Eagles rookie J.R. Reed was late drawing attention at every level, but always has made an impact once he did.
By BRANDON WRIGHT
Published September 14, 2004
TAMPA - J.R. Reed's professionally career began quite inauspiciously.
Reed fielded the opening kickoff in Philadelphia's first preseason game 2 yards deep in his end zone against New England. Then he hesitated. Unsure of whether to bring the ball out or take a knee, Reed paused, then raced past the goal line only to get drilled at the 12-yard line.
Reed looked the part of a nervous rookie realizing he was about to take one back against the Super Bowl champion Patriots rather than Liberty University.
Not exactly the way the fourth-round pick envisioned making his mark. But then Reed's career, dating to his days at Hillsborough High, hasn't been about starting fast, but finishing strong.
Reed salvaged a potentially awful night for a player fighting for a roster spot. He took his next return back 37 yards. A week later, Reed returned a kickoff 88 yards for a touchdown against Baltimore on national television.
Two weeks after that, Reed was where only he once dreamed of being - on a regular-season NFL roster.
"It was weird at first because you're in the same locker room as Donovan McNabb and Terrell Owens," Reed said. "It's like a Pro Bowl team here, and I was watching these guys last year."
Some players have the "can't miss" label from the time they learn to put on a helmet. Others fly a bit under the radar and seemingly come from nowhere to make a name for themselves.
Reed is more of the latter.
Hillsborough coach Earl Garcia first saw that potential in Reed's freshman year. Garcia thought Reed to be gifted athletically, but the thing that stood out was his desire to improve.
"J.R. had some skills early on, but you could see he how bad he wanted to get better," Garcia said.
But on the field, the skinny ninth-grader had difficulty finding a permanent spot until Garcia put him in the secondary. As would be the blueprint for his career, Reed went largely unnoticed and spent much of the season watching the Terriers from the sideline.
"I hated sitting the bench," Reed said. "I knew that was something I wanted no part of."
So Reed attacked the weight room. He began adding muscle to his slight frame and spent morning hours at the beach, running in the sand to improve his speed. As a sophomore Reed was a member of the starting secondary, and much more.
"Once J.R. got on the field, he never wanted to come off, ever," Garcia said. "He played defensive back, returned kicks and punts and even held on extra points and field goals. He had an insatiable appetite for playing the game and improving. He was getting stronger and faster and you just knew that with his desire, he could get somewhere playing the game."
One of Garcia's favorite Reed stories came during his senior season. Hillsborough was shorthanded at receiver against King, so Reed volunteered to help.
"He had the offensive playbook memorized by Tuesday," Garcia said. "And not just what he had to do at wideout, he had everybody's assignments down cold."
Reed caught three touchdowns against the Lions to help the Terriers win.
But much of the spotlight focused on Reed's secondary mates as the time to pick a college rolled around. It wasn't that recruiters ignored Reed, but the college heavyweights weren't beating down his door either. Notre Dame signed Preston Jackson and Cedric Edmonds settled on Syracuse. The best offer Reed had was from South Florida, a program that at the time wasn't in a conference.
"It was a little discouraging in high school because those guys had the big name schools after them and I didn't," Reed said. "But South Florida came after me hard and offered me a chance to play and it ended up working out."
After playing some cornerback his freshman year, Reed took over at free safety the following season. Reed quickly made a name as a big-play specialist on defense and special teams. He went on to set the USF record for interceptions (18), was second in tackles (301) and also recovered five fumbles, two for touchdowns.
Reed led the nation in kickoff returns his senior season (31.7 yard average) and almost single-handedly beat Memphis in his final game as a Bull, returning a kickoff and fumble for a touchdown and setting up USF's third score with one of his three interceptions in a 21-16 win.
"Has a guy ever had a game like that in the history of NCAA football, quite honestly?" USF coach Jim Leavitt said.
But despite a growing reputation as a ball hawk, Reed wasn't mentioned among top safeties in the country and lasted until the fourth round. The Eagles had four safeties on the roster, so Reed's future was in doubt.
"I remember once (safeties) coach (Sean McDermott) called me into his office on one of the cutdown days," Reed said. "I was scared out of my mind."
But all that changed when he scored against the Ravens.
"Once that happened, I thought my chances were pretty good," he said. "I knew shining on special teams could make the difference for me."
Reed led all kickoff returners in the preseason with a 30.1 average and backs up Pro Bowl safety Brian Dawkins. Reed returned three kicks for a 22.3 yard average Sunday in the Eagles' opener and had a tackle on special teams.
But as has been the case since he played for Hillsborough, just because his name isn't in lights right now, doesn't mean it won't be soon.
"I've always been the guy that was overlooked," Reed said. "I don't mind because it just makes me work that much harder."