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Abington’s Craig Reynolds made an incredible NFL climb — and carried his brother’s broken dream with him

Under-recruited, undrafted, practice squad, and waived by four teams in two years. Reynolds refused to be denied. And he holds out hope that his brother, Eric, will one day see him play.

Detroit Lions running back Craig Reynolds getting caught by Arizona Cardinals free safeties Jalen Thompson, top, and Deionte Thompson during the second half of an NFL game Dec. 19, 2021, in Detroit.
Detroit Lions running back Craig Reynolds getting caught by Arizona Cardinals free safeties Jalen Thompson, top, and Deionte Thompson during the second half of an NFL game Dec. 19, 2021, in Detroit.Read moreLon Horwedel / AP

A day after Craig Reynolds rushed for 83 yards last December in his first extended NFL action, he took out his iPhone and fired off a 206-character tweet to summarize the journey it took him to get there.

“0 D1 offers coming out of Abington. Kutztown was the only D2 school to offer me as a RB. After graduating took job interviews. Undrafted. P-Squad. Cut 7 times. God, Prayer & Hard Work… Anything Is Possible!”

The NFL Scouting Combine — which concluded Monday in Indianapolis — is an annual gathering of more than 300 potential draft choices, providing them the chance to impress in front of the teams’ decision makers. But Reynolds’ story — one of the best in the NFL last season — proved that the combine is not the only gateway to the league.

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Reynolds overcame a series of obstacles — and two missed flights — to show he could play running back at the highest level and earned himself a contract for next season.

His tweet summed it all up: under-recruited, undrafted, practice squad, and waived by four teams in two years. Reynolds refused to be denied.

But what the tweet was missing was the heartache that fueled an incredible rise. Reynolds realized his dream last season with the Detroit Lions — “I’m not done yet,” he said — and carried a brother’s broken dream with him.

“If you have a goal or a dream, chase it,” Reynolds said. “Put the work in, the details, and the sacrifices you need to be successful at what you do. It doesn’t matter what the occupation is or what the goal is.”

A brother’s dream

Reynolds did not feel that he got snubbed from the NFL combine after his senior year at Kutztown, because he wasn’t even expecting an invite. But that’s where the career of his older brother had been pointing.

Eric Reynolds was a 5-foot-11, 195-pound running back at Central Bucks South who rushed for 2,830 yards as a senior and was named The Inquirer’s Southeastern Pennsylvania player of the year. He combined for 3,108 yards of offense over 12 games and scored 38 touchdowns. He ran a 40-yard dash in 4.40 seconds, hurdled defenders, could catch passes out of the backfield, and even returned kickoffs.

“He was a beast,” said his father, Eric Sr., who was a bruising running back at Abington High before becoming a Hall of Famer at Delaware Valley College.

The college recruiters who visited Reynolds’ home in Hartsville kept talking to Eric Jr. about how they wanted him to come back to school to finish his degree, and insinuated that the NFL could be a real possibility. That’s when his father first realized that his son’s talent was special.

“The first time I heard that, I let it go,” said the elder Reynolds. “The second time they said, ‘It’s important that he finishes with us.’ I said, ‘What do you mean, ‘Finishes with us?’ They said based on their experience, he’s probably going to be a draft pick and usually that last semester you’re getting ready for the NFL combine, so it doesn’t leave much room for school.

“They wanted him to come back and get that last semester. That’s when it clicked. I thought he was good. I thought he was an outstanding high school player but never thought about the NFL until these coaches mentioned it.”

As a senior, Eric Reynolds threw a touchdown pass, caught two touchdowns, returned a kick for a score, and rushed for 34 TDs while averaging 10.9 yards per carry. He had a touchdown run of at least 40 yards in every game of his senior year. Reynolds did it all, even signing autographs for kids after games.

“He was a force,” said his father, who was an assistant at C.B. South. “There would be times on third-and-9 and most teams on third-and-9 would say, ‘What kind of pass play are we going to run?’ We were blessed enough to say, ‘Let’s get him the ball and see what happens.’ When you’re averaging 10, almost 11 yards a carry, it makes play calling a whole lot simpler.”

Eric Reynolds committed to Boston College during his senior year and signed a letter of intent in December 2007, weeks after his final high school game. His future was promising and the NFL was his dream.

Just like his brother

The Abington High football staff invited a group of eighth-graders to practice with the junior varsity and varsity teams so they’d be acclimated once they started high school. Craig Reynolds wasn’t one of them, even though his older brother had been one of the area’s best players two years earlier.

Reynolds came home, told his dad, and pledged to use the slight as motivation. Reynolds knew he belonged at those varsity practices and he was determined to prove it. Reynolds and his father worked out each day at LA Fitness and ran the track at William Tennent High, where his dad was an administrator and coach.

Reynolds was the varsity’s starting running back by his junior season, proving he belonged. He rushed for 2,104 yards as a senior and scored 31 touchdowns but did not have any Division I offers. It wasn’t for a lack of trying.

Reynolds and his father spent the summer before his senior year driving up and down the East Coast in an old Ford Thunderbird, visiting colleges and attending football camps. But it seemed impossible for Reynolds to grab anyone’s attention.

“It was just more motivation for me,” he said. “I control what I can control. My motto is, ‘Point the thumb, not the finger.’ Obviously, I didn’t do something on tape to show a school that I was good enough to play running back, but I knew I could do it. I bet on myself.”

Some Division II schools wanted Reynolds to play safety, but he was determined to be a running back, just like his older brother. He finally landed at Kutztown, a Division II program not exactly known to be an NFL breeding ground. It was an opportunity.

A dream derailed

A month after graduating high school, Eric Reynolds flipped his commitment from Boston College to Temple. He could stay close to home for college as he chased his NFL dream. A month later, that dream started to fade.

He was arrested in August 2008 in Warwick, pleaded guilty to harassment charges, and was sentenced to probation. His college career was over before the start of his first semester.

In 2010, he pleaded guilty to armed robbery charges after police said he robbed two women outside an Upper Moreland Walmart. He spent time in prison before being arrested in October 2015 after police said he carjacked a 65-year-old man in Warminster.

Reynolds pleaded guilty and attributed his downfall in court to a drug addiction. The former high school phenom whose career was once promising enough that college recruiters envisioned him in the NFL remains in state prison in Somerset County. In 2016, he was given a sentence of five to 15 years.

Eric Reynolds has been in and out of prison since before his younger brother was in high school.

“I always told myself when I was younger that I had to make sure my brother saw me play,” Craig Reynolds said. “He first went in when I was in seventh grade. The last time he saw me play was with the Warrington Warriors pee-wee. It’s still motivation for him to one day come and watch me. I need to do my part and continue to keep going.”

An NFL chance

Craig Reynolds had an electric career at Kutztown and left the Berks County university as the program’s all-time leader in rushing touchdowns and second in all-purpose yards. But he was not selected in the 2019 NFL draft.

He met with a family friend about working as an insurance broker, but he told Reynolds to exhaust his dream first. Reynolds’ football career was not done yet.

Then-Washington coach Jay Gruden stumbled upon Reynolds’ college highlights while browsing the internet in search of players to fill out the team’s rookie mini-camp roster. The team had its draft picks and undrafted free agents butneeded more bodies to run drills.

Enter Craig Reynolds.

He was playing video games when his agent told him to head to Washington. He instructed Reynolds to report in a shirt and tie, hoping it would help the D-II longshot stand out in a room full of hooded sweatshirts.

“I was the only person remotely close to dressed up, so that was really awkward,” Reynolds said. “It’s one thing to wear a button-up, but I wore a lavender shirt and black tie.”

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Maybe it worked. Or perhaps it was the way he played that week. Either way, Reynolds parlayed his mini-camp showcase into a training camp invitation. He continued to impress and spent the first nine weeks of the 2019 season with Washington, mostly on the team’s practice squad.

Reynolds made his NFL debut in Week 7 as a special teamer before being waived three weeks later. He latched on with the Atlanta Falcons, finished the 2019 season on their practice squad, and was waived just before the start of the following season.

Reynolds spent 2020 with the Jacksonville Jaguars, appeared in two games, recorded his first NFL carry and reception in a 24-point loss in Week 16, and was waived last March.

“He’s so persistent,” his father said. “If I had to put it in one term, it’s persistence to be the best at what he wants to be. I wish I could emulate his hard work and his work ethic that he produces. It’s just unbelievable. He won’t take no for an answer.”

Training camps opened last summer without him, so Reynolds trained four days a week at Kutztown in a helmet and shoulder pads, preparing himself in case a team called. Finally, one did.

His agent called just as the 5-11, 215-pound Reynolds was finishing an August workout, telling him the Lions wanted him to fly that night to Detroit. They had their first preseason game in three days.

Reynolds rushed home, grabbed a bag, and was on I-95 just in time to sit in rush-hour traffic. He missed his flight to Detroit and was placed on a flight that connected through Charlotte, N.C. That flight was delayed by rain, so Reynolds missed his connector and had to spend the night at the Charlotte airport.

His climb to the NFL was full of hurdles. Perhaps it was fitting that a travel headache would precede the biggest break of his career.

“Would it have been nice to be a first-round pick, top five? Yeah, it would have been,” Reynolds said. “But doing it this way, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. The work I’ve put in, the training, and the praying, putting God first, it’s a blessing.”

A brother’s advice

Reynolds spoke to his older brother on the phone before his first preseason game in Detroit. Eric Reynolds told his little brother to “Let it rip.”

It was Aug. 13. Craig Reynolds wore No. 13 in high school and college. Maybe that was a sign, his brother said, that it would be a special game.

Reynolds rushed for 49 yards on six carries and dived across a pylon for a 24-yard touchdown. He didn’t have a chance before the game to meet all of his new teammates and coaches, so he spent the game introducing himself on the sideline.

Backup quarterback David Blough asked him in the huddle if he could catch. An offensive lineman asked him during a timeout who he was and where he was from.

“I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m Craig,” Reynolds said. “I introduced myself to Jared Goff on the sideline. It was crazy. Here I am formally introducing myself to Jared on the sideline.”

His brother’s intuition was right. It was a special night for Reynolds, who impressed the Lions enough to start the regular season on their practice squad.

In Week 14, he was elevated to the active roster after St. Joseph’s Prep product D’Andre Swift was injured and Jamaal Williams was placed in COVID-19 protocols. Thin at running back, the Lions decided to see what the longshot from Kutztown could do.

He rushed for 83 yards on 11 carries at Denver, each of which prompted his dad’s phone to buzz with text messages from friends as he watched from home. Reynolds started the next week against Arizona and carried 26 times for 112 yards. He made the most of his opportunity.

The Lions promoted him to the active roster after the Cardinals game and signed him through the 2022 season. Reynolds, eight years after being denied by Division I schools, proved he belonged in the NFL.

“I know now that I 100% can do this,” Craig Reynolds said. “It’s just more motivation to keep going. It’s not like, ‘Oh, I signed. I made it.’ No, it’s time to turn it up times 10. My biggest fear is becoming complacent. You can’t do that in life in general, but especially in the NFL where everyone is good and everyone is great.”

Lessons from a brother’s shortcomings

Reynolds and his brother, just like they did before that preseason game, spoke on the phone the night before each game as Reynolds got his chance in the regular season.

“He’s not in a great situation but he’s been a great older brother,” Craig Reynolds said. “The talks on Saturday, I don’t know if they’re suited for a newspaper, but they’re good motivational talks and they get me locked in and ready to go.”

Their grandfather, Irv, was a star halfback at Charleroi High in western Pennsylvania, and their dad coached in high school and college after his playing days finished. Their family is bonded by football and the brothers grew up on football fields.

The NFL was their dream and now they’ve reached it.

“I think he’s getting enjoyment from it as well,” Reynolds Sr. said of his son, Eric. “And at times he tries to play coach. ‘Tell him this’ or ‘Tell him that.’ When he’s watching the games, he’ll see things and think he should have done this or that. He’s enjoying the ride just as much as all of us.”

Craig Reynolds was in awe of his older brother when Eric was running over defenders at C.B. South and entertaining college recruiters at their home. But when he thanks his brother during those phone calls, it’s not just for what his brother did with the ball in his hands.

“I tell him on the phone all the time, I’m like, ‘Bro, I know it’s a crazy sacrifice to think about, but if it wasn’t for what happened with you, I wouldn’t be where I’m at,’” Craig Reynolds said. “I’m thankful. You could say it was a sacrifice. It was a way for me to learn what not to do.

“He didn’t make the greatest decisions off the field, let’s be real. I just wanted to be motivated to do right. Things happen in life and I’m just going to control what I can. He’s still a part of my life and I’m going to be thankful but he didn’t make the best decisions. That motivated me to be smart off the field and hang around with the right people.”

“A lot of the conversations we have, behind every binding is a blessing. We don’t see it right away,” his father said. “There was the disappointment because a career that we thought was probably going to lead to the NFL got derailed because of stupid mistakes, and then Craig at such a young age being able to comprehend that this is an avenue that I definitely don’t want to take.

“He saw everything we went through as a family, emotionally, mentally, even sometimes physically because you get sick to your stomach and you’re throwing up. He was able to put that all together and say, ‘Hey, this isn’t going to happen to me.’ This is a goal I have to play college ball and I’m going to attack it.”

Eric Reynolds Jr. could be released from prison later this year, which would allow him to finally see his younger brother play football again. If so, it won’t be on a Bucks County pee-wee field. Instead, it will be in the NFL.

Eric Reynolds Sr. said he often sees the families of star players sitting together in an NFL stadium suite and dreams about what that would be like. Not sitting in a luxury box, but being able to watch his son play with his entire family seated together.

For the Reynolds family, that could soon be a reality because one son was able to fulfill two dreams.

“Oh my gosh, that would be amazing,” Craig Reynolds said of seeing his brother one day in the crowd. “It would truly be a blessing. Just another step forward in the goals that I write down and think about and want to achieve. There’s so many of them, but that’s definitely one of the highest ones. That’s for sure.”