D.J. Reader will never break
All roads to the Super Bowl must go through the Cincinnati Bengals' mammoth nose tackle... good luck with that. Reader is the best player you don't know this postseason. Here is how he sets the tone.
CINCINNATI — Football never stops.
The sport only moves one direction at the speed of light.
We learned that much again two weeks ago. Damar Hamlin suffered cardiac arrest, was resuscitated back to life and — with one “Did we win?,” one miraculous recovery and a parade of touching tributes around the NFL — the games continued six days later. The sport’s too powerful, too profitable to take a breather. Self-reflection? That can wait until after the Super Bowl, thank you very much.
One game bleeds into the next, literally, with a 100 percent injury rate.
Hamlin’s return home is absolutely a major cause for celebration and could rally the Buffalo Bills in a scene straight out of Hollywood, but this moment in time also panned a magnifying glass over an ugly side of the game. Such a near-death experience no doubt shook players in all 32 cities. The NFL just… keeps… moving, even if cornerback Tre’Davious White sounds like someone coping with a form of PTSD. Maybe it’s for the best. Maybe players need to immerse themselves in the sport to move on. Either way, any pro football player dealing with any amount of personal anguish has no choice but to strap on those shoulder pads and bash into another grown man for three hours.
Two days before Hamlin collapsed at midfield — through the tunnel, ‘round the corridor, inside the home locker room at Paycor Stadium — Go Long sat down with arguably the best player on the Cincinnati Bengals’ defense. Nose tackle D.J. Reader is a throwback of a competitor who has overcome a torn quad in 2020 and a torn MCL this season to anchor the entire unit. He’s one of the most underrated players in the league. Yet what practically nobody knows is that Reader has also lost five loved ones this year alone. Five.
Three aunts. Two uncles. He was close to them all.
Reader was just speaking at his aunt’s funeral the day prior. He summoned the energy to deliver the eulogy, consoled family members and flew back to Cincinnati to prepare for the Bills. Two weeks before this? He was at his uncle’s funeral.
“Life doesn’t stop moving,” Reader says. “Especially in this game.”
What helps him press on is the fact that all five family members loved watching him play so much. He knows this is what they’d want. Reader’s father was the second youngest of seven kids. Reader’s mother was the youngest of nine and Reader — the youngest grandchild of all — is a source of pride for everyone.
“I know they’d want me out here being happy,” Reader says, “and working and being with my teammates.
“I’m appreciative to come from a big family. You make great connections with all these people in life. The Lord’s going to call everybody home one day. So when it’s time for Him to want them back, I can’t question it. There’s nothing I can change. I have to keep living my life and make a big impact like they did.”
Reader wasn’t always at such peace with trauma. When his father died in college, it crushed him.
But now? The Bengals captain found a sensitive side to balance his requisite nastiness on the field and Reader is the veteran who best epitomizes this team’s powerful “They gotta play us!” battle cry. Those were the words shouted by 69-year-old defensive coach Mark Duffner after a win over the Tennessee Titans and all the Bengals have done is win eight straight. A team that’s been so bad, so long obviously hit the jackpot with Joe Burrow, but also needed this wholesale attitude adjustment. On offense, Joe Mixon hides a coin in his glove. After scoring a touchdown in Cincy’s 27-16 win over Baltimore, he flips it and vigorously kicks the air, knowing damn well he’d get fined. Afterward, Burrow correctly informs the world that the Bengals’ Super Bowl window is open through the duration of his career.
On defense, everyone’s road to the Super Bowl in the AFC must go through D.J. Reader.
He has 27 tackles, four batted balls, one forced fumble, two fumble recoveries and five quarterback hits in 10 games, yet raw numbers never capture the value of No. 98 in black. Nobody is better at clogging traffic to free up others than this mountain of a man — and he still makes plays. Unapologetic, authentic, his voice resonates loudly in this room. And while Reader has learned how to open up to others to adequately process the loss of loved ones, this is also a behemoth who uses the sort of language that’s not for the faint of heart.
At one point, Reader repeats one of Marshawn Lynch’s famous lines in explaining how he repeatedly pummels the man in front of him.
“You’ve got to beat him over and over and over,” Reader says, “and when you’re standing there you have to keep beating him. You don’t even have to do it maliciously. You just need to know that you will not break. You’re not willing to break. You’re willing to be there — and not break — all day. If you’re going to be in this fight with me? You better be willing to be there and not break, too.”
He is the man on the nose, the very foundation of Cincy’s defense.
Every snap starts with him.
“The minute I break, everybody’s going to break.”
So, it’s simple. He will not break.
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The scene inside the weight room is not what you’d expect. There’s no hardcore rap or metal blaring in his earbuds.
He’ll listen to music… sometimes.
D.J. Reader doesn’t need it.
“I can get serial-killer vibes,” Reader says. “I can work out without music.”
And the best way he can describe this, uh, “serial killer” vibe? Reader gets completely “lost” in the lift. Almost as if he’s meditating. That’s why Reader often doesn’t even use a spotter, at least not up to 300 pounds on that bench. When he’s bench-pressing, when that barbell descends to his chest, he loves knowing he has no other choice but to fire it back up. (Don’t try this at home, kids.)
No player on the field experiences more collisions than the nose tackle. Every single play is a sumo-style clash of humanity. For 40-plus snaps per game, Reader must drive the offensive line backward and this demands a rare amount of strength. Understanding why Reader is so central to Cincinnati’s climb back to the Super Bowl starts with understanding his unique approach to the weight room during game week. Ninety-nine percent of NFL players will tell you they taper off during the season. More so maintain what they’ve already built through the offseason. Not Reader. Detouring to low weights and high reps, he knows, would make him softer.
“I’m a firm believer that you’ve got to build that body armor to go to battle,” Reader says. “This is such a violent game we play. You have to protect yourself. You’re going to keep getting chinks in that armor. Over and over and over and eventually that armor’s going to fail you. So for me, I’m big on getting lifts in throughout the week. I’m pushing myself throughout the week.”
Reader pursues specific goals at specific lifts. The result? He only gets stronger as November flips to December and December flips to January. This is his seventh pro season. Reader has discovered a routine that works. Whereas many opponents are fading by this point on the calendar — hanging on for dear life at the massage table, taking pain injections to get by — Reader knows these hardcore weightlifting sessions are his edge.
Monday is lower body. Squats. Tuesday, he runs on a water treadmill and gets shoulder work in. Wednesday is an intense upper-body lift — he hits the bench and deadlifts hard — and he’ll also sneak some leg rehab in. “Make sure my quads are firing,” he says. Thursday is an off day. Then, it’s “Flex Friday.” All glamour muscles are sculpted: bi’s, tri’s, abs. He may do less reps in December than March but the weights never decrease. He’ll bench 365 four or five times and, if he’s feeling good, add more plates.
“I play in that world where I’m leaning up against 300-pound men all the time. Fighting with them. … I’ll get after it.”
During practice, he’s sincerely thankful for the scout team. He wants second- and third-stringers going full tilt right through the whistle because this further strengthens his armor. And this is also uncommon. Vets typically view such overzealous backups as annoying gnats.
When he’s watching film, Reader decodes exactly what types of blocks he’s going to encounter to gain an overall feel for a team’s run game. “Where things are going to hit,” he explains, “and where I fit in as a player when those things hit.” Such intel allows Reader to leverage his 6-foot-3, 335-pound frame to his advantage at the line of scrimmage. Get this mass moving the right direction and he’ll make running the ball an impossibility. It’s as true now as it was 50 years ago: Running the ball and stopping the run is required to win championships. Last season, five of the six Wild Card winners outrushed their opponents.
While not as hypnotic as Patrick Mahomes whistling no-look passes across his body or Justin Jefferson climbing an invisible stairway on fourth and 18, one play Reader made last week vs. the Ravens was equally mind-boggling. Watch as he somehow forces his way through a double-team to tackle a running back from his knees:
Or take this rep vs. Cole Strange. Goodness. The poor New England Patriots rookie likely felt like all of us as teens when Dad finally decides to take the wrestling match in the living room seriously. Reader shoves Strange to the side, locates Rhamondre Stevenson, stuffs him cold:
And, hey, here’s Reader handling two of the best offensive guards in football, Wyatt Teller and Joel Bitonio:
All of this is what allows Lou Anarumo to roll out lighter boxes. The Bengals defensive coordinator can get creative with coverages behind Reader because he knows Reader is fully capable of plugging both A gaps and/or penetrating. An extra DB gives him flexibility vs. these elite AFC quarterbacks. Wide receiver Tyler Boyd calls Reader “the controller” on defense because he’s the one player capable of controlling the entire run game. And if the Bengals stop the run, Boyd knows Cincy’s chances of winning skyrocket. Opposing quarterbacks start taking more chances and inevitably fall into Anarumo’s traps.
We talked to Boyd early in the 2021 season. He’s been the leader on offense steering Cincy out of the doldrums, a vet who lived five years of bungling before this turnaround, and he describes Reader as a player who’s had the same effect on defense.
“You can feel his presence,” Boyd says. “You can feel how he approaches the game and how hungry he is and how serious he takes it. He gets guys to see it and believe it and they just follow up.”
This game within the game is mostly ignored by fans, yet so often decides wins and losses. The greatest example of this, of course, is how Cincinnati’s magical run ended last season. If Aaron Donald does not trash Quinton Spain on fourth and 1 with 43 seconds left, the Bengals are champs.
Reader has loads of respect for a handful of offensive linemen and lists off their names here: Kansas City’s Creed Humphrey, Los Angeles’ Corey Linsley, Cleveland’s Teller and Bitonio, Dallas’ Zack Martin, Pittsburgh’s entire D-Line and one guard in Buffalo he’ll likely meet this posteason: Rodger Saffold. These two enjoyed a 12-round slugfest in the AFC divisional round last season when Saffold was blocking for Derrick Henry. (“I knew he was going to be ready every time they ran the ball,” Reader says. “He’s going to be ready to come see about me. I’ve got to see him.”) Reader emerged as the victor that day. Henry averaged only 3.1 yards per carry.
These are the 1-on-1 competitions he dreamt of as a kid. These bring him back to those long days at the mall arcade when Reader would first stop at the food court to get Chinese food and then play Galaga, Mario Kart, Buck Hunter, all the racing games and got uber-competitive in Air Hockey.
He loved becoming a character in video games and figuring out the plot as he goes. That’s how he treats his 45 snaps: like a “story mode.”
Says Reader: “There is nothing that gives me more satisfaction, besides being a father, than knowing I’m competing the best at my job. I’m out here working against other grown men to try to be the best. What I’m doing is working right now. And it’s good to be able to compete at that level over and over and over and over and over again. It means the world to me.”
The man in front of him must feel his presence every snap. Reader tells teammates before games that he’ll never back off the “scratch line.”
Which then dusts off unsavory memories from Reader’s childhood in Greensboro, N.C.
“Where I grew up, we’d be watching dog fights. I know it’s not the best thing ever,” Reader says. “But the one thing about a dog, he doesn’t want to fight if he’s not getting on that scratch line. If he doesn’t want to get up there and he doesn’t want to sniff that other dog and he doesn’t want to buck back and forth, then he doesn’t want to fight. That’s what I tell them. No matter what’s going on, we’ve got to get on that line. When you get up to that line, you’ve got to let that person across from you know that you’re going to be on that line all day. The minute you don’t show up, I know I’m winning.”
And… yeah. This is when we must repeat that absolutely nobody condones something as reprehensible as dog fighting. It’s obviously inhumane. And a felony in 50 states. All Reader is doing here is saying a quiet truth out loud. The sport’s most ruthless competitors did not grow up playing the oboe and attending summer church camp. Many players in the NFL have witnessed many things as kids that’d send a chill up our spines — and aren’t we all a product of our life experiences? Correlation does not imply causation but what’s not debatable is the violence of professional football.
Players know their quality of life could change any given play.
Within the lines, an abnormal temperament is required. There is no room for emotional sensitivity.
“You’ll get eaten alive,” Reader says. “If you don’t get on that f--king scratch line every play, then you’re putting yourself in harm’s way. I’m never going to do that. I’m going to put myself on that scratch line every play with my brothers and know, ‘Hey, he’s up on that line. He’s sniffing with me. He’s foaming at the mouth ready to go.’”
This is not the most politically correct way to describe one’s job as pro football player, but many kids in this pocket of North Carolina were subjected.
Life lessons are often learned from dark places.
“It’s not the best thing for you growing up around,” Reader says. “But it teaches you about what the world is. It’s going to eat you up. If you don’t get up there to fight? Unfortunately, it’s dogs. It’s a sad thing to see. But it’s what’s going on. When you go out in this world, there’s somebody bigger, badder, stronger, faster. If you stop showing up, they’re going to win. If you don’t push yourself and you don’t know that that’s the fight you’ve got going in, you’re preparing yourself to fail.”
This Bengals roster is full of players who draw fight from various sources. Boyd, from Clairton, Pa. Mike Hilton, from ex-Georgia coach Mark Richt. Eli Apple, from anyone who looks at him funny. Burrow, from a lifelong desire to be one of the greatest quarterbacks ever. And it shows. Cincinnati famously climbed out of a 21-3 hole to stun the Chiefs in the AFC Championship last year and this mentally tough ethos carried into 2022. A 0-2 start didn’t faze this team. Neither did losing its No. 1 wideout for five games. Down 17-0 to Tom Brady’s Buccaneers in Tampa this season, Cincinnati scored 34 unanswered points. (“Nobody had their hands up bitching,” Reader recalls. “Everybody said, ‘We’ve got to get on that line and make a play.’”) Reader even points to a skin-of-teeth win over the New England Patriots on Christmas Eve as a good sign. A 22-0 lead shrunk to 22-18, the Patriots drove all the way to their 5-yard line with 55 seconds left and Cincy forced a fumble.
Usually when momentum shifts this drastically, Reader explains, you lose.
“Nobody flinched,” he says.
The road back to the Super Bowl begins Sunday at 8:15 p.m. (EST) against the Baltimore Ravens.
A game that cannot arrive soon enough because the hatred is real.
Several Bengals players accused the Ravens of dirty tactics following the Week 18 regular-season finale. Reader was one such player telling The Athletic’s Jay Morrison, “I have respect for some guys over there, and I don’t for some.” He added: “There was some shit I don’t agree with.” Others offered a warning, from lineman Joseph Ossai (“We’ll see ’em next week. That’s all I’m saying.”) to cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt (“There was a lot of cheap shit going on. Just know that we owe them. Even though we won this shit, we owe them.”)
Another reason you’d prefer D.J. Reader suit up for your team.
He’ll get his chance at revenge very soon and Reader can always tell when an offensive lineman is losing his will to fight. All trash talk in the first half dies down. Frustration sets in. They start giving away their intentions before the snap because they’re too tired to disguise anything. The sport stripped to its essence.
“It’s mano a mano. Nobody can hide their cards,” Reader says. “You’ve got to know what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. That’s when it’s really man-on-man competition. It’s no longer, ‘you’ve got to out-athlete me.’ You’ve got to come see about it.”
Such nose tackles are not plucked from a tree. Reader is a 28-year-old who’s a product of so much else.
He lost his father. He saw his mother make so many sacrifices.
He became a father. He lost five loved ones this year.
And the sport never stopped.
Dad died at the age of 51. After battling rheumatoid arthritis for years, David Reader started dialysis and suffered from kidney failure three weeks in.
Son was only 19. It was the June before his junior year at Clemson. D.J. Reader knew this day could come. One week before he died, David even challenged D.J.. Told his son he trained him his entire life to make the world a better place.
Still, the moment struck like a bolt of lightning. D.J. didn’t have a morning workout until 7:30, but remembers linebacker Stephone Anthony saying he needed to talk around 5:20. When he walked out to the main room, D.J. saw a group of people standing in a circle, including the Tigers’ personnel director, Jeff Davis, whom his mother knew from Greensboro. When Davis delivered the news, Reader dropped to his knees.
His memories of that day then go black. He’s not sure what happened next. Only that two of his best friends from Greensboro drove the four hours to Clemson to pick him up, and he’ll never forget their kindness.
Reader played that 2014 season but “wasn’t right mentally.” The grief was so emotionally paralyzing that Reader sat out six games the following season.
Very early, he learned football is cruel this way.
“The guy across from you is not going to feel sorry for you that you lost your Dad,” Reader says. “Unfortunately, that’s the reality of the sport. There’s no paid time leave. There’s no leave of absence. You’re contractually binded in. There are things we go through in our life and throughout the week. We have to miss a day, be there with our family, come back. Life is going to go on. At a young age, I didn’t get it. I held it all in. I didn’t get that time to process it all and grieve. As I’ve gotten older, I learned how to deal with it by expressing my emotions instead of holding it in.
“That’s what messes you up as a kid. You hold those emotions in but it’s only human to let it out. That’s the only natural human response. To let it out.”
With nobody to lean on at Clemson, Reader held everything in. As much as coaches wanted to help, they could not. There was no time. There was always another gameplan to set. More plays to design.
“You’re so built up in college to be mentally tough and an alpha male that your mental doesn’t get a break from it,” Reader says. “So, you’re hardened. It turned me less empathetic for a long time.”
He cut off friends. Grew distant. It took Reader a very long time to regrow that empathy within. And the only way he did was by “letting it out” in counseling and making a concerted effort to be a more compassionate human being. He started reconnecting with his hometown friends, especially one whose father died when he was 14. They helped each other cope. Reader was drafted in the fifth round of the 2016 draft by the Houston Texans, earned a four-year, $53 million contract with Cincinnati, became the fulcrum of this defense and now embarks on a Super Bowl run.
His parents are forever part of him. David and Felicia home-schooled D.J. until sixth grade and both, he insists, taught him how to work. He remembers running around with a weight jacket on in little league to make weight, just as he remembers both parents forcing him take a full hour to finish all homework before any fun could be had.
One of Dad’s lessons rings to this day: “A man is only valued by how hard he works.”
Dad cast quite a presence himself. For a year and a half, rheumatoid arthritis confined David to a wheelchair. And yet, he still had a way to demand the respect of everyone around him. He remained the “head of the household,” D.J. says. Mom? That’s where he gets his toughness. There’s no complaining about injuries around Felicia. When Reader tore his quad five games into the 2020 season, he heard all about the double-compound fracture Mom suffered as a softball player at North Carolina A&T.
She didn’t even receive anesthesia. She witnessed her own surgery.
Full of love and compassion with a resolute work ethic, Felicia became D.J.’s world after Dad died. Each year, the two team up to give back to Greensboro. Kids today don’t need to see the same sights he did. Reader donates backpacks and food and memorabilia and serves as an inspiration.
Most importantly, he’s a father himself.
The arrival of “Rocky” changed everything. D.J. loves sending his 3-year-old a picture of his painted face before every game. They FaceTime afterward and right there on his arm is his son’s name tatted with a pair of boxing mitts. It’s no coincidence that Reader’s career has taken off since Rocky was born. His entire life suddenly made sense. During the quad rehab, father and son learned to walk at the same time. Reader regained his lost empathy while simultaneously becoming more intense than ever on the field.
His day job has meaning. He needs to go hard for his son, so his son also learns the value of hard work. Reader slammed an imaginary gas pedal when Rocky entered the world, and he hasn’t let up since.
Perspective helps during a time like this.
The trauma of Hamlin’s collapse. The stressful 48 hours that followed.
A realistic shot at a Super Bowl. Being the man in the middle everyone relies on.
Hearing Rocky’s voice alone will keep Reader centered even if he’ll never quite understand why he laughs so, so hard while watching some of these cartoons on Netflix that make zero sense. Oh, Rocky likes Spiderman and SpongeBob. But there’s one other show — Dad thinks it’s Russian — where no words are even spoken and his son laughs so unbelievably hard that you’d think Bernie Mac or Dave Chappelle was cracking jokes. Reader doesn’t get it, but Reader loves it. That infectious “Ha! Ha! Ha!” gets him through anything.
History is not on Cincinnati’s side. Only one team the last 27 years has returned to the Super Bowl after losing it. The player we championed as a hangover cure — cornerback Chidobe Awuzie — tore his ACL in Week 8. Yet, nothing about these Bengals aligns with history. They’re led by a swaggering quarterback who seems to have a cigar handy for every occasion. An embarrassment of riches at receiver. A defensive coordinator fully capable of confusing any QB. They lost to the Los Angeles Rams in numbing fashion, but the Bengals didn’t pretend like that game never happened. They owned it.
Boyd calls the loss “unforgettable.”
“It’ll always be in the back of your head,” Boyd adds, “no matter how good or bad you played. Because at the end of the day, we didn’t get that joyful celebration that we all hoped for.”
They’re three wins away from returning to that stage.
The NFL only moves one direction. When an aunt dies, that makes life stressful. But this reality is true for all opponents — and they’ll need to deal with the Bengals.
Specifically, that 335-pounder in the middle.
And that’s a miserable proposition.
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Thank you for finally talking about DJ Reader! He’s so under appreciated.
Great article Tyler. Another great d-lineman from Clemson. Thanks for pulling out what made these men, drives them and then distill to share with us is a gift.