Maryland senior defensive end Greg Rose knew junior safety Nick Cross was special when they played together at DeMatha Catholic High School. Cross showcased a natural athletic ability and tremendous IQ for someone who had just started playing the game.
“We [were] in high school, and I was like, ‘Wow, this kid is a natural athlete,’” Rose said. “When you have a safety that can read offenses and just process football like that ... I knew he was destined to be great when I [saw] him at DeMatha.”
Cross never stepped onto a football field until his freshman year at DeMatha, which made his rise to becoming the top high school player in the state even more impressive. In his third season with the Terps, Cross is continuing to take his game to new heights.
“He’s done a great job of being a physical presence in a deep field for us,” Maryland coach Mike Locksley said. “We’re pleased with his progress and even more pleased that he started to develop the leadership that you want to see out of the third-year guy.”
Cross, who has started 13 games at Maryland, has been a focal point in the secondary with his ability to make plays on the ball. Through five games this season for the Terps (4-1, 1-1 Big Ten), Cross has recorded two interceptions and three pass breakups. The 6-foot-1, 215-pound defensive back’s physicality and leadership, however, have stood out for Locksley.
“He has a tremendous skill set with his range and size,” Locksley said. “I think the thing that’s showed up this year for us is just how physical he is when he makes contact. He’s running through people. He’s done a great job of being a physical presence in a deep field for us.”
Growing up, Cross would drive around with his dad, Michael, and see signs for youth football leagues on the side of the road. Cross would constantly ask his dad if he could play football, but Michael’s answer was no every time.
Michael was against football because he was concerned about his son getting a concussion. However, Michael told Cross, “If you still have the inclination in high school, then you can go try out for the team then.”
“It was frustrating to have to wait that long,” Cross said. “But at the end of the day, everything happens for a reason.”
As Cross waited for his chance, he played basketball and soccer. However, his passion for football remained strong. On Sundays, the Bowie native would sit next to the television and cry whenever the Washington Football Team lost. Most of his art projects in elementary and middle school revolved around football. Cross would even go on YouTube and study highlights of former NFL safeties Sean Taylor, Ed Reed, Brian Dawkins and Bob Sanders, dreaming of the chance to be just like them.
“Just trying to learn how they did it so whenever I was able to get my opportunity to play, I would go out there and emulate them,” Cross said.
When Cross became a freshman at DeMatha, he made Michael live up to his promise. Michael thought Nick would stick with basketball, but his son was fixated on trying out for the football team. Michael allowed Cross to try out, as he felt his son’s body was more developed to handle the rough contact.
Cross went to the DeMatha coaching staff and asked them if he could try out for the varsity team, even though his only football experience came from watching YouTube. “They were like ‘Nah, you got to go play freshman [level]. You have to learn how to play the game,’” Cross said.
Cross played one season on the freshman level before spending the next three years on varsity, where he became the best high school player in Maryland in the 2019 class, according to 247Sports. Cross, a four-star recruit, played in the Army All-American Bowl and received offers from Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Florida State and others before settling in College Park.
Cross has always been a quick learner, which is why his transition to football was seamless. When Cross was 3 years old, he was sitting alone in the back seat of his parents’ car. He managed to climb to the front, and take the car out of park. The car rolled down the driveway and into the cul-de-sac before Michael jumped into the car to stop it.
“For him, it was a big joke,” Michael said. “But that’s how keen he was on watching and mimicking what people did. From there, we knew we had a bright young fella.”
Despite all the accolades in high school and the success he has had with the Terps, football is extracurricular for Cross and his family. Growing up in Jamaica, Michael said education was viewed as the way to succeed in life, while sports took a backseat. Michael, a computer engineer, and his wife, Anna Awah-Cross, a pharmacist from Trinidad and Tobago, would take football away from Cross if his grades were not up to their standards.
“Back home for them, sports wasn’t an avenue,” Cross said. “He [would] always lecture me on not [putting] everything on football because, at a snap, it can be taken away from you.”
Even in a new age of college athletics in which student-athletes can profit off their name, image and likeness, education remains at the forefront in the Cross household.
“We knew that it was something that became available and provided new opportunities to the student-athletes, but that has never been our focus,” Michael said. “Our focus is him completing his degree at the University of Maryland.”
The study habits Cross learned from his parents not only helped him in school, but on the football field as well. Cross studies film every day, trying to spot different formations while asking his coaches why they run specific plays.
“That increases the confidence, knowing I can go into a game and see a formation [then] tell my team this is what to expect here and there,” Cross said. “It gets me a little fired up.”
Cross wants to go to the NFL. After being high school teammates with Washington defensive end Chase Young and Pittsburgh Steelers running back Anthony McFarland Jr., Cross has faith that his dream can become a reality.
“It’s humbling to sit back and say I play with some great players,” Cross said. “If they can do it, you can do it too.”
MARYLAND@NO. 7 OHIO STATE
TV: Chs. 45, 5 Radio: 105.7 FM
Line: Ohio State by 21