“This is not a vacation, this is a business trip.” Reaves said in a passionate tone. The calm before the storm is upon us. Players across the NFL are preparing for what could be the biggest month of their lives and Jeremy Reaves is no exception.
An undrafted rookie out of South Alabama, the Safety has wasted little time turning heads in the City of Brotherly Love. With multiple spots up for grabs at one of the most valuable spots in the Jim Schwartz defense, Reaves has his eyes fixed on not just breaking onto the roster, but shattering every expectation…just as he’s done throughout his entire life.
One of the hardest hitting safeties in this year’s draft class, Reaves made a name for himself by ploughing into ballcarriers. With a Jaguar-leading 104 tackles in 2017, the Pensacola native rapidly began to garner attention from across the NFL. It’s ironic that one of the most tenacious tacklers in the game had a very surprising first experience with the sport.
“Honestly, I didn’t like Football at first.” Reaves explained. “When I first went out to practice when I was five, I got hit really hard and I wanted to stop playing. My Dad told me to stick with it and promised it would get better in time. That same year, the first game we played. I actually ran four touchdowns. From that moment on I was like ‘okay, it’s not as bad as I thought.’”
“It’s kind of funny. I used to be a running back so I used to always take the hit. When I got to College and started playing defense, I got the mindset of ‘well I remember how those hits feel, so I wanna start delivering them and it will pay off’.”
When he got to Pensacola High School, that’s when the dream of becoming a professional football player was realized, but amidst a dazzling senior year, that path was almost ripped from under his feet. With no explanation, no reason, no understanding, Reaves awoke one morning with a stinging pain in his back. It would later be revealed that he had broken the L5 Vertebra, sidelining him for 12 months.
“I was afraid. I had no idea what to expect.” The Safety explained as he relived that delicate time. “I was 17 years old at the time and the doctor told me ‘you might not play football again’. A lot of School’s backed off of me and I lost a lot of opportunities that I had before. It was a lot to handle at that age. It was the first real adversity I’d faced in my life and I got to see what it felt like to be at the bottom again. It made me appreciate all the little things like going to workouts, being able to walk straight, pick up a book bag or something, things you take for granted everyday. It gave me a different perspective on life in general, not just ball.”
It’s very easy to read about an injury sustained by a player and brush it aside, focusing on their return time and nothing else. But for Jeremy Reaves, this was much bigger than the game of Football.
“At that moment I was thinking about Football a lot, but I was thinking about ‘am I even going to be able to walk the same?’ Reaves said, talking openly about the struggles of coping with what had happened. “I was very depressed at the time, it was a really tough time in my life and that was when I started to get heavy into my faith, I began to pray a lot. I drifted away from God during my High School career and when that happened, nobody could really understand me but him. I leaned on my faith and my bible a lot to try and find comfort.”
His family played an amazing role in keeping him motivated and determined. ‘look Jeremy, this is a stepping stone you have to get over but it is going to get better on the other side of the fence’. A quote Reaves recited, spoken by his mother. Everyone around him believed in not only his footballing ability, but his drive as an individual to overcome one of the most daunting incidents an athlete could experience.
Schools began to lose interest, circumstances began to change and the pressure began to build. Was his career on borrowed time? Was there a plan B? None of that mattered and there was one coach who refused to give up on Reaves.
‘We’re staying with you, we believe in you and we’re not going to go anywhere.’ A reassuring statement from the Head Coach of South Alabama was all it took. From the days before the injury to the struggles recovering, they were the only school who stood by his side throughout. “I was so loyal to them because they were so loyal to me when I was down and out. It was only right that I stuck by them.”
Loyalty has a big place in the heart of the 2017 Sun Belt Defensive Player Of The Year. It’s a trait that led him to Philadelphia after the NFL Draft.
“I had a really good relationship with (Eagles area scout) Allan Wolking.” Reaves told me. “He came down to my school and watched film with me in my senior year and he was like ‘look man, you’re a heck of a ballplayer. I know what you’re capable of doing and we can see you helping us a lot.’ We had that relationship throughout the year, he would come and watch me play, practice and watch film. He’s one of the first guys that called me and said ‘we want you’ after the Draft.”
“I believe a lot in loyalty. If somebody gives you their all, you give them that in return. That’s something I grew up on. That’s a foundation that Philly stands on 100%. They’ve been there through thick and thin for that team. It felt comfortable for me, it felt like home.”
The Eagles were high on Reaves for a long time and it’s not difficult to see why. Midway through his junior year, the noise of a potential rise through the draft began to echo around the small town of Pensacola. With a total of 301 career tackles over four seasons to go along with 20.5 for a loss, 8 interceptions and 22 passes defensed, Reaves decimated his conference, eventually posting a 104 tackle season after transitioning to Safety from corner in his senior year. Surprisingly, Reaves was quick to brush off any individual accolades earned, instead reflecting on his team and his impact on those around him. All of a sudden, his fit in the new selfless culture of Philadelphia, seems perfect.
“I’m very critical of myself.” The thunderous safety said softly. “I felt that the individual preseason and postseason accolades didn’t matter to me. I felt like we left a lot of games out there and I felt personally responsible for why our coaching staff isn’t there anymore. It eats me up all the time, we had some great football players and great guys but we couldn’t put the pieces together. I’ll always remember that feeling and take that with me to a point where if I’m ever in a situation like that again, I can apply all of that knowledge.”
“I don’t just wanna get myself better, I want to get somebody else better too. If somebody doesn’t understand what’s going on, I want to bring them along with me. I led by example, I showed the younger guys the route that I took and what they can do. I tried to lay the blueprint. There wasn’t really a coach at my school because it was fairly new school. That’s who I am, I could care less about myself, I want to bring other guys up to the standard.”
The emotion was pouring out and you could feel every ounce of passion in his voice. He meant every single word he said. There was no hesitation, no fake persona, just an honest and reflective young man who wants to make everyone around him better. The Eagles adored that mentality and it’s not something that can be measured metrically or statistically, it’s about heart. There’s much more to a football player than his athletic ability and thankfully, teams were aware of that, as is Reaves.
Reaves didn’t receive an invite to the NFL combine. Yet another obstacle for the 5-11, 205 lbs, safety to overcome, Reaves met the declination with maturity, channeling that frustration into motivation.
“I use it as fuel. I’m not the biggest kid, I’m not the 6’4 kid, 230 lbs, kid, I don’t have a 40-inch vert…but I’m a ballplayer and I was very confident in the ballplayer I was then.” He said. “I knew it didn’t define me and it never would. I was upset because a lot of people expected me to go there, but it’s another chapter in the story I’ll be able to tell one day, to say yeah I didn’t go to the combine, I didn’t get drafted, but I’ve played in the league, won Super Bowls. It’s another part of the story.”
However, he would receive an invite to the Senior Bowl; an event in which the Eagles have taken notable interest in over the last few years, with many of their recent draft picks (including Carson Wentz) shining on the stage in Mobile.
For Reaves, it was the perfect scenario. Having lived in the area for so long, this wasn’t a game on a vastly different stage. This was home. Fans were cheering his name as players from the SEC, Pac-12 and BIG-10 all came to try and leave their mark and impress coaches. It would be Reaves who shined brightest, racking up a game-high 14 tackles and picking off quarterback Tanner Lee in the process.
The Eagles brought Reaves in on a top-30 visit and just to add a little more sparkle to a day with the Super Bowl champions, he would end up meeting his childhood hero, Brian Dawkins. A dream come true for Reaves, Dawkins left a lasting impact on the rookie.
“He was somebody that was so passionate about football you had no choice but to gravitate towards him.” The pacing picked up in his voice as the excitement flooded out. “He has that same passionate energy about everyday life. Talking to him, you can see it in his eyes. When he asked me if I loved the game, you could see what it meant to him and I laid it all out there for him. Getting a chance to talk to somebody I looked up to so much growing up, it was a blessing. Something I’ll never forget.”
Reaves would fall undrafted, but would soar to the team, who like South Alabama, stayed with him through thick and thin. Upon landing with the Eagles, Reaves immediately began learning from the likes of Malcolm Jenkins, Rodney McLeod and Rasul Douglas. It may be just a few short months after a Super Bowl win, but the Eagles are refusing to take this offseason lightly, which has in turn elevated the game of Reaves already.
“That room is one of the best rooms I’ve ever seen.They really care about it, they care about each other. They set a standard from the first moment we went out there, everything they do is at a high level. To talk to those guys and learn about what they’ve learned since being in the league, it’s made me a better player”.
Reaves may be the ultimate underdog, but just as the Eagles are shedding their underdog skin and putting that big red target on their backs, the undrafted rookie is too. The prey is becoming the predator and for Reaves, that means channeling all of that same hunger into a different kind of mindset.
“I’m hungry and I’m ready to get after it. I’m always going to remember my home roots, what it took to get here. But that underdog mentality has turned into a hungrier mindset. It’s still in the back of my head that I didn’t get drafted, that I didn’t get a combine invite. It still fuels me and I don’t think that will ever run out. It’s just amplified so much more because I’m here. I want to take it to a different level.”
There’s a long wait until Training Camp begins, but Reaves is already deep into a training regiment that will see him fully prepared for training camp. After spending a short time in his new surroundings, the small-school sleeper has developed the understanding of what’s needed to be elite at the next level. That film study and the mental processing of the game is just as important as any athletic trait and that to really be successful, he has to gain as much insight from the veteran leaders as possible…and he’s doing just that.
While his maturity, unrelenting work ethic and sheer humility are nothing short of inspiring, his last message to the die-hard fans of the Eagles is what will really ignite the fire inside many.
“You’re getting a blue-collar player, a workaholic. I believe in trusting the process and that’s what got me here. I fell in love with it. I’m excited to put on a show for you guys.”
Reaves has gone through more in the last few years than most. He’s faced adversity that threatened everyday life as much as it did his career and taken accountability for his team’s success and failures to the highest level. Focused on making the roster and driven to defy every expectation anyone has ever placed on his shoulders, Jeremy Reaves isn’t just another name.
If you believe in fate, you may be thinking that destiny has intertwined the paths of Reaves and the Eagles. If you don’t, then that will soon change.
Mandatory Photo credit: Chris Coduto/Icon Sportswire via AP Images