When the Falcons drafted me in 2014, one of the first things I did was buy a watch. Nothing fancy. I’m not really much of a watch guy. I just went to Wal-Mart and bought the cheapest, most basic black-rubber-wristband watch I could find, and I wore it to lunch every day during training camp. As soon as I’d walk into the cafeteria, I’d set the timer on the watch to eight minutes, and then let the countdown begin.
I didn’t do it to help me rush through lunch. I’m a fast eater. The reason I gave myself eight minutes to eat was because … I was a fifth-round pick, man. Fighting every day for a roster spot. I knew that eight minutes gave me enough time to not only throw down my food, but also to use the rest of the lunch period to go back to the weight room or the practice field and get some extra work in while the rest of the guys were still eating.
I didn’t always hit the eight-minute mark. But if I finished in under 10 or 12 minutes, I was good with that. Some things are just out of your control, you know? Like the lunch line is too long or doesn’t move fast enough. Because vets always eat first.
Rooks go to the back of the line.
My story is the classic one about a kid who got overlooked. In high school, I didn’t receive any scholarship offers until late in my senior year. In the draft, 17 other cornerbacks were taken ahead of me, even though I had better stats than a lot of them. Even in training camp my rookie year, when I was being really aggressive and making big plays in practice, it didn’t translate into reps in preseason games. I wasn’t getting on the field until the end of the fourth quarter — which, let’s be real, is when guys who probably won’t make the team get to play.
It’s funny. When guys get cut, it usually doesn’t come as a surprise. You have a pretty good idea of where you stand with your team. You might be in denial of where you stand, but deep down, you know.
In training camp, we had these dorms where four guys bunked together, but each guy had his own bedroom and there was a common area in the middle. I remember one night I went back to my room early while the other guys were hanging out. I laid down on my bed, pulled out my phone and started googling the Falcons’ recent draft picks. Specifically, I was curious about the fifth-rounders. I wanted to see if they had a history of making the team.
Turns out, Atlanta’s fifth-rounders usually did make the team. Even some sixth- and seventh-rounders had made it in recent years. Now, that didn’t really make me feel much better, but … it was something, at least. Something to fuel my denial of where, deep down, I knew I stood.
Something to give me some hope.
This brings me to the part of my story that some of you might already know.
Because it happened on national television.
It was August 30, 2014. Final cut day. And that whole day, man … that whole day was hell. I mean, waiting for the phone to ring can be stressful. But waiting for the phone not to ring — just hoping against hope that nothing will happen at all? That’s somehow even worse.
I remember my girlfriend at the time, Grace — who’s now my wife — we were walking around the house in that last hour before the deadline, just trying to keep our minds occupied. She was doing the dishes and cleaning up the apartment, and I was going in and out of the backyard. I would go out and do some footwork drills — I had spray-painted one of those agility ladders on the grass — come back inside and check the time, and then go back out and do some more drills. And every time I walked past Grace, it was like, “One hour left.”
You might be in denial of where you stand, but deep down, you know.
There were about 10 minutes left before the deadline when I came back inside and the phone rang.
“Coach Smith needs to see you in his office.”
We both knew what that meant.
“Bring your playbook.”
We both knew what that meant, too.
The Falcons were on Hard Knocks that year, and if you’ve seen that show, you know that there are always those scenes in the head coach’s office where guys get cut.
I was one of those guys.
After it happened, I didn’t really think about the fact that I had just been cut on national television. It’s good entertainment, I guess. I mean, how often do you get to see somebody get fired?
And honestly, I wasn’t even that upset about being cut. I was disappointed, of course. But I knew where I stood. I knew that I hadn’t really played up to my ability. I had made some big plays early in camp because I was being extra aggressive. But when that didn’t translate to reps in preseason games, I switched up my approach. I thought, Maybe they’re not looking for me to be so aggressive? So I started playing the receivers instead of the ball. I started playing it safe.
I started playing scared.
Looking back, that was a mistake. I should have stayed true to myself and kept playing my game. Changing my approach hurt me a lot. I had nobody to blame but myself.
The silver lining was that the Falcons signed me to their practice squad. Which was, at least, an opportunity.
Now, playing on the practice squad is not the NFL dream. You basically put in the same work as the guys on the active roster — maybe even more because you’ll be playing defense one minute and offense the next. Whatever they need. So you suit up every day and go to work, just like everybody else.
But then on Sunday, you stay home.
Watching on Sundays was probably the hardest part. There was a restaurant near my apartment in Atlanta where I used to watch Falcons games on Sundays. And if you know me, I’m a little bit of a talker. I like talking to different people and just conversating. So I’d be talking to some random person at the restaurant, and they would ask me what I do. I’d tell them, “Well, I play for the Falcons.”
Then they’d look at me, kind of confused … then they’d look up at the TV … then back at me.
I definitely got some weird looks. These people probably thought I was full of it. But it’s tough to explain, you know? And when you go into a long explanation about how this happened, and that happened, and you’re like, “See, I’m kind of on the team, but not really.”
It just looks even more like you’re making it up.
And you start to think, Man, maybe I’m really not on the team….
So after a while, I just stopped answering the question.
I spent 14 weeks on the practice squad before the Ravens called. One of their corners had gone down with an injury, and they wanted to sign me.
At the time, I didn’t know how that whole process worked. Basically, if another team offers to sign you from your team’s practice squad, your team has the option to either let you walk or promote you to the active roster. If they activate you, then you still have a choice of which team to sign with.
When the Ravens called, the Falcons activated me. So I had to decide if I wanted to stay in Atlanta or take a chance on going to Baltimore.
Grace was ready to move to Maryland. She was like, “Let’s go! Let’s roll!” I mean, she just wanted me to have an opportunity, and if that meant packing up and leaving Atlanta, she was ready.
And I kind of was, too, you know? It was like … here’s this team that’s basically told me for 14 straight weeks that I’m not even good enough to suit up on Sundays, and then here’s this other team saying they want me right now. Part of me definitely wanted to go to Baltimore and prove to the Falcons that I could play — to show them they had made a mistake.
But my agent at the time, Eugene Parker — he had been around for a long time. He knew the league and how it worked. And he never sugarcoated anything. He told me straight up that the right thing to do was to stay with the team that had drafted me. The team that had invested its time and money to develop me. To finish what I had started. He told me that if I wanted to prove to the Falcons that I could play, the best way for me to do that was in a Falcons uniform.
So I stayed.
And then, that off-season, the Falcons fired their whole coaching staff and brought in Dan Quinn, who had been running the defense in Seattle, to be head coach.
My first thought was, Man, I stayed here for this? To basically start over anyway?
If I wanted to prove to the Falcons that I could play, the best way for me to do that was in a Falcons uniform.
And that was before I started looking at Coach Quinn’s secondaries in Seattle. All his corners — guys like Richard Sherman, Byron Maxwell and Jeremy Lane — were six feet or taller. Coach Quinn loves tall corners.
So I’m over here, barely scraping 5′ 9″, thinking, This is not gonna be a good fit at all.
Coach Quinn and our defensive coordinator, Marquand Manuel, wanted to play me at nickel corner — which was fine with me — but they also told me that I didn’t fit the profile of what they were looking for. So I asked them if I could try playing free safety. I knew Earl Thomas had thrived in Coach Quinn’s system in Seattle, and he’s not much bigger than me. Maybe I could thrive, too.
Since I hadn’t been active for more than three games in 2014, I was eligible to go to rookie camp in the off-season. The coaches told me that they needed me to play nickel corner at rookie camp, but they agreed to let me try playing free safety.
But when I got to camp, I didn’t play anything but free safety. After the first couple of days, I went to the coaches and was like, “Hey, are you gonna give me any reps at nickel?”
They said, “Nope. We’re gonna keep testing you at free safety.”
I was terrible at safety. I had never played it before, so it was all brand new to me. But over time, I started to understand the position and really embrace the fact that I was the quarterback in the secondary. I liked that responsibility. And after a while, I started to get real comfortable. I started to feel at home back there.
To that point, I had practiced mostly with the threes and fours, or been on the practice squad. But all of a sudden, I was practicing with the first team. I had moved up the depth chart just by changing positions.
I started 14 games in 2015 and had three interceptions. I started all 16 games in 2016 and had two picks in the regular season and two in the playoffs, and I started at free safety in the Super Bowl.
All from the practice squad.
I kept on my same grind the whole time, too. Eight-minute lunches didn’t stop just because I became a starter and was playing well. I wasn’t going to change what was working.
It’s funny because, like I said, you always kind of know where you stand with a team, especially when you’re on the bubble. But when things start to go well … like, when you’re on the team and working your way up and earning people’s respect — you know, when you’re making it — you don’t even think about your status. I don’t know if it’s because that fear of getting cut isn’t there, or because you’re just so focused on the work, but you just kind of … keep grinding.
But you do have these moments along the way where you can step back and see how far you’ve come.
My first interception was one of those moments. The Super Bowl was definitely one.
But I think the biggest moment came this past off-season.
So, one thing about me is that — and this is a little weird because it’s not something I really talk about or brag about — I try to take care of the young guys on the team as much as I can. And I guess that’s just because … I’ve been there. I’ve been the young guy. I’ve been cut. I’ve been the practice-squad guy. I’m not trying to be boastful about it — I just really like working with the younger guys, and my teammates in general, and encouraging other players.
Coach Quinn and I have grown pretty close over the last three years, and he knows this about me. One day during training camp, I walked into a team meeting — into the big auditorium with the whole team there — and as I was crossing the stage toward my seat, Coach Quinn stopped me. I didn’t know what was going on. He just told me to stop. And then he came up and stood next to me on the stage and addressed the whole team.
He said, “If this guy right here has helped you on your journey — motivated you, helped you train, anything at all — I want you stand up.”
And I’m not even kidding … like 75% of the room stood up.
Fifty-three guys plus a handful of coaches, and most of them stood up.
I know what it’s like to grind through the tough parts of the job, the things that nobody ever talks about.
Remember what I said about those moments you have — when you can really step back and see the things you’ve done and what they mean?
This was one of those moments.
I looked around the room. Practice-squad guys were standing up. Julio. Sanu. Matt Ryan and Matt Schaub. Devonta Freeman.
And I’m just standing there, kind of taking it all in, trying to appreciate the moment, when Coach Quinn puts his arm around me and says to the team, “We just extended him for another three years!”
My agent, Drew Rosenhaus (sadly, Eugene Parker had passed away in 2016), had been negotiating an extension for me with the Falcons. But before camp he and I had agreed that he would worry about the extension and I would worry about playing football. I didn’t know anything about how the negotiations were going.
That’s how I found out — on that stage, in front of the entire team.
The whole room went crazy, man. It got so loud. Everybody was cheering and clapping and showing love. Coming down to me and telling me how much I deserved it.
Three years, $19.5 million, for the guy who had been cut on national TV.
I’m telling you … those moments.
Sometimes they don’t even feel real.
I’m just so grateful to the Falcons organization for giving me the opportunity to show them what I can truly do, and for helping me to take care of my family. And to Coach Quinn and the staff for believing in me. And to my teammates for all their love and support — it really is a brotherhood here. And to Grace for standing by me through everything and being my workout partner and my life partner and everything I could ever need.
I’ll fight for every one of you guys any day and every day.
So that’s my story, man.
But I’m not done writing it. I’m still going. I got my contract, now I gotta go out there and earn it. Prove that I’m worth it. Even though I’ve come a long way from my days on the practice squad, I’m still hungry. I want to finish what we started with that Super Bowl run in 2016. I want to continue to get better every day. And along the way, I want to keep teaching and helping the young guys. Because I know exactly what it’s like to be on the bubble.
I know what it’s like to grind through the tough parts of the job, the things that nobody ever talks about.
I know what it’s like to be trapped on the practice squad, thinking about what you’re gonna do if you get a call to bring your playbook to the coach’s office.
That’s why I love working with the young guys. There’s a lot of me in them. And honestly, after all I’ve been through, the best advice I can give to them is … keep working. Keep believing in yourself and in your game. Don’t do what I did and switch your game up and try to be somebody you’re not. You’ve made it this far for a reason. Trust what got you here.
Just remember that you have a lot of work to do.
So eight minutes for lunch is more than enough.