More than two years into his bid to leap from Division II obscurity to the NFL, Craig Reynolds refused to give up hope. The versatile running back from Kutztown University stubbornly clung to the belief that he just needed a chance to prove himself.
Three times during the 2019 and 2020 seasons, NFL teams briefly scooped up Reynolds before tossing him aside without any meaningful playing time. Reynolds ran the ball once and caught a single pass during stints with Washington, Atlanta and Jacksonville.
A less-driven player might have eased his foot off the gas pedal after being released three times and going unsigned from March until August. Reynolds instead prepared more relentlessly than ever during those five months, working out or studying game film as often as three times a day without any assurance that an NFL team would call.
“All I could do was stay ready and control what I could control,” Reynolds, 25, told Yahoo Sports. “If my career ended without having a real opportunity, at least I’d be able to walk away from the game knowing that I gave everything I had.”
Staying mentally and physically sharp helped Reynolds capitalize when that life-altering phone call finally did come. In mid-August, as Reynolds was driving home from a workout, his agent told him to pack a bag and head to the airport. The Detroit Lions were short on healthy running backs and had invited Reynolds for a tryout.
In only a few weeks of training camp, Reynolds proved he was more than an expendable camp body and earned a place on the Lions’ practice squad. Then, after injuries and COVID-19 sidelined D’Andre Swift and Jamaal Williams, Detroit suddenly had available playing time and Reynolds took advantage.
The running back who finished high school with no Division I scholarships has rushed for 195 yards over Detroit’s past two games. The running back who heard for years that he was a better defensive back leads the NFL during the last two weeks with 171 yards after contact. The running back who interviewed for insurance jobs after college now has a new contract and a spot on Detroit’s 53-man roster.
It’s a feel-good story that those close to Reynolds attribute to his work ethic and belief in himself.
“He always wanted to be ready for any opportunity he got because he knew those were limited,” said Marcel Quarterman, Reynolds’ collegiate running backs coach at Kutztown. “When he did get another chance, he was going to have to be the best version of himself and not let any opportunity slip by.”
Doubted but not out
Craig Reynolds’ unlikely journey to the NFL began with frequent visits to the Philadelphia-area high school where his father coached. At first, the younger Reynolds would tag along with his dad to practices or games. By age 8, he also began sitting in on Sunday film sessions.
One day, as the coaches were dissecting the previous game and preparing for an upcoming matchup, Craig disappeared without warning. When the meeting dispersed, he handed his dad a stack of hand-drawn plays and said, “Here, take a look at this.”
“He’d started making his own playbook based on what we’d been talking about that day,” Eric Reynolds recalled. “That’s when I realized he was absorbing more during those meetings than I’d first thought.”
While Craig displayed football intelligence that belied his youth as he began his playing career, his physique did not mature nearly as quickly. He didn’t start for his middle school team, nor did he make varsity his first two years at Abington High School. Standing roughly 5-foot-6, 140 pounds as a high school freshman, he resembled a future accountant more than a future NFL prospect.
Craig’s slight stature contributed to coaches initially pigeonholing him as a defensive back despite his family’s history of success carrying the football. His dad piled up more than 2,300 rushing yards at Delaware Valley University in the early 1980s. His older brother also excelled at running back, accepting a scholarship offer from Boston College as a high school senior before off-the-field issues derailed a promising career.
When Abington coach Tim Sorber told Craig that he needed to get bigger and stronger to earn the chance to play running back, the teen accepted the challenge. He overhauled his diet and dedicated himself to a rigorous strength and conditioning program, bulking up to a sturdy 195 pounds by his senior year.
Craig debuted at running back as a junior, displaying occasional flashes of the patience, vision and balance that remain his trademarks today. He followed that with an exceptional 2,108-yard, 30-touchdown senior season, carrying Abington deep into the playoffs after the team lost its starting quarterback to a mid-year injury.
But even as Craig put his high school team on his back, college coaches remained skeptical he could do the same at the next level. Many coaches underestimated him because he didn’t have the eye-popping 40-yard dash time of some of the speedsters in his class, nor was he an overpowering physical specimen.
Although dozens of Division I coaches scouted Craig at one-day camps up and down the East Coast, scholarship offers never followed. Eric would watch the most sought-after prospects at those camps and wonder what they did that his son couldn’t.
“In the back of my mind, I felt Craig deserved to be right there with those guys,” Eric said.
In December 2013, Sorber sent Reynolds’ senior game film to more than 50 Division I coaches. The tepid response left Sorber “a little bit bewildered.” Those coaches who showed any interest — from Villanova, James Madison, Delaware and the like — seldom went further than, “Well, he’s on our board but we have other guys rated higher than him.”
Disappointed but undeterred, the Reynolds family shifted its focus to finding a good Division II fit. Many Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference coaches pursued Craig as a defensive back. Only Kutztown valued him enough as a running back to offer him the opportunity to prove he belonged at that position.
Turning slights into fuel
What the recruiting process taught Craig was how to turn slights into fuel. He made a list on the notes app of his phone of the most frequent criticism heaped on him. Then he’d scroll through it anytime he felt tempted to hit the snooze button instead of waking up for a morning workout or to leave the weight room without completing every rep.
Not good enough.
Can’t rush for 2,000 yards.
Never gonna be as good as his brother.
“I’d make fuel out of every little thing I could,” Craig said. “That was one thing that kept me going.”
Craig’s extra work helped him validate Sorber’s prediction that he’d someday leave Kutztown as “one of the best ever to play there.” The versatile playmaker excelled as a ball carrier, kick returner and slot receiver, earning first-team all-league honors three times and leaving as the school record holder with 34 career rushing touchdowns.
It wasn’t a coincidence that some of Craig’s best college games came at the expense of PSAC programs that didn’t recruit him. Eric Reynolds laughingly described his son’s mindset entering those games as “they’re going to pay.”
“Having that chip on his shoulder,” Eric said, “he always wanted the people who doubted him to know they made a mistake.”
Craig encountered more skepticism late in his college career as he sought the chance to play professional football. Only a few NFL teams sent scouts to Kutztown to watch Craig even as he surpassed 4,000 career rushing and receiving yards. Craig also didn’t receive an invitation to the NFL Combine, nor to the Senior Bowl.
While Craig did do a pair of pro day workouts for scouts, his pedestrian 40-yard dash time of 4.66 seconds did nothing to elevate his stock. NFL teams questioned if his versatile skill set would translate against higher-level talent or if he could pick up blitzing linebackers well enough to keep quarterbacks safe.
“People missed the boat on Craig,” Kutztown head coach Jim Clements said. “He wasn’t a blazing 4.4 guy and the film that he had was going against Division II competition. So he got overlooked and he didn’t get an opportunity.”
Concerned that his hopes of playing football after college were beginning to dim, Craig began DMing his Kutztown highlight reel to every NFL draft analyst he could find on social media. Most of the time Craig didn’t get a response, but his mindset was, “All it takes is one person to see my film and like it.”
Though Craig kept training after going undrafted, he was pragmatic enough to recognize the need for a Plan B. The business administration major interviewed with several Philadelphia-area insurance companies, all the while hoping that he wouldn’t have to trade his football cleats for Oxfords just yet.
In May 2019, weeks after other undrafted rookies signed as free agents, Craig’s agent at last provided a glimmer of hope. After calling while Craig was playing Xbox, Craig’s agent told him to put down his game controller and pick up his car keys. The Washington Football Team was holding a two-day tryout at its rookie minicamp, and Craig was one of 44 free agents invited to participate.
From Netlfix to no chill
The surest sign that this was Craig’s first NFL audition was the outfit he wore to the tryout.
Craig arrived “dressed for success,” as his father put it, clad in a lavender button-up shirt and tie, slacks and dress shoes. Every other participant came in a hoodie and sweats or something else comfortable.
“When I showed up, everyone was looking at me sideways,” Craig said with a self-deprecating laugh. “There was no hiding. Not only was I wearing a button-up, it was purple.”
Craig may have looked out of place walking into Washington’s practice facility, but that changed once he got on the field. Among a list of tryout players hailing from schools like USC, Notre Dame and LSU, he was one of only five who received invitations to return for training camp.
In a partial season with Washington, Craig appeared in just three games and spent most of his time on the practice squad. His stint in Atlanta was even shorter than that. Not until the second-to-last week of last season did he touch the ball for the first time, recording a 4-yard carry and a 3-yard catch as a member of Jacksonville.
Even though those stints did not end how he hoped, Craig’s faith in himself never wavered. He always expected another opportunity to arise even as spring turned to summer and then NFL training camps began to open.
What began as an endless wait for Craig turned into a whirlwind after Detroit summoned him for a tryout this past August. He couldn’t get to the Philadelphia Airport in time to catch his first flight. Then his next flight was delayed by bad weather. Pretty soon Craig found himself landing in Charlotte at midnight, catching a 6 a.m. flight to Detroit and then making his Lions preseason debut the next evening.
A 16-15 loss to Buffalo began with Craig scrambling to learn Detroit’s verbiage and introducing himself in the huddle to teammates he hadn’t met the day before. It ended with Lions running back coach Duce Staley giving Craig a nickname after the newcomer ran the ball six times for 49 yards including a 24-yard touchdown.
“We call him Netflix," Staley told reporters in August. "That’s what he was doing, right? On the couch watching Netflix, and all of a sudden he came in, got a couple yards and scored a touchdown.”
Of course it’s one thing to have success in the preseason. It’s another to do it when the first stringers are in and the games count in the standings. That’s what Craig achieved after being bumped up to the active roster the past two weeks.
In a Dec. 12 loss to Denver, he came off the bench to rush for 82 yards and outperform teammate Godwin Igwebuike. In an upset victory over Arizona the following week, Craig got the start and showed he deserved it, rushing 26 times for 112 yards.
On some plays he hit holes hard and broke big runs.
— PFF DET Lions (@PFF_Lions) December 19, 2021
On others he turned potential lost yardage into positive gains.
Craig Reynolds has provided a spark for the Lions ground game. He’s certainly earned himself a spot on this team. pic.twitter.com/A34NZ2GWCJ
— Russell Brown (@RussNFLDraft) December 19, 2021
The result was a new phenomenon for the perpetually underestimated running back: widespread praise. Many Lions fans called for Craig to have a role within the offense even after Swift and Williams return to the lineup. And the team rewarded Craig for his performance the past two weeks with a 53-man roster spot.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” Craig said, “But at the end of the day, I’m trying to still be hungry. There’s no time to savor the moment.”
As always, he’s committed to staying ready and putting in the work.