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Braced to fly upfield again

He was 'on top of the world' as an Eagles rookie; then ex-USF star J.R. Reed tore up his calf and was told his career was over. Once again, he didn't listen.

By BRANDON WRIGHT
Published August 1, 2006


TAMPA - J.R. Reed had made it.

He was no longer the undersized safety at Hillsborough High that college recruiters overlooked.

He was no longer at USF listening to NFL scouts debate his 5-foot, 10-inch frame.

He had just tackled the Patriots' Bethel Johnson in Super Bowl XXXIX, and his trademark dreadlocks popped off the ground as he glared down at Johnson.

"Man, I was on top of the world," Reed said.

Two weeks later he was dangling from the top of a fence.

* * *

On a team full of stars, Reed found a niche as the Eagles' kick returner and backup to Pro Bowler Brian Dawkins at free safety. Then as Reed's career was taking off, a freak accident nearly derailed it. Doctors told Reed his career was over. But, with the help of a one-of-a-kind brace, Reed hopes to prove people wrong, as he has throughout his career.

An all-county player, he was barely a blip on recruiters' radar coming out of Hillsborough. Defensive backfield mates Cedric Edmonds and Preston Jackson had accepted scholarship offers from Syracuse and Notre Dame, respectively. Reed had two options, USF and Indiana State, and chose the Bulls, who weren't in a conference and were a million miles removed from Touchdown Jesus.

"I remember during that recruiting process schools were shying away from him because he didn't have prototypical size, but he played bigger than his measurements," said Dean Eychner, Hillsborough High's assistant head coach and defensive coordinator. "And had the heart of a lion."

There was Reed, proving his critics wrong. He led the nation in kickoff return average as a USF senior, almost single-handedly beating Memphis that year with a kickoff and fumble returned for touchdowns to go with three interceptions.

"Has a guy ever had a game like that in the history of NCAA football, quite honestly?" USF coach Jim Leavitt marveled after the game.

But the NFL? Reed heard the same concerns as at Hillsborough: too small for the next level. The Eagles, a team loaded at safety and poised for a Super Bowl run, took a flier on Reed in 2004's fourth round of the draft. And there he was proving critics wrong again, finishing second among rookies in kickoff return yardage, setting up a Philly touchdown with a 48-yard return against Minnesota in the playoffs and making a tackle in the Super Bowl.

Then came the first obstacle in Reed's life he couldn't clear: a 6-foot-high fence.

* * *

As Reed swung himself over a fence by USF's campus that February night in 2005 (he has never said why, only that it was "a bad decision"), he immediately knew something was wrong. The back of his left leg, just below the knee, caught the point of a metal spike that sank into his upper calf. Reed, upside down, dangled from the fence as blood poured down his body.

"All over my arms, chest, face," he said.

Reed used his arms to push up, dislodging his leg. He crumbled to the ground and pulled off his blood-soaked shirt, using it as a tourniquet.

"I was losing so much blood," he said. "I thought I might die."

Alone, without a cell phone, he scrambled to his feet. But as he took that first step, expecting the explosiveness he used on kickoff returns, his left foot went limp. He hit the ground.

His foot "wouldn't work," he said. "I dragged myself out to the street and flagged down a car. This guy took me to (University Community Hospital) and dropped me off."

The fence left a hole "the size of a racquetball," and as Reed was being driven to the hospital, he whispered, "Please let it just need stitches."

* * *

Doctors first reattached Reed's calf muscle, which had been separated from the bone. Then they examined the peroneal nerve, which controls flexing of the foot, and broke the news. Reed's nerve had been sheared.

"The doctors wrote me off," Reed said.

"They said I was done."

The Eagles placed him on the physically-unable-to-perform list, keeping him from practicing with the team and ultimately ending his second season before it started.

Doctors said it would take about a year to know if the nerve would regenerate. Walking without a limp was the best Reed could hope for.

"(The doctors) advised I start looking for internships," he said.

Reed sank under the weight of it all. He holed up in his Philadelphia apartment and broke down.

"I went into a deep depression for like six months," he said. "I was bedridden; didn't leave the house."

And for the first time in his life, Reed bought into what others were telling him.

"People kept telling me you can't, you can't," he said. "I started to believe it."

Reed distanced himself from the team. He watched the Eagles' 2005 opener against the 49ers from the sideline but left Lincoln Financial Field shortly before halftime.

"I was sick to my stomach," he said. "I just couldn't watch it."

Strangely, it was a basketball, not a football, that was the impetus for his comeback.

* * *

Doctors monitored the peroneal nerve through a series of excruciating exams. Reed said they drove a sensor prod with a pointed tip into his leg, digging around to test the strength of the nerve.

"That is the worst test in the world," Reed said. "Period."

Reed was fitted for a walking brace but despised its look and the stigma associated with it. Finally, in January, one of his friends convinced him to get out of the house and live again.

"He told me to quit feeling sorry for myself and stop being lazy," Reed said. "So we went to shoot some hoops, and with the walking brace the doctors gave me I could move a little."

That shoot-around gave Reed hope. The brace stabilized his leg and foot but was geared to help someone walk, not play in the NFL.

Enter John Swoyers, a Philadelphia orthopedist.

Reed was referred to Swoyers around January and told the orthopedist his traditional brace helped, but he needed a lighter, stronger one. Swoyers took it and returned with a souped-up version a week later.

The brace, tailored for Reed, wraps around the ankle and stabilizes it, making it possible for him to lift his foot by springing it back up when he runs. Reed called the brace "a miracle."

"J.R. wants to give all the credit to the brace, but it's been his work ethic that's made this possible," Swoyers said.

Reed began working out with the brace, strengthening his leg and eyeing the Eagles' minicamp in July. But even with it, doctors were still telling him as recently as a week before camp that his playing days were over.

"They pretty much just laughed at me," Reed said.

* * *

No one was laughing when Reed showed up at minicamp July 20 with a brace in his bag and a Super Bowl XXXIX hat covering those dreadlocks. The hat was a statement to the new Eagles hopefuls: I'm not like you.

"I wore that hat to let the new guys know that I'm no rookie," Reed said. "I wanted them to know where I came from, and I'm here to get back there."

Reed still walks with a noticeable limp but runs without a trace of one. He breezed through minicamp, but the true test came when the Eagles went live July 25.

So far, so good.

"It's interesting, everybody wants to look for something wrong with J.R. right now, and I think we're past that," special teams coach John Harbaugh said. "The way I'm looking at it, it's time to evaluate him as a player for what he does and just put him right up against the other guys and see how he compares, because he looks fine."

How can a guy told by doctors a month ago he'd never play again and who walks with a limp be considered fine?

"I guess God just wants me to run, not walk," Reed said.

As far as he has come, Reed still has a long way to go. He said he's second on the kickoff return depth chart and third at safety, so, as always, he has a lot to prove. But after checking his resume, it's hard to say he won't be returning a kickoff Sept. 10 in the Eagles' opener against Houston.

"I've always been counted out," Reed said. "But I've always said if it wasn't hard to get, it wasn't worth having. That's the way things always have been for me."