Why you should care

Reid is likely to beat an ankle injury and crush it on the field.

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crop firefox OZY first profiled Caraun Reid during his Princeton days, when he was in line to be a top draft pick. The Detroit Lions drafted Reid in the fifth round in 2014 and this preseason, Reid returned to camp and turned heads early on. Though a high ankle sprain sidelined him this past weekend, he’s expected to play a large role on the Lions’ (11-5 last season) defensive line.

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Caraun Reid may be a man of God, but that doesn’t mean he opposes violence — at least not on the football field.

Playing at home last October, Reid’s Princeton Tigers gave up 20 points to Lafayette in the first half, and their fifth-year senior captain was not happy about it. Despite a sore throat, the 6-foot-2-inch, 305-pound defensive lineman launched into a hoarse, emotional speech at halftime, berating his teammates for playing “cute football” and exhorting them to make Lafayette bleed.

“It wasn’t the nicest thing I’ve ever said about an opponent,” this pastor’s son chuckles, a little bashfully, as he recalls the moment. But it was effective — Princeton’s fourth-year coach Bob Surace says the team went on to play one of their best halves of the season, running away with a 42 to 26 victory. It was a moment, says Surace, when Reid, articulate but reserved, seemed to realize how much his teammates respected and looked up to him. Apparently, it took losing his voice to find it.

Reid isn’t just a lineman with heaps of natural ability, but also a man who’s determined to set an example, on and off the field.

Now this 22-year-old Bronx native and two-time, third-team All-American is looking to take his inspired brand of leadership to the NFL, where he has a chance to be the kind of sleeper pick that teams slap themselves over later for passing on. Reid is forecast to go in the mid- to late rounds of the May 8–10 draft (which is seven rounds in all), but he’s been tapped by the sports site Bleacher Report as one of “a few small-school players who have a chance to surprise some people and be good NFL players.”

Not what most people probably expect when they hear “Princeton football product.” Though the Ivies typically send a couple players to the NFL each year — and had a bumper crop of five last year — the nonscholarship, intensively academic college conference is not for those looking for the easy track to gridiron glory. While the football-mad Southeastern Conference (home of powerhouses like Alabama and Auburn) averaged attendance of more than 75,000 fans at their games last fall, for example, Princeton football is lucky if it gets 7,000 in the stands.

But then, there’s nothing about Reid’s path to the doorstep of pro football that has been typical. New York City, for one thing, is hardly a hotbed for young football talent. There’s just not enough open space for kids to play the game the same way they can play, say, pickup hoops. Reid says he played some football informally as a kid, on the pavement outside his elementary school. But it wasn’t until high school that he took up the sport in any organized way — a late start compared to the South, where kids start playing in Pop Warner leagues at the age of 6 or 7.

Former Princeton defensive lineman Caraun Reid takes part in the vertical jump during the 2014 NFL Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium on February 24, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Former Princeton defensive lineman Caraun Reid takes part in the vertical jump during the 2014 NFL Combine.

Source Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Inspired by one of his two older brothers, who was also on the high school team, Reid says he was no natural, but “just loved the game, from the moment I started playing.” That passion — what he describes as a “calling” to play football — plus the 40 pounds of muscle he put on in the weight room during his sophomore year — helped Reid emerge as a serious talent. By his junior year, recruiters from big-time college programs like Penn State, Syracuse and Boston College started calling. But so did Princeton. And while Reid was not familiar with the school or the Ivy League, his parents — immigrants from Jamaica who came to New York to pursue their own academic degrees — saw an opportunity.

Bishop Courton Reid says it was “a tough decision,” but he told his youngest son that at a school like Princeton, he could “have the best of two worlds” — academics and athletics. Giving up the chance at scholarship money “was a sacrifice” financially, the elder Reid acknowledges. But “if, God forbid, football doesn’t work, you’re left with a good degree,” he told Caraun. As for a future football career, “if you do well anywhere you are, they’ll come calling.”

And they have. “You can count on one hand the full-pad practices we haven’t had a [pro] scout at,” says coach Surace, who himself was an assistant offensive line coach for the NFL’s Cincinnati Bengals before coming to Princeton. Ivy League players get looked at and evaluated too, he says: Hardly anyone is “hidden under a rock anymore.” The biggest issue stemming from being in a less competitive conference, he says, is that players like Reid don’t get challenged every day in practice like a player at, say, Oregon or USC, where the team is stacked with future pros. So for all his athleticism and intensity, the NFL’s scouting report faults some of Reid’s technique, including his stance at the line of scrimmage and his ability to locate the ball, a key task for a defensive lineman who is looking to manhandle the opposing team’s ball handler.

But Surace says the lack of top-tier competition also means players coming out of the Ivy League “have so much more ‘upside’” when they enter the pros. And Reid’s smarts and work ethic only multiply that growth potential. The NFL’s analysis describes Reid as a “developmental talent with raw traits to mold,” and that will be the task for whichever team takes Reid next month. In exchange, they’ll be getting not just a lineman with heaps of natural ability, but also a man who’s determined to set an example, on and off the field.

Reid says he wants to follow in the footsteps of legendary Green Bay Packers player and fellow defensive lineman Reggie White, whose own devout Christianity and ordination as an evangelical minister earned him the nickname “Minister of Defense.” Like White, Reid aims to be the kind of player who “influences everyone he plays around and makes them better, not only as a football player, but as a man.”

That’s something any number of NFL squads could surely benefit from.

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