New York Jets' D.J. Reed plays with heavy heart, dedicates season to his father

New York Jets cornerback D.J. Reed paid tribute to his dad after making an interception in Week 1. AP Photo/Frank Franklin II

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- New York Jets cornerback D.J. Reed was hyped. It was a new season, a new team, a new start. MetLife Stadium was packed with fans Sunday and filled with hope, and Reed -- a big free-agent addition in the offseason -- was about to run out into the green-and-white madness. Before heading to the tunnel for the pregame introductions, he checked his phone and noticed a bunch of text messages.

Condolences from family members.

His father, Dennis Reed Sr., had died earlier in the day in Waterloo, Iowa, after an 18-year battle with multiple sclerosis. He was 61. D.J. knew the outlook was bleak last Wednesday, when he was told his dad had been removed from life support, but he didn't learn of his death until that moment, just minutes before kickoff. In an instant, he went from hyped to heartbroken.

He wept during the national anthem, thinking of his father and getting swept up in the emotions of the 9/11 anniversary.

"I just said, 'OK, I know he’s watching, so I’m going to put on a show for him,'" Reed said.

The Jets lost to the Baltimore Ravens, 24-9, but the 25-year-old was one of the bright spots. He didn't allow a receiver to catch a ball on him and made an acrobatic interception late in the game. Reed caught some flak on social media for the manner in which he responded -- he knelt on the NFL logo at midfield, raised both arms and looked to the sky -- but this wasn't a "me" guy celebrating in a blowout loss. It was for his father, as he revealed after the game.

"I honestly forgot about the score," he said. "I don’t want to say I didn’t care, because I care about winning, but it was deeper than football when I got the interception. I wanted to pay tribute to my dad."

That will continue.

"This season is for my dad," he said.

Reed's performance under difficult circumstances resonated throughout the league and within his circle of friends, including former San Francisco 49ers teammate Richard Sherman.

"He's like a little brother to me, and I can't imagine what he was thinking and what he was going through -- and what he's going through right now," the former star cornerback told ESPN in a phone interview. "But I know football is like his peace. For a lot of us, it is. It's the realm where you find your peace, you find your tranquility, you find distraction. You find an avenue in which to release that pain, that sadness and turn it into as much a positive thing as it possibly could. That's what he was able to do. He went out and made his dad proud."

Jets coach Robert Saleh said, "D.J. is a pro’s pro, a man’s man. ... [He] went through a lot [Sunday] and it was an emotional roller coaster this entire week for him."

Reed spoke openly with reporters about his father's death, sharing intimate details of their relationship and their final conversation. Maybe it was cathartic for him. He talked about how his father introduced him to sports, everything from football to wrestling to tennis. He recalled that somber day in 2004, when his father was diagnosed with MS, an incurable, disabling disease of the central nervous system.

"That’s when things in my household started getting really tough," he said. "When he was healthy, he was active. A great father. He got sick and it deteriorated his body. He couldn’t be there like he wanted to be there."

Their final conversation was last Wednesday. Because of a life-supporting tube in his throat, Dennis Reed couldn't talk. So he listened to his son. This is what D.J. told him:

"I love you ... You fought a good fight ... Thanks for everything."

D.J. appreciated his father's toughness and sense of humor, and he has tried to adopt those qualities and apply them to his own journey.

Only 5-foot-9, he wasn't a five-star recruit who had dozens of schools battling for his services. Growing up in Bakersfield, California, he went to Fresno State as a walk-on and transferred to Cerritos College in Norwalk, California, where he shared a roach-infested house with eight others. No, his junior-college experience wasn't glamorous.

Eventually, Reed landed at Kansas State, where he played well enough to become a fifth-round pick of the 49ers in 2018. He was cut in 2020 and claimed on waivers by the Seattle Seahawks. He resuscitated his career in Seattle and scored a three-year, $33 million contract from the Jets in free agency.

"He's such an incredible person," Sherman said. "He's been through so much. He didn't have a conventional route to where he is today. He has taken the hard road every step of the way.

"He's undersized and people count that against him, but ask the receivers he's going against. They couldn't tell you how tall he is or how that affects his game. He's an outstanding player. He's an outstanding person. He plays like a giant. He's all over the place. His effort -- his tenacity -- is unmatched."

Reed's mental toughness was challenged on Sunday. It also won't be easy in the coming days and weeks. The toughest part, he said, will be in the offseason. He was planning to visit his father with his new daughter, due in two months. For now, he doesn't expect to attend the funeral.

"Me and my dad, we already chopped it up," he said. "We had great communication. It was nothing but love. I don’t know if a funeral will be the best situation for me. For me, the best situation is to keep busy, and that’s what I’ve been doing, being around my teammates, being around the building. That’s what helps me."