How D.J. Reed became the most ‘dangerous’ corner in football
Too short. Too slow. Living with cockroaches. Tearing his labrum, his pec. The Seattle Seahawks cornerback has been counted out his entire football life. Now, he’s here to stay.
Back when D.J. Reed transferred to Cerritos College because he believed in himself when nobody else did, life was downright grimy in every way imaginable.
He didn’t have enough money to afford his own housing at this JUCO. So, he crammed into one house with eight other guys. Those who paid rent got the bunk beds. Everyone else slept in the living room.
The entire place — always — was a pigsty. Picture your off-campus housing situation once upon a time. Now, jam nine dudes in there who never clean up after themselves. That was Reed’s life in 2015. He couldn’t say a word because he was living here for free. But every morning, he could not wait to get out of there… and he always braced for that morning shower.
The one thing that should’ve been clean, the shower, was even “nasty.”
“Everything,” Reed assures, “was just nasty.”
There absolutely was a rock-bottom moment, too. Reed drops his head in exasperation, via Zoom, just thinking about it.
One day, Reed and his best friend, Elijah Walker, stopped at a 7-Eleven to get a large pizza for $5.99. With money extremely tight for both players fighting for their football lives in Norwalk, Calif., this was a steal. Both returned to their dump of a house, set the pizza on the table and walked into a separate room for all of five minutes.
Upon returning, the sight was not pretty.
“There were roaches,” Reed says, “all in the pizza.”
The two friends looked at each other in disbelief. They didn’t need to say a word. Their expressions screamed we’ve got to get out of here.
Five years later, there was Reed in Seattle dominating the San Francisco 49ers. In his No. 29, the 5-foot-9, 183-pound cornerback was all over the place. Blitzing. Swatting the ball away. Earning his first interception. At his own 13-yard line, on a third and 5, he stepped in front of tight end George Kittle to pick off a pass and then took that football to midfield for a game of hot potato with teammates.
Expect more plays exactly like this one in 2021, too.
He’ll be defying the odds in Seattle’s defense for a long time, which is remarkable when you consider the movement that the “Legion of Boom” started. This is the defense that made tall, long corners all the rage across every level of the sport. Richard Sherman became the gold standard with players of Reed’s stature dismissed on sight. Nobody really wanted Reed out of high school so he walked on to Fresno State where the coaches told him to his face that he wasn’t good enough. Off to JUCO he went. Off to live with the roaches. He clawed his way to Kansas State. He made it to the NFL. He tore his labrum, shredded his pec, was discarded by the 49ers and — right now — Reed is one of the best pound-for-pound players in the NFL.
He’s getting sweet revenge on anyone who ever doubted him.
And he’s only getting started because he’s changing the prototype. Reed is living proof that no team should ever judge a corner by his cover because, all along, people failed to understand that fire inside of Reed. He believed in himself when nobody else would. Now, one of the worst secondaries in the NFL enters this season as one of the best.
That feeling of desperation is still fueling Reed.
“What I’ve been through,” Reed says, “I don’t take anything for granted. I don’t take any game for granted. Every game to me is a Super Bowl.”
He didn’t know what he was fully capable of as a teenager growing up in Bakersfield, Calif.
He sure knows himself now.
“Once you know who you are? That’s dangerous,” Reed says “I know who I am. And when I got into the league, I didn’t know who I was. I was going this way, I was going this way, I was trying to figure it out. Now, I know who I am.
“I know what I stand for.”
“What are you going to do?”
This should’ve been a fairy-tale story that everyone associated with Fresno State football shares for years.
You can practically hear the Rudy flute playing as Reed starts at Chapter 1 of his journey.
Despite a banner high school career, no D-I schools wanted him. One FCS school, Cal-Poly, liked him but never offered a scholarship because his SAT score was so low. The only interest Reed really received was from Division III schools where he’d obviously need to pay his own way. So, Reed figured “Why not?” He hopped in a car with his brother to drive two hours to Fresno and hand-deliver his high school highlight film to the coaches.
They told him they’d call him if they wanted him as a walk-on.
He didn’t exactly hold his breath.
He miraculously got that call two weeks later.
And once practices began, Reed insists he locked down the team’s starting receivers in every drill — 1 on 1’s, 7 on 7’s, full scrimmages. Yet nothing mattered. He says “the politics of things” got in the way with Fresno State’s coaches favoring the players who were actually on scholarship. Fellow walk-on corner D’Angelo Ross, who was also 5 foot 9, was in the same boat. They kept making plays, kept standing out and kept being ignored.
It should be noted, too, that the corners starting ahead of both players never made it to the NFL.
Frustration boiled over when Reed met with head coach Tim DeRuyter and position coach Marcus Woodson for his spring evaluation, a meeting that’s critical for every player. Typically, you get a good sense for what your role the following season will be. Reed expected both coaches to see what he did as a redshirt and do everything they could to get him on scholarship, to get him on the field.
Instead, Reed was told everything that he cannot do.
“I remember it vividly,” Reed says. “My DB coach basically said, ‘You need to get faster. You need to get stronger. Your technique needs to improve. You’re short so you have to be better than everyone.’ Which I understood that. He was like, ‘Honestly, we don’t see you playing corner here. We see you contributing on special teams.’ That just rubbed me wrong. I was like, ‘OK. I’ve got to get out of here. Because if you don’t see me as a corner and I see myself playing corner, then obviously we’re seeing two different things. And this is coming off of my redshirt year when I was working my tail off.
“I was like, ‘I’m not going to work my tail off and not even play.’ That makes no sense.”
Reed adds that Fresno State knew how badly he also needed a scholarship financially.
Nonetheless, the coaches were blunt. They informed Reed that he wouldn’t be getting a scholarship until his senior year — and even that was no given. If he grinded away at special teams the whole time, maybe he’d get one. But, defense? Forget about it.
“Not trying to sound cocky or anything,” Reed says, “but I was like, ‘I’m not even a walk-on talent. I already knew what I was capable of.’”
Fresno State fully expected Reed to accept these terms because they assumed he had no other options.
Fresno State, however, did not realize one fact: Reed was a man with absolutely nothing to lose. He’s had multiple brothers in and out of jail. He was arrested himself at the age of 16 for fighting. At a party, a brawl broke out and he admits he lost his cool. When he returned to school, Reed can still remember teachers looking at him differently. Most everyone assumed D.J. was bound for a life behind bars. Just like his brothers.
Alleged friends all scattered away, as if Reed was toxic.
So, no, Reed wasn’t about to live cautiously. He believed in himself.
“I really wasn’t supposed to amount to anything,” Reed says. “All of my brothers were in jail. Nobody expected much out of me. My mindset has always been, ‘What do I have to lose?’ And I think, when you have someone with that mindset, they’re really dangerous. You’re really dangerous if you have nothing to lose. So I just give it everything I’ve got.”
With that word, via Zoom, Reed visibly releases his hands off his chest.
No, Reed would accept these terms.
After the spring evaluation, Reed called his Mom and first told her that he was done at Fresno. His plan was to find a junior college, dominate the competition and earn a D-I scholarship elsewhere. “I can’t be here anymore,” he told her. The next morning, he still wanted to work out. And in the weight room, he then informed the team’s strength coach Joey Boese (who’s now with the Bengals) of his master plan. These two always had a strong relationship.
Boese was upset, but could absolutely respect Reed’s self-belief.
Word eventually got back to his position coach, who then called Reed. Holding a pretend phone to his ear, Reed re-enacts that phone conversation right here.
Woodson: “Why are you leaving?”
Reed: “You all just gave me my spring evaluation. I see myself playing corner.”
Woodson: “What are you going to do? Are you going to go back home?”
Reed: “No, I’m going to go JUCO.”
Woodson: “If you go JUCO, would you be happy going to a D-II?”
Reed: “D-II? No, I’m going back to D-I.”
Woodson: “Alright. That doesn’t happen. That normally doesn’t happen.”
There was no need to say anything back.
This was music to his ears.
“I’m honestly fueled by people telling me what I can’t do,” Reed says. “That gives me more energy and more fuel to do what I want to do. When I’m tired, I think about that (conversation) and it takes me to a whole other level of dominance. It really motivates me. If I would’ve listened to him, I wouldn’t be in this situation obviously. I probably wouldn’t be in the NFL. I’d probably be working back home in Bakersfield.”
Reed didn’t think twice. He packed up his belongings and started anew at Cerritos CC.
On the brink
When D.J. Reed saw those roaches devouring his pizza, he was more so pissed off that he’d need to find a new dinner. The gross sight itself? The sight that’d make most of us puke on-demand? That wasn’t exactly abnormal inside this house.
Nine college kids packed together like sardines made for barely-civilized living conditions.
Reed estimates the house was somewhere between 500 and 600 square feet. There was no asking anyone to pick up the dirty clothes in that corner or the leftover plate of food on this table because Reed was living there for free. He was simply grateful to have a roof over his head, so he never complained about the piles of filth everywhere.
Each night, Reed either slept on the floor or the “horrible” futon.
Mom didn’t have the money to help with rent so, after talking to teammates, this was literally his only option.
“It was just humbling,” Reed says. “I was already hungry, but that really made me hungry. I told myself: ‘Once I get back to the D-I level, I am going to dominate.’ Simply, the reasons being, I’m going to be grateful. I’m going to be grateful with the meal plan. The food. I’ll feel grateful just for the opportunities to showcase my talents. So, ‘once I get to the D-I level, I’m going to dominate.’ I knew that was going to happen.”
He got off of social media completely.
He toted a gallon of water around campus every day.
He stretched each morning, each night.
He earned the necessary grades, crediting counselor Joyce Thigpen for helping him get his Associate in Arts (AA) degree in one year. Reed loaded up with six classes that semester to make it happen. Statistics was the worst. He absolutely remembers sweating that grade out. Everything else went smoothly. Reed majored in History and genuinely loved to learn everything he could about African-American history, European history, the Renaissance, Christianity, Martin Luther, Calvinism, etc.
He knew football would take care of itself.
Two goals stayed at the forefront of his mind — “stay healthy” and “make a great highlight film.” Reed knew he absolutely could not suffer a serious injury or his football career would be over just like that. Hence, all that stretching. And he knew he needed his explosion, his athleticism to shine. Returning kicks helped with this. So did one 74-yard interception returned for a TD. And just like that, Reed was able to transfer to Kansas State and really make his presence known immediately on a national stage.
One of the first things Reed noticed on his initial visit to Manhattan, Kan., was that most of the players were slim, not necessarily buff. Clearly, this entire team ran. A lot. So he made sure he was ready for Day 1 of conditioning.
A good thing, too. When players first arrive at Kansas State, they must run something called the “Shuttle.”
If your 40-yard dash time is, say, 4.3 seconds then you need to run the Shuttle in 43 seconds. Most all first-timers aren’t used to running like this and get downright embarrassed. Each player has to run it twice and that second attempt, Reed notes, can get ugly. Players usually end up walking. Players “look sloppy.” And he knocked his Shuttle out of the park. He couldn’t have made a better first impression.
“And then obviously when we got to practice,” he says, “I dominated. That was my goal.”
Reed believes the K-State coaches actually preferred one grad transfer from the Pac-12 but says he made it so obvious that he was the better player coaches had no choice but to start him. Size wasn’t a problem in the Big 12 — he took on 6-foot-2 receivers every Saturday and held his own. As a redshirt sophomore, Reed made the All-Big 12 team with 75 tackles, three picks, 16 pass break-ups and two forced fumbles.
One year later, he had four picks and nine break-ups.
He made damn sure this highlight reel absolutely popped for pro scouts.
His confidence grew. And grew. And he made Fresno State look ridiculous.
To his credit, DeRuyter would later admit in an interview that they made a mistake in not believing in Reed. Commendable, no doubt. And if it’s any consolation, DeRuyter wasn’t alone.
The first team to give Reed a shot in the NFL would give up, too.
Sure, the San Francisco 49ers made D.J. Reed the 142nd overall pick in the 2018 draft. Sure, the 49ers obviously liked Reed… but they liked him on their terms. Head coach Kyle Shanahan is known to have strict size requirements for positions.
Initially, Reed was deemed a safety.
Thinking back to his rookie year makes his head hurt. Reed went from “strapping up and guarding receivers” mano-a-mano to making calls for the whole secondary. One motion? He’s audibling the coverage. If it’s a 2-by-2 formation? He’s signaling a seam alert. If it’s a 3-by-1, he had to know which seam route he was covering. An empty formation? The play changes.
The league was still chasing the next Sherman then. Not a rookie who was five inches shorter.
Meanwhile, Reed faced a totally new obstacle: Injuries.
First, there was the torn labrum and partially torn rotator cuff suffered in Week 4 of his rookie year. Reed could’ve gotten surgery and shut it down but admits hitting his “player performance” pay motivated him to press on. That kid buying the $5.99 pizza wanted to earn every cent he could. Looking back, he wishes he would’ve been smarter. Looking back, he admits he was a shell of himself on the field with that wrecked shoulder.
“This is a business. This isn’t college,” Reed says. “In college, they tell you to play with anything unless you can’t run. Nah, this is the NFL. These dudes run 4.3’s. These dudes are explosive. You need to be healthy to be out there.”
The shoulder would kill him all week of practice, gameday arrived, and Reed would then down Toradol pills to numb the pain.
He remembers the 49ers passing out the NFL’s longtime drug of choice “like candy” to whoever wanted it that 2018 season. There were no protocols then like there is now. Of course, that Toradol would eventually wear off Sunday night — that’s when the shoulder throbbed the worst, when those three hours of collisions weren’t masked by a drug any longer. Then, it was back to square one to get ready for next week’s game. The pain was so bad at night that Reed struggled to get much sleep at all. He tossed. He turned. He winced. He kept on playing as the 49ers kept on losing through a 4-12 season
“I’m not going to lie,” Reed says. “I was ready for the season to be over.”
The next year, the 49ers reached the Super Bowl. He wasn’t much of a factor.
Into the 2020 season, another injury struck.
While bench-pressing last offseason, Reed tore his pectoral. He replays the brutal injury here. Pretending to hold a barbell, he jets one arm up… while leaving one arm in place. Just like that, he heard two distinctive pops. “Like a gun (loading),” he recalls. “Like a Chh-Chh.” If he didn’t have a spotter, all of the weight would’ve smashed on top of his face. Right then, he screamed out loud it hurt so bad. Yet, it wasn’t the pain that most upset him. Reed was pissed that he’d almost certainly have to miss the entire season.
This was right before training camp and a torn pec can be anywhere from a 6-month to a 12-month recovery.
Everyone heals differently.
“So,” Reed says, “it was more so mentally devastating.”
When Reed got the call to GM John Lynch’s office, he knew it meant the team was about to waive him. This wasn’t a shock. He even says there were no hard feelings, that Lynch told him the earliest he’d even be back was November and this was just something the 49ers had to do as a franchise to make room for that roster spot. Everyone from Lynch to Reed to Reed’s agent expected the corner to clear waivers and wind up stashed on San Francisco’s IR list.
Reed was resigned to the fact that he’d simply need to hit pause for one year.
Then, a funny thing happened.
The perception of the 5-foot-9 cornerback changed for good. By then, the NFL had woken up and realized shorter cornerbacks can blow up football games. By then, Jaire Alexander was arguably the best boundary corner in football at 5-10. Darious Williams, at 5-9, was ascending into a human highlight reel. Kenny Moore, who we profiled at Go Long here, was blossoming into one of the best defensive weapons in football… at 5-9. Lynch and Shanahan were dead wrong to treat Reed like damaged goods, to toss him to the curb like a McDonald’s wrapper.
The undersized corner isn’t a liability. It’s a weapon.
So when Reed became available, the Buffalo Bills, Houston Texans and Seattle Seahawks were all interested. By 12 p.m., the Seahawks claimed him. Off to a division rival Reed went.
GM John Schneider called Reed, told him he was a Seahawk and asked if he was happy.
“I was like, ‘Yeah,’ and I just told him ‘my head was spinning a little bit because you guys are a rivalry with the Niners and now you’re my team. It hasn’t really clicked in my head yet. I’m excited, though.’ He asked me if I wanted to play this year and I said I wanted to get back to play this year. He said, ‘OK. We see you contributing once you get healthy. Obviously, we want you to get healthy. We’re going to make the playoffs and hopefully you’ll be ready for the playoffs.’”
Right then, Reed’s whole mindset changed.
He locked into total “tunnel vision.”
He called his doctor immediately and then attacked his rehab. These 3 ½ months were the most focused Reed’s been in his entire life — he was determined to play ASAP. He still hasn’t touched a barbell since that fateful day in the weight room but knows, for certain, that the torn pec was a “blessing in disguise.” It led him right to one person who fully believed in him: Schneider. He cannot say enough about the Seahawks GM for thinking outside of the box and changing everything the franchise previously believed about corners.
Schneider also believed Reed could recover quickly. He was right.
By Week 8, Reed was ready to roll.
His first opponent? The Niners. Everything he battled through — Woodson, cockroaches, sleeping on a floor, all the Toradol — led to this moment.
Nothing was going to stop him from playing in this game. Absolutely nothing. His first practice back, Reed had an interception in 1 on 1’s. Through 11 on 11, he batted one ball away after another. Then, he strained his hamstring because of course.
When the trainer advised he sit out a week, Reed told him that was an impossibility. He told him to simply give him Toradol because it was simple — he was rehabbing like a manic “literally for this game.”
Three days before the game, his aunt then tragically died in a car accident.
All the more reason to take a deep breath, go back home and miss this game.
“But I thought about it and said, ‘A breakthrough has to be coming,’” Reed says. “Because all this crazy stuff is happening. That’s the devil trying to stop you from succeeding. I said, ‘You can go back home or make the excuse that I’m not going to play because of my hamstring.’ I said, ‘I’m going to go out there and play.’ And that’s what I did.”
Reed had his first career interception, in addition to six solo tackles and two pass break-ups in a 37-27 Seattle win.
He was all over the field.
“I just let it all out on gameday. They were probably like, ‘What the hell did he take?’ There was so much anger from the rehab. There was so much built inside and I just let it all out.”
That game, he says, set the tone for his entire season. He played the nickel position, left corner (when starter Shaquil Griffin went down) and right corner (when Tre Flowers and Quinton Dunbar were both sidelined). He returned punts. He proved to the Seahawks that he absolutely needs to stay on the field one way or another. His best performance might’ve been in a 20-15 win over the Washington Football Team. Matched up solo vs. 6-foot Terry McLaurin most of the game, the 5-foot-9 Reed was targeted. Often. All he did was pick off one pass and knock away three others — including one in the end zone.
He loves it when quarterbacks test him, when they see his stature and think it’ll be an easy jump ball.
And he loves it when anyone tries to get his face.
That game, he didn’t back down from 6-foot-6, 335-pound Morgan Moses.
“He's just a different style player,” head coach Pete Carroll said then, per the team website. “His feet are just lightning fast and his athleticism is just — he’s so sudden. He can make up for (it) — he has to stay out of situations where he gets pushed around or shoved around. He's 183 pounds, but he knows how to do it. I'm really fired up about his play. Everybody knows about the long-armed corners and all that stuff, that’s what I've always wanted, but way back in the day at NC State we had Perry Williams — you guys don’t remember him, he played for the Giants for a long time — he was beautiful, 6-2. Then we had Donnie LeGrande, he was about 5-7. Both those guys played back in the day. That’s where all of our corner play, the source of it, started. They come in different shapes and sizes.
“We just have to be open to it and not be stubborn that everybody has to be like this mold. It couldn’t be more obvious. Look at our quarterback."
Seattle isn’t stubborn anymore.
Carroll’s open mind paid off with the Seahawks defense completely turning its season around. The first half of the season, it was historically bad. The Seahawks were on pace to set the NFL record for most passing yards allowed by nearly 1,000 yards. The second half? They won six of their final seven games by holding offenses to 15 ppg. Reed believes the vets on this side of the ball saw how hard he was rehabbing. Guys like Bobby Wagner and KJ Wright saw him progress from barely being able to lift his arm to doing push-ups to throwing dumbbells around.
And that had a galvanizing effect internally.
Says Reed: “They saw how hungry I was and the guys responded to that. We weren’t having a good season up to that point. So, to see a guy hungry who’s willing to do anything to play, they gravitated towards me.”
He wasn’t alone. Jamal Adams’ 9.5 sacks were the most ever for a defensive back. He set a tone. Carlos Dunlap was acquired midseason and added needed bite up front. He’s now back on a two-year, $13.6 million deal. Maybe this isn’t the Boom reincarnated but the Seahawks absolutely have the talent on defense to go the distance.
Whereas quarterbacks outright avoided Sherman like the plague — Aaron Rodgers once refused to throw to his side of the field the entire game — they’ll likely keep testing Reed.
Reed is ready.
“I know I can strap No. 1 receivers game-in and game-out,” Reed says. “Just by the preparation I have. I’m not the most physically gifted but I watch tons of film and I take great care of my body. And I’m very confident once Sunday comes.”
He cups both hands around his eyes. That “tunnel vision” mentality from his pec rehab stuck for good. Now, he meditates and journals and eats healthy all of the time. During the season, he doesn’t eat any sweets even though he has a major, major sweet tooth. He doesn’t touch alcohol, either. Oh, he can rap. Reed has a song called “Changed Man” that you may hear soon. It took him a good three days to write the lyrics. But any budding rap career is on hold, too.
It’s go time now.
“I don’t care about external voices,” he says. “It’s all internal. … I have that mindset even though I’m healthy — which is really scary.”
He knows 2021 will be unlike anything yet.
A team believes in him. He’ll be on the field.
Truly, that’s all he ever needed.
“With that opportunity right there,” Reed says. “I’m going to make the most of it. … It’s probably going to be the most exciting season of my life.”