Tuesday, September 5, 2006

By Nick Wagoner
Senior Writer

As J.R. Reed hung upside down, his left leg impaled on a wrought-iron fence outside his Tampa home, the prospects of a potentially bright NFL future began to vanish.

Reed was only three days removed from playing for the Philadelphia Eagles in the 2005 Super Bowl in Jacksonville. After playing in that game, a loss to New England, Reed ventured to Daytona for the Daytona 500.

Aside from winning the Super Bowl, things couldn’t have been much better for Reed. That is, until he returned to his home in Tampa. Although Reed won’t say what happened on that day that caused him to do it, he attempted to leap a wrought-iron fence near South Florida University, his alma mater.

The fence wasn’t just any fence, either. Reed says it was about chest high and had what he calls “decorative” spikes on top of it. After he was unable to open the gate, Reed attempted to jump it. He didn’t make it.

“They said I would never play again, that I was done,” Reed said. “At first, I believed them.”

Reed attempted to jump the fence at the part where the fence met the gate. But he fell short. Afraid that if he fell forward he would break his knee, Reed opted to move backward. When he moved back, a spike grabbed the back of his knee.

Hanging upside down from the fence, Reed tried to reach the ground, but couldn’t quite get there. The magnet on the door broke soon after. With blood rushing out of his leg, Reed reached down and pushed up to get off the spike. He didn’t make it and the spike went in deeper.

On his second try, Reed was able to get off the fence. Reed attempted to run away to get help, but had no feeling in his foot.

“I tried to run and I just fell because my foot wasn’t working,” Reed said. “I didn’t know it wouldn’t work, I just tried to run and just fell.”

Fortunately for Reed, he fell close to the South Florida campus. A friend of Reed’s spotted him, picked him up and took him to the hospital.

To this day, Reed has not told anyone what he was running or jumping from on that day.

“Nobody knows the story,” Reed said. “I don’t tell the story. I was just jumping the fence and I didn’t make it. It was a pool sized fence. It was about chest high. Everybody has different (theories). Some people have dogs, some people have running from the cops, some people have all kinds of crazy stuff.”

The one thing that did seem certain was the fact that Reed wasn’t likely to play football again. He was going to be lucky to walk again let alone play football. The official diagnosis was a damaged peroneal nerve. The peroneal nerve controls movement in the lower leg and foot.

In 2004, Reed led the Eagles in kick returning with an average of 23.1 yards on 33 attempts, second among rookies. In addition, Reed posted 20 special teams tackles. All of a sudden, Reed was on the sideline with no hope for a return.

“It was the worst year of my life,” Reed said. “I got hurt three days after the Super Bowl. I was on top of the world then I went into depression. I thought I was done, I went back to school and got my degree then I had to work my way back up. Everybody told me I couldn’t do it, so I couldn’t take no for an answer.”

Reed was on injured reserve last season with little hope of a return. The nerve was expected to regenerate, but didn’t come back as quickly as Reed wanted. He began to explore other avenues.

“It regenerates, but it’s not fast enough for me,” Reed said. “I have to work. I have to pay the bills, so I had to find another way. I wasn’t going to sit on the sidelines and wait for it to come back.”

He met with Dr. Tom Graham in Baltimore and began research on creating a brace that would stabilize his knee and foot. The two became close and found something that would work.

“He was kind of the pioneer of it,” Reed said. “He’s the only one that has done it. They gave me a walking brace like they give to old people and I took that and said, ‘We have to work this out; we have to do something.’ I found a way. We made it out of a better material and then we cut it so it’s nothing like any other brace. I kept saying, ‘I need this, I need this.’ I am personal friends with him now. I pretty much go back there whenever I need to get tweaked.”

Two weeks before the Eagles began minicamp, Reed arrived preaching the virtues of his new brace. He convinced Philadelphia to give him another chance.

Reed returned to the Eagles in the preseason where, in five games, he posted a 21.9-yard average on seven kickoff returns and added an interception. It wasn’t quite to the standard he had established as a rookie with the Eagles or the 31.7 yards per attempt he averaged as a senior at South Florida.

Reed runs without much trouble now, but still walks with a noticeable limp. Still, he showed enough to make it to Philadelphia’s final round of cuts. Fortunately for him, there was an job available in St. Louis.

Among the unresolved issues the Rams faced entering the final days of the preseason; one that stood perhaps above the rest was the need to find someone, anyone who can be the kick returner.

After cycling through a variety of options including receivers Kevin Curtis, Brad Pyatt and Marques Hagans and running back Fred Russell, the Rams signed Reed on Monday in hopes that he can be the answer.

Reed arrived in St. Louis for a workout Monday and passed with flying colors. Coach Scott Linehan said he expects Reed to handle the kick returning duties right away.

“He’s certainly got every reason in the world not to be able to pass a physical but there’s something about his will and desire and want-to that impressed all of us,” Linehan said. “I know it was tough for Philly and I think it’s to our advantage because we have been looking for somebody that is able to do that. I think he’s got it inside of him to overcome any questions we might have.”

While it remains to be seen if Reed can get back to the form that had him as one of the league’s up-and- coming special teams stars, he believes he can get back to form.

“I’m better than I was in college,” Reed said. “I know a lot more. In college it was sheer talent, now I have some added knowledge to it. We’ll see what happens when I get out there Sunday.”

Either way, Reed is just happy to be back.