Sports

Former Walk-On Haason Reddick Is the NFL Draft's Biggest Surprise

On Thursday night, an NFL team will almost certainly select Temple's Haason Reddick in the first round of the 2017 draft, making him one of the most unlikely high picks in recent years.
April 27, 2017, 3:28pm
Photo by Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

Shortly after Francis Brown became a defensive graduate assistant at Temple in 2012, he approached his boss, then-head football coach Steve Addazio, about a freshman named Haason Reddick, whom Brown had known since early childhood.

Reddick had been accepted as a student at Temple, but no college coaches had shown any interest in him. After all, Reddick had missed all of his junior season at Haddon Heights High School in New Jersey with a fractured femur, and only played parts of three games as a senior due to a torn meniscus in his knee.

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Still, Brown had trained Reddick for a few years, coached him on a seven-on-seven team—he knew the kid was a Division 1-caliber athlete. If Reddick was healthy, Brown thought he could compete for a spot on Temple's team and make an impact as a cornerback or safety. He never could have envisioned how far Reddick actually would go.

Read More: Which Teams Should Go QB in Round 1 of the Draft?

On Thursday night, an NFL team will almost certainly select Reddick in the first round of the 2017 draft, making him only the fourth player in Temple history to earn that honor and one of the most unlikely high picks in recent years. Reddick will shake commissioner Roger Goodell's hand, pose for television cameras, and walk across the stage in Philadelphia, the same city where he played in college and a few miles from his hometown of Camden, New Jersey.

It's a scenario that no one saw coming, not even after Reddick finally earned a scholarship after his junior season, or when he recorded 22.5 tackles for loss as a senior last fall. By then, Brown was telling Reddick he could make a living as a football player, but he still didn't predict what was to come.

"Before every game, I would always tell him, 'Make sure you put some money in the bank today, man. Put more money in the bank today,'" Brown, who is now Baylor's assistant head coach, told VICE Sports. "He was like, 'Yo, I got you, Fran.' It was never, 'Oh, you're gonna be first round.' I'm not gonna sit here and say that. A lot of coaches say, 'I knew he could do it. I knew that.' Heck, no, I didn't know he was gonna be first round."

Reddick on a recent visit with Haddon Heights athletic director Joe Cramp. Courtesy Joe Cramp

Brown never questioned Reddick's work ethic, though. He and Ray Matthews, Reddick's father, grew up in the same neighborhood in Camden. Brown was a star quarterback at Camden High School before starting at cornerback at Western Carolina; after college, he briefly spent time in the Cincinnati Bengals' camps in 2007 and 2008 before moving back to New Jersey and working at a local high school and as a trainer.

Reddick was a regular attendee at workouts Brown conducted in nearby Woodbury on Sundays, as was his cousin Dyshawn Davis, who played at Syracuse and is currently in the Canadian Football League. Back then, Reddick would also spend several days a week lifting weights and running with his father.

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"We used to run a mile to the gym, work out, and then come back home," Matthews told VICE Sports. "He was doing the same workouts I was doing. He was pretty much set to be a workout freak."

Reddick split time between varsity and junior varsity as a sophomore at Haddon Heights, and entered his junior season as the starting running back and cornerback. Former NFL and Temple running back Paul Palmer, the runner-up in the 1986 Heisman Trophy award balloting, coached Reddick and thought he was on track to earn a scholarship. Instead, Reddick sustained a fractured femur in the preseason and missed the entire season.

For the next several months, Reddick spent nearly every day with Haddon Heights trainer Tim O'Donnell rehabbing his leg. By the fall of his senior season, he was healthy and eager to show off his skills. He did just that in the season opener, scoring two touchdowns, including a 54-yard punt return for a score. But he left the next week's game with an injury after making a catch. He briefly played the following week, but he then missed the rest of the year when he was diagnosed with a meniscus tear in his knee.

"He was just starting to peak, and then he got hurt," Brown said. "It was like, Dang. He couldn't get a break."

Still, just as he did the previous year, Reddick continued to attend practices and games, and to work with O'Donnell on returning.

"He never got hung up on 'Why me?'" O'Donnell said. "I see a lot of injuries and kids go through this cascade of emotional feelings, of depression sometimes even. But this was not him. He did not go through that traditional emotional response. He just was even-keeled, stayed focused and worked hard."

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Despite his upbeat attitude, college coaches didn't show any interest in Reddick, which wasn't anything new to him. When Reddick was in high school and Davis was a sophomore and two-year starter at Syracuse, he told the Orange's coaches about Reddick and encouraged them to offer him a scholarship. Reddick attended a camp at Syracuse and stayed with Davis for two days.

"They said he wasn't good enough," Davis said. "I knew he was good enough. That hurt him, that put him in a tough spot, because he wanted to play at Syracuse with me."

With no scholarship offers, Reddick decided to attend Temple because it was a Division 1 program close to home. Thanks to Brown's help, Reddick made the team as a freshman walk-on in the fall of 2012, but he redshirted and didn't last the entire season. Brown said Reddick briefly considered pursuing boxing or rapping instead of football, but he re-joined the team when Temple hired Matt Rhule as its head coach in December 2012.

For the next two seasons, Reddick played on special teams and mostly as a reserve linebacker and defensive end. But even as his playing time increased, he worried about his mother and father, who had taken out loans and worked extra hours to help pay his tuition. He wasn't sure how much longer he could play football.

"He thought about [leaving the team] a bunch of times," Matthews said. "He didn't want to bug his parents too much for more stuff. That became the problem. There were things about the money situation, but he comes from two strong parents. We weren't going to allow that to happen. We knew he loved to play football. He was good at it. Me and his mother were going to continue to do whatever we had to do to keep him playing, even though he himself didn't want to see us go through what we were going through."

Reddick pressuring Penn State's Christian Hackenberg in 2015. Photo by Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

As a junior in 2015, Reddick became a starter at defensive end and emerged as one of the American Athletic Conference's top defenders, helping Temple win its first seven games and tie a school record with ten victories. After that season, Temple finally awarded him a scholarship.

Reddick improved further last fall. He had 9.5 sacks and 22.5 tackles for losses, he made first-team all-conference, helped Temple win the AAC title, and developed into a potential late-round NFL draft pick. His stock soared, though, after his standout performances in the Senior Bowl in January and the NFL combine in February.

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At the combine, the six-foot-one, 237-pound Reddick ran the second-fastest time among defensive linemen and linebackers in the 40-yard dash (4.52 seconds), had the second-longest broad jump among those positions (133 inches), and finished sixth in the vertical jump (36.5 inches). Reddick's versatility and athleticism caught the attention of NFL scouts who now consider him a near-certain first-round pick.

"He has the speed of a defensive back, he has the size of a linebacker, he has the strength of a defensive end," said Palmer, who is now a radio broadcaster for Temple's football games. "He's not gonna get in trouble around the community, he's not gonna be a problem in the locker room, he'll play special teams for you, he's gonna practice hard. They're gonna get a great football player. He's gonna be a tremendous asset for whoever gets him for a long time."

Reddick at the combine. Photo by Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

These days, Reddick is an inspiration to many in his hometown of Camden, which has long battled a reputation for high crime rates and lack of opportunity. On Monday, he received a key to the city during a ceremony aboard a battleship.

"If you know about Camden, then you know the odds of making it are very slim," Matthews said. "He gives the city hope. A lot of people see that if he can do it, they relate to him knowing he grew up in Camden. They say if he can do it, maybe there's a chance for me."

On Thursday night, Reddick will be a few miles away from Camden as one of 22 players the NFL invited to attend the draft in Philadelphia. When Goodell calls his name, Reddick's unlikely NFL journey will officially begin, although friends, family members, and coaches remind him he can't be satisfied with just getting selected.

Palmer, who was a first-round draft pick out of Temple in 1987, sometimes texts Reddick with the "Our success reaches further than we know." He wants Reddick to understand that he has an opportunity to be great and inspire others.

"Everyone's gonna enjoy this," Palmer said. "People in South Jersey, people in Philly, people at Temple, people in the area that don't even know him. Everyone's gonna say, 'I remember that guy.'"

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