coming in at halftime and catching lightning in a bottle,” said Proehl. “Jake made a great throw over the top and I made the play, and I think the hardest hit I took was from (teammate) Kris Mangum after I scored. But that set the stage for the rest of the year. No matter what situation we were in the rest of the year, we always thought we could win—and that showed throughout the course of that special season.”
Carolina Catches Fire
Proehl started two games for Carolina that year, but he proved again and again to be a player who shined in the biggest moments.
In ‘03, he caught 27 passes for 389 yards and four touchdowns, including the game-winner in Week 1.
The Panthers, meanwhile, rode Delhomme and their stout defense to an 11-5 record.
As a Wild Card entry, the franchise beat Dallas, St. Louis, and Philadelphia in the first three rounds of the postseason.
Carolina’s win against the Rams was bittersweet for Proehl.
Ricky Proehl is very underrated! One of my favorite @Panthers!
— Panthers Legacy (@PanthersLegacy) August 6, 2019
He was playing against his former teammates, but it was exhilarating when the Panthers beat the favored Rams in double overtime.
“I didn’t know how good we really were,” Proehl said. “We had a lot of fight and a lot of grit as a football team, but after the St. Louis game, to beat them in their place and to do it in the fashion we did it, it was just like, Well, I guess this is meant to be. We just keep finding ways to win.”
After the victory against the Eagles, Proehl found himself playing in his third world championship game in five years.
“Ricky was just such a great team player that he did whatever he had to do, be it clearing out a route for another player, and he’d be so excited when they made plays,” Delhomme said. “That just resonates throughout the whole team. Ricky was someone that had been in the trenches, so to speak, someone that had played in many, many big games and was not afraid of the big moment.”
Super Bowl XXXVIII
Of all the teams to face in the NFL’s biggest game twice in three years, it was the New England Patriots.
Proehl and St. Louis had played Tom Brady and the Pats well two years prior in Super Bowl XXXVI.
Before Super Bowl XXXVIII, it felt to Proehl and his Panthers teammates that New England wasn’t taking them seriously.
“At the end of the day, even if you asked New England, I don’t think they really believed they would have a hard time with us,” Proehl said. “Just the way they took the field, they were talking junk: We’re gonna run through you guys.”
Not so much.
The game was still tied at zero after the first quarter. The Patriots held a slim 14-10 lead at halftime.
New England took a 21-10 lead early in the fourth quarter before Carolina scored two touchdowns to take a 22-21 lead.
After the Pats answered to re-take the lead, Delhomme worked fast to take the Panthers into New England territory, including a huge 31-yard completion to Proehl.
With 1:08 remaining, Delhomme found Proehl again for the game-tying 12-yard touchdown.
— Wake Forest Football (@WakeFB) February 1, 2020
It was déjà vu for Proehl, who had tied the score against New England in the Super Bowl two years earlier.
“What are the chances of that happening?” Proehl said in 2014. “They were kind of reeling, to be honest with you. I felt like if it goes into overtime, we could win this game. Then when John kicked it out of bounds … I’m still sick.”
Sure enough, Panthers kicker John Kasay botched the kickoff by sending the ball out of bounds and giving New England the pigskin at the 40-yard line.
That was too easy for Brady who worked his magic once again.
Four seconds remained when Vinatieri kicked from 41 yards out to win another Super Bowl, 32-29.
Proehl spent his third Super Bowl catching four passes for 71 yards and a touchdown, only one catch more than his exact stats in Super Bowl XXXVI.
Proehl Plays in a Fourth Super Bowl
Ricky Proehl spent two more years in Carolina, starting three games and catching a combined 59 passes and four touchdowns.
In 2005, the Panthers returned to the postseason and made it to the NFC Championship before losing to Seattle.
After the season, Proehl retired and worked as a television and radio analyst for the Rams.
His retirement lasted until November of 2006 when the Indianapolis Colts called.
Indy wanted Proehl to play the remainder of the season as a replacement for receiver Brandon Stokley who had sustained a season-ending injury.
Proehl signed and caught just three passes from quarterback Peyton Manning.
— NFL (@NFL) November 9, 2019
It didn’t matter when the Colts took their 12-4 record into the playoffs, beat Kansas City, Baltimore, and (finally) New England in the playoffs before meeting Chicago in Super Bowl XLI.
Although Proehl didn’t have a reception in the contest, Vinatieri was now a teammate and graciously helped Proehl win his second Super Bowl, 29-17.
Proehl Retires (Again)
With a second championship ring, Proehl retired for good after the 2006 season.
Working on a post on the best players to retire after winning a Super Bowl – so many random ones. Ricky Proehl on the '06 Colts?
— Football Perspective (@fbgchase) March 9, 2013
In his 17-year career, Proehl caught 669 passes for 8,878 yards and 54 touchdowns.
He played in four Super Bowls, winning two.
Despite good numbers and big catches at key moments, Proehl was never selected for a Pro Bowl or as an All-Pro during his time in the NFL.
Proehl Becomes a Coach
After leaving the NFL, Proehl spent his time coaching high school and college kids at a training center he founded.
Then, in 2011, Carolina called with an offer.
“Then one day, I got a call from (former Carolina general manager) Marty Hurney, saying he had talked to (owner) Jerry Richardson and asking me if I’d be interested in coaching,” said Proehl.
For the next few seasons, Proehl worked with the Panthers’ receivers, although most of his charges didn’t realize he had once been a player.
“… a lot of them have no clue,” said Proehl. “I’ll be walking down the hall, and one of them might say, ‘Coach, I had no idea you played 17 years. How many Super Bowls did you go to?’ I laugh about it. It’s a different generation.”
In 2015, Proehl was still coaching the receiver group while Carolina rode the right arm of quarterback Cam Newton to 15 wins and a berth in Super Bowl 50.
— Sports Perfomance Mobile (@SPMspeed) February 23, 2017
By then, the entire roster knew of Proehl’s Super Bowl experience and bombarded him with questions.
Unfortunately, Carolina lost to Denver, 24-10, in Proehl’s fifth Super Bowl.
Guiding His Sons
Proehl and his wife, Kelly, have three children, including two sons who have followed in their dad’s footsteps.
Both Austin and Blake Proehl played as receivers in college. Austin was drafted by the Buffalo Bills in 2018.
Thursday, the latest episode of 'Player 54: Chasing the XFL Dream' premieres
Iconic Rams receiver Ricky Proehl coaches his son Austin as the @XFLBattlehawks bring professional football back to St. Louis
🏈 5p ET | ESPN2
— ESPN PR (@ESPNPR) March 16, 2023
Austin is currently a member of the St. Louis BattleHawks of the XFL and is coached by his father, whom the organization hired in 2022.
The Minnesota Vikings signed Blake Proehl as an undrafted free agent in 2021.