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Haason Reddick: Finally wanted, and finally in the right place

Haason Reddick

CHARLOTTE — There were times, of course, when it was frustrating for Haason Reddick.

Not knowing where you're going to line up from year to year, or game to game, can begin to wear on you.

But after the way his football career started, he's always carried a particular gratitude to be out there at all.

It's not a stretch to say that Haason Reddick is not supposed to be here, for a number of reasons.

That goes for football in general, after he played in just four games in high school because of injuries. That goes for the NFL at a more specific level, since he bounced around in college, from position to position and from a walk-on to undersized try-hard, to an eventual star. That applies particularly to his current position, since he was drafted to do yet another thing which he was miscast at. And at a granular level, it applies to the Carolina Panthers, who fell into a distressed asset, who could pay big dividends for them this year.

For all that struggle, all that back and forth, Reddick seems settled now. He's in a place where they know him, and what they want him to do. And he's good at that thing. He speaks softly anyway, but he sounds assured here, quietly confident. He's found a certain football peace here, finally.

"A kid who was injured his senior and junior year of high school, no scholarship looks, no teams looking at him, to walk on and just be able to play, that's what made me happy," Reddick said. "Coaches asking me to change positions, man, . . . I was just happy to be playing football."

Haason Reddick

It wasn't something he could always take for granted.

Growing up in New Jersey, Reddick longed to play, but wasn't able to. A broken femur kept him off the field his entire junior year, and meniscus problems cost him all but four games of his senior season in 2011.

But when he played, he got people's attention.

"When he ran by me on the sidelines, I got scared," former Haddon Heights head coach Ralph Schiavo said. "I could only imagine what some 5-8 kid thought."

Even then, Reddick was a bit of an uncarved block. He was in the 6-1, 200-pound range as a high schooler, clearly possessing physical gifts if not a clear job description. They used him at running back and safety then, and he had three touchdowns in four games.

There was absolutely a quality of "what might have been," with Reddick, having so little game tape. But Schiavo said he could tell the young man had something within him that would serve him well, whether it was football or otherwise (Schiavo also coached quarterback Joe Flacco in high school, so he can spot future first-rounders).

"We knew with Haason on the field, anywhere, we had a shot," Schiavo said. "He was an impact player on both sides of the ball.

"He was a pretty direct kid. He was intensely focused, had a lot of drive, was a hard worker. You could tell he wanted to make it. He had no film, since he only played four games, but he just had a stick-to-it-tiveness. It was a matter of him saying he was not going to give up."

Haason Reddick

And he didn't. Reddick walked on at nearby Temple, and even there, they didn't know what to do with him. His speed had them trying him at cornerback even, before eventually moving him to linebacker and then defensive end. His first year there, he was coached by Steve Addazio (now at Colorado State), who admitted it was hard to find a spot for him.

"At that time, he was a young guy," Addazio said. "You knew he had football ability; it was just at the beginning of his career. It was a long time ago now, but I remember him as being a competitive, tough guy that had ability.

"He blossomed, and was a late bloomer, and did some great things. I'm really super happy for him. . . . But yeah, we were all over the lot trying to figure out what his best opportunity was."

A change in coaches at Temple helped bring it into focus, eventually.

When Matt Rhule and defensive coordinator Phil Snow got there, they realized Reddick's talents were better utilized nearer the line of scrimmage.

"Guys, do you know Haason went to Temple as a corner?" Snow said, a tinge of disbelief in his voice. "And then we used him at linebacker and then we put him at defensive end, and then he really flourished.

"He's got some unique abilities, and we've got to utilize that. Some things he does well and some he doesn't, so I've got to put him in positions that can really flourish."

Rhule and Snow did just that, eventually getting Reddick to a place he could shine. Because he was still in the 230-pound range, he was small for a defensive end, and it took him some time to land there. But it was what Reddick was best at. By his senior year, he posted 10.5 sacks and three forced fumbles, the kind of thing that earned the attention of NFL scouts.

But the way he worked earned the attention of his teammates.

Reddick wore number 58 through his early years at Temple. But prior to his senior year, he switched to 7, but not because he chose it. At Temple, single digits are only for the toughest guys, who put in the most work, who show the kind of character others should model. It's an honor voted on by teammates, and it's probably not an accident a lot of the single digits from Rhule's years there ended up here too (Sean Chandler, Sam Franklin Jr., P.J. Walker, Keith Kirkwood, and player engagement manager Jaiquawn Jarrett were all single digits).

Temple defensive lineman Haason Reddick (7) celebrates his interception with teammates including Temple linebacker Kevin DeCaesar (53), defensive lineman Praise Martin-Oguike, second from right, and Sean Chandler, right, during the second half of the American Athletic Conference championship NCAA college football game against Navy, Saturday, Dec. 3, 2016, in Annapolis, Md. Temple won 34-10.(AP Photo/Nick Wass)

It's not the kind of thing you lobby for. It's something you attain.

"If you know the history of the single digit, it's definitely for one of the toughest guys on the team, a guy who you'd notice on the field," Reddick said. "The way to be a single digit, you have to be voted in by your peers, and it's based on hard work. Where I was at, you know, I wasn't working hard to get a single digit, I was working hard to prove I belonged. That I was better than guys on scholarship, and that I was better than other guys in the conference at the time.

"I wasn't trying to be recognized as a single digit, but by just working day in and day out, the consistency, my peers and coaches saw that and recognized me as a single digit."

So did the NFL, as the Cardinals made him a first-round pick, with hopes he could transform a defense. It didn't actually work out that way, as they tried to turn him into an inside linebacker. At the NFL level, 235-pound guys get swallowed up by linemen, no matter how fast they are. So the Cardinals' plan was to convert Reddick yet again.

Suffice it to say, it didn't go well, and he didn't even nail down a starting job; the conversion was so difficult. After three listless years, they didn't even pick up his fifth-year option, unwilling to commit to a guy who hadn't produced.

"Just knowing you were capable but not knowing if you were going to get that chance, that's hard," Reddick said. "Knowing that you had the ability, or if you're given a chance, you can go out and show your value, and what you're worth. Not knowing if you were going to be able to get that chance was the hardest part."

But the Cardinals eventually stopped trying to jam a square peg into a round hole, and let him rush the passer. He responded with 12.5 sacks and six forced fumbles last year playing opposite Chandler Jones.

"It was definitely frustrating," Reddick said. "But I'm a hard worker, and I tried my best to be the best inside linebacker that I could. But it's hard to learn it on the highest level of the game. I just wished I could have come in and rushed and do what I do, what I did in college.

"Then maybe the story would have been a little different. But it is what it is, and I'm here now. You want to be somewhere you're understood."

The Panthers are happy to have him, to be sure. As they spent the offseason looking for veterans on defense who were both productive and character fits, he seemed natural.

On the field, they think his kind of production on the other side from Brian Burns will open things up for the entire defense. Off the field, they think his kind of quiet work ethic will rub off on all the young players they've collected.

It was a long road getting here, but Reddick seems comfortable, both with what he's doing, and the people he's doing it with.

The Panthers signed him to a one-year contract this offseason, but they sought him out particularly — they wanted him.

For a guy who wasn't supposed to make it in college, for a guy who looked like a draft bust, for a guy who took years to find a comfortable place, being wanted matters.

"I think about it every day," Reddick said. "Where I am in life, a lot of people don't get here. To go through the things I went through in life, a lot of people would have folded; it would have broken a lot of people. But I never let that happen. It's a true testament to my character.

"I'm happy now doing what I want to do. I wouldn't want to be doing anything else. I get to live my dream of playing at the highest level."

And he gets to do it for those who know him best.

View photos of Haason Reddick during his four seasons with the Arizona Cardinals from 2017-20.

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