Although just 22 years old, Bacarri Rambo has seen his fair share of trials — some beyond his control, others caused by his own misdeeds. So it was almost fitting when his NFL draft experience didn’t go according to plan.
Rambo, an all-American free safety and the University of Georgia’s co-leader in career interceptions, expected to be selected early in the draft. But his phone didn’t ring during the first two nights of the event held last month in New York.
After seeing three safeties selected on the first night, he stopped watching. On the second night, another six safeties — some with less impressive résumés than his — came off the board. Rambo became resigned to the fact he might not get drafted.
His phone rang on Day 3 of the draft, but it was a team calling to gauge his interest in signing as an undrafted free agent later that night.
“I was like, ‘I know I’ve got way better talent than to be an undrafted free agent,’ ” Rambo recalled. “Just seeing those guys go in front of me and knowing in my mind that they weren’t better than me, it kind of had me down. So I just put it in God’s hands.”
One hundred and ninety players — 17 of them safeties — came off the board before Rambo’s phone rang — waking him from a nap — and Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan informed him that Washington had taken him in the sixth round.
Rambo acknowledged that two drug-related suspensions in college likely caused him to drop. But he didn’t fret over it.
“I can’t go back and change anything,” he told himself. “God works in mysterious ways.”
“He was very positive about it,” said Rambo’s best friend, Jarvis Jones, a pass rusher taken 17th overall by the Steelers. “He looked at it as just another test for him.”
Rambo grew up in Donalsonville, Ga., a small town where, as he put it, “everything was a struggle. You had to work for everything — not people giving me stuff.”
Athleticism came naturally for Rambo, however, and he starred as a quarterback at Seminole County High School, earning Class A all-state honorable mention as a senior.
“He was electrifying in high school,” said former Redskins defensive end Phillip Daniels, who married Rambo’s cousin and hosted a teenage Rambo for a summer in Chicago. “He could pass, run, did it all. . . . He was something.”
Rambo got to Georgia, and its coaches immediately put him at safety. Another test.
He understood some coverages, having read them as a passer, but he hadn’t played a lot of defense. He had to adjust quickly to reading quarterbacks and receivers, as well as tackling. But by Rambo’s third season on defense, things began to click.
“Things happened a little quicker. He was putting himself in better positions. He started making big plays,” said Scott Lakatos, Georgia’s secondary coach.
Things didn’t proceed without a hitch that 2011 season, though.
Georgia suspended Rambo for the season opener after police stopped him for speeding and found a joint in a passenger’s purse.
Rambo recorded interceptions in each of his first two games upon returning. Then he got hit with one of the toughest tests of his life.
Three days before the Bulldogs’ meeting with Mississippi, Rambo received word that his longtime girlfriend, LaTori Williams, pregnant with a son, had been rushed to the hospital. The infant was delivered stillborn, 10 days before his due date.
“It was real hard going through that,” said Rambo, who keeps his guard up and rarely shows emotion. “I prayed a lot. . . . I learned that you’re going to have adversity and life’s going to throw knives at you every day. It just depends how you catch them. So I just grew from it.”
Rambo initially planned to skip the Ole Miss game. But he changed his mind out of appreciation for the support his teammates had shown him.
“We knew he had a lot on his mind, and it was a big decision for him,” Jones said. “We tried to put him on our back. It was devastating. I still don’t know how he did it. I know it was tough on him.”
Rambo recorded two interceptions, three pass breakups and four tackles in the game. Further motivated to play in honor of his son, he continued his strong season, finishing with eight interceptions — second most in the country that season — and 55 tackles. He was named a first-team all-American.
But more off-field trouble ensued the following spring.
Rambo failed a drug test and received a four-game suspension that would be served at the start of his senior season.
Rambo called the incident a “selfish decision.” The consequences proved life-changing, he said.
“I became more mature, put my priorities right,” Rambo said. “I felt like I had to put more time into believing in God and praying to the Lord because I felt like after the 2011 season I was invincible. But that just brought me down to earth and made me more humble.”
Said Jones, “It made him realize what a great opportunity he had and how close he was to losing it.”
Rambo spent time with Lakatos and his family at his home, and the coach observed genuine remorse in Rambo — as well as a determination to change.
“As a coach, I tried to help him stay focused and concentrate on what matters, and I could tell he matured. It built his character,” Lakatos said. “I know that’s what happened. You could see it in the way he showed up for meetings and did all the things we asked.”
Rambo returned to action and in 10 games recorded three interceptions and 73 tackles. His 16 career interceptions tied the school record set by Jake Scott in 1969. He concluded his career with a sense of accomplishment both for how he had developed as a person and for what he had achieved on the field.
“I came back with my degree [in consumer economics], which was one of my main goals, all-American, tied for most interceptions in the school. It was just a great feeling,” Rambo said. “. . . It was just a great accomplishment, and it’ll go a long way. If that building gets torn down tomorrow or anything, my name is still going to be up in there. When they build a new building, my name will still be there, and I feel like I left my legacy, and that’s a great feeling.”
Now Rambo must start all over again. He believes, however, that he landed in the perfect spot. Because former Redskins defensive assistant Kirk Olivadotti brought some of Washington’s schemes with him to Georgia, Rambo believes he has a head start. And he considers himself blessed to have landed with a team with glaring needs at safety.
“Everything’s working out in the best way it can,” said Rambo, who signed his rookie contract May 13. “I already know the scheme because we ran it at Georgia, and it’s basically the same thing. I just feel like I have a good relationship with [secondary] Coach [Raheem] Morris and [assistant Richard] Hightower and that I can relate well to them and I can learn from them.”
Although he’s physically gifted and possesses good ball instincts and communication skills, according to those familiar with his game, Rambo has much to prove as he works to earn playing time. He must improve his tackling skills, become more disciplined in coverages against more talented quarterbacks and receivers and understand not only the free safety position but strong safety as well.
Daniels believes Rambo can handle the transition to the NFL.
“He can be that free safety that can cover back there and come downhill and hit guys,” Daniels said. “He probably needs to get more physical — although with the way the NFL’s rules are changing, he might be fine. But the opportunity’s there. He just needs to get in there and be willing to work harder than everybody else.
“Off-field wise, he’ll be fine. I told him, ‘Off-field stuff is going to follow you, and the only way to put it behind you is to do all the right things.’ He’s just got to surround himself with good people. He can do it.”
Accustomed to having to work through challenges, Rambo remains undaunted.
“He knows he can be a great player in the NFL,” Jones said. “I know every time he takes the field, he thinks about his past trials and accepts them as a challenge.”