The practice field was crowded when Jordan Reed walked toward an unoccupied field, heading there with Washington Redskins tight ends coach Sean McVay. The team’s Wednesday practice was ending, but the rookie wanted extra work.
Reed, Washington’s third-round draft pick this year, lined up at McVay’s right, then his left, then in a three-point stance. On and on they went, same as most days, with Reed’s teammates heading toward the locker room until finally no one else was left.
“It gives me confidence,” Reed said later of the additional repetitions, which few see but this 23-year-old believes are necessary. “When I do a little extra, I feel like I deserve to play well. And that’s my mind-set going into the game. I know I didn’t cheat myself.”
Last Sunday, Reed had a breakout game: nine catches, 134 yards and a touchdown in Washington’s win against the Chicago Bears. According to Reed’s philosophy, games like this don’t happen if he relies only on physical gifts such as his 6-foot-3, 225-pound frame and reliable hands.
On this day, the field was quiet as some of McVay’s passes hit Reed in stride, but many sailed high or wide, forcing the rookie to adjust. Which was part of the point: not only dealing with the unexpected but learning to thrive in it.
Few things have come easy for Reed, and beyond his size and ability, the reason he’s here — and has elicited early comparisons to some of the game’s best tight ends — is because he likes to see a job finished. Actually, it’s more than that.
“He wants to perfect it,” said his mother, Karen Reed.
Eighteen months ago, Reed considered quitting football, a secret he kept even from those closest to him. Years of frustration had boiled over, and with lingering injuries, his future at the University of Florida looked bleak.
Then he remembered something: No reward worth having comes easy.
She could hear the sound, metal on hide and cork, at 6 a.m. Young Jordan was outside again, a baseball training contraption wrapped around a light fixture at their central Connecticut home, and her younger son was swinging again and again.
“Every morning: ‘Click, click, click,’ ” Karen Reed would recall.
Jordan followed his routine no matter the hour, no matter that his mother had worked a double shift the night before. This was their deal: If Karen’s daughter and two sons had, in her absence, completed their chores — homework, tidying the kitchen and tending the yard — she wouldn’t protest if another night’s rest was interrupted by the ping of a baseball bat.
In those days, Karen preferred her son avoid the roughness of football anyway, and besides, she believed Jordan had inherited a familiar gene for work ethic. Karen’s father had worked for a railroad company, retiring with a plaque for never missing a day, and Karen at the time was approaching two decades in the same job. Extra hours were sometimes necessary for a single mother to pay the bills, especially when sports are involved, and comfort and success don’t always form a capable marriage. (Reed’s father, who is remarried, remained in contact with his sons during their upbringing.)
“She had us living good,” Reed said much later, “and her hard work paid off. I always saw that.”
So Karen listened to Jordan take his cuts — click, click, click — until one day they stopped. He had broken the metal anchor. Not long after, he met Jack Cochran, who coached football at New London (Conn.) High, where Jordan’s brother, David, was a wide receiver. Cochran noticed Jordan’s height, unusual for an eighth grader, and put a football in his hands. It was a gift, and Cochran told him there are many footballs in the world but this one belonged to him. Maybe someday he would be Cochran’s quarterback.
The quiet kid carried that ball with him to the dinner table, Karen said, tucking it under his arm as he lay in bed, and tossing with David, who would go on to become a wide receiver in college and now the NFL with the Indianapolis Colts. On the field, Jordan blossomed into the quarterback Cochran had envisioned, leading the Whalers to Connecticut’s state championship game two times in four seasons.
As he would after reaching the game’s highest level, Jordan often stayed long after practice ended, Cochran said, working to eliminate small mistakes. Once, Cochran said, Jordan tried a short pass to the flat during practice, missing it four times. Jordan asked Cochran’s son, the backup quarterback, to work with him, and Jordan threw it, again and again, until he perfected it.
“Never missed that pass again,” said Cochran, adding that Reed was soft-spoken but that his dedication made him a leader.
When Jordan finally made it home and completed his chores, he would turn on the TV. He would recall later that he watched the movie “Friday Night Lights” every night, and just before falling asleep, he would picture himself as a college quarterback, running through the tunnel and leading his team onto the field.
Reed sat in his dorm room in 2012, he said, and made up his mind. The game he had loved so much hadn’t loved him in return. His first three seasons at Florida had been unmemorable, injuries following him, and his goal of playing quarterback for the Gators was buried on the depth chart behind Tim Tebow and Cam Newton for a while, then John Brantley.
After experimenting with other positions during his first two seasons, he told Charlie Weis, the Gators’ offensive coordinator in 2011, that he preferred to move to tight end permanently. Reed had been lost in Urban Meyer’s spread option offense; in new coach Will Muschamp’s pro-style attack, Reed had decided he would be most useful as a tight end. Weis said later he didn’t expect such a declaration from Reed.
“One of the most interesting conversations I’ve ever had with a player,” said Weis, now the coach at Kansas. “I looked at him and said: ‘Excuse me?’ ”
A year later, shoulder and knee injuries still a concern, only one change made sense to Reed: He was going home, finished with football. He left a spring practice, certain this would be his last one in pads.
“I thought my body was going to stay hurting like that,” he would recall, “and it wasn’t going to get better and I had no future. And I felt like I was putting all this hard work in and nothing was coming from it.”
Reed, whose plan was to find a job in Connecticut to help support his mother, said he kept his secret from most everyone. He hid it from his brother, his former coaches and his mother. More than a year later, Karen struggles to process the suggestion that her son had considered giving up football.
“There were a lot of ups and downs, very frustrating,” she said. “I did not — never. I never knew that.”
Reed kept thinking about it, though, and he wondered how he would look anyone in the eye and tell them that, just became the circumstances were imperfect, he had given up.
“I thought about everything that I’ve done,” he said, “and how hard I’ve worked and how far I made it at that point. And I said: ‘I’m just going to keep going.’ ”
After a recent practice, part of his workday finished but more still ahead, Reed stood in a walkway and chewed on his mouthpiece. The lowest times remain fresh in his mind, and now they offer perspective.
“Whenever times get hard now,” he said, “I just think back to that time and know that I got through it. It’s not as hard as back then, so why can’t I get through this?”
After Reed decided to push through frustration at Florida, he became quarterback Jeff Driskel’s favorite target in 2012, leading Florida with 45 catches and 559 receiving yards.
“He’s a rare athlete. He’s not good. He’s rare,” Weis said. “He’s a Tony Gonzalez-rare, as far as an athlete goes.”
Reed left Gainesville after his redshirt junior season, and Washington selected him in the third round of this year’s NFL draft. He became a value pick because of injuries and limited snaps at his position, and there were a few whispers of a sour attitude — though Weis said he never experienced that from the soft-spoken, contemplative player.
“Sometimes quiet kids come across as aloof,” Weis said. “Too many times college kids can be mislabeled or misconstrued as this or that.”
Reed said that rather than talk about what might be ahead, he prefers to listen. To tight ends coach McVay, who follows his youngest student with tips; to Cochran, who still texts Reed and whose football, a gift to Reed years ago, remains with him in Virginia, Karen said; and to Fred Davis, the veteran tight end whom Reed is expected to replace, perhaps sooner than expected.
“He helps me out no matter what,” Reed said of his relationship with the 27-year-old Davis. “I ask him anything.”
But Reed said no one has influenced him like his mother, who years ago taught him that few things worthwhile are given away. When they’re earned, the payoffs are sometimes big.
Karen attended Washington’s Sept. 22 home game at FedEx Field, Reed’s third game as a pro. She watched from the stands, she said, and the crowd saw him catch five passes for 50 yards. But Karen said she saw a son who had waited long enough for his chance and wouldn’t take it for granted. And when she saw him afterward, he walked toward her with a smile.
“It was like: He’s finally been given his turn,” she said.