Malik Reed had to go nearly 2,500 miles from his hometown to figure out who he really was.
The Nevada football alum who recently finished his second NFL season with the Denver Broncos visited his old campus earlier this month. The memories flooded back. The dorm he moved into as a naïve freshman. The restaurants (Archie's and The Lil' Wal) where he'd crush burgers. And the football field (Mackay Stadium) that helped turn him into a professional player.
But, more than anything, this was the campus that made him a man. A native of small-town Dothan, Ala. (population 67,894), something told Reed to go to Reno during the recruiting process seven years ago over offers from Georgia Southern and Alabama-Birmingham, two places much like his hometown and much closer to mom and dad.
In Alabama, Reed had structure. He had a good childhood, but a lot of the decisions were made for him. He didn't feel like he had much say in what he did and who he'd become. So instead of picking a school close to home, he drove across the country from the deep south to the West Coast.
"Coming from Alabama to Reno, I felt like I had a chance to develop some individuality about myself," Reed said. "Back home, I was around my family 24/7. Once I came out here, I was, like, 'OK, who is Malik? Who is Malik Reed?' And I was really finding out more about myself and who I was as a person. Coming out here, I grew a lot — as a man, as a person, a man of God. I'm so grateful to have come here and so blessed to have come here to mold me into the person I am today."
Like a lot of crucial decisions Reed has made in his life, he relied on God, his smart pick of colleges foreshadowing his smart pick of NFL teams. Reed grew up going to church every Sunday. His relationship with God grew during his time at Nevada as part of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. And Reed credits his faith for causing him to commit to Nevada, a school that found a gem a continent away thanks to a relationship between Reed's high school coach, Kelvin White, and then-Nevada cornerbacks coach Ricky Thomas, both Alabama football alums.
White told Thomas of an under-recruited player on his roster who was worth checking out. That led to Reed's official visit to Nevada.
"I got a chance to come out here and got a chance to see the facilities, got a chance to see the scenery and mountains, something I've never seen before in my life," Reed said. "When I got on campus and when they were talking about the school and the history of the school, it just felt like this is where God wanted me to be. It was like a tug on my heart. When I made the decision, I feel like it shocked a lot of people — my mom, dad, parents, high school coaches. They were, like, 'What? You're going where?' But I was committed to come here and become the person I could be, the best player I could be and continue to strive to be better."
While Reed's dad was OK with the decision, his mom put forth an offer: If Reed wasn't comfortable at Nevada after a year, she promised to move to Northern Nevada to be with him. But Reed never cashed in that offer. He was ready to live on his own, to make his own decisions, to go through the ups and downs of young adulthood to find out what he was made of and who he was meant to be.
"I discovered that I can really thrive," Reed said. "I could make my own decisions and feel confident in the things that I was doing and the person I was really becoming. I had a lot of structure growing up, so there were a lot of decisions made for me and I didn't really have a lot of the say in who I wanted to be the and things I wanted to do. Coming out here, I felt like I had the opportunity to do those things. There wasn't anybody else telling you what you could or couldn't do. There were some good decisions, some bad decisions, everywhere in between. But it helped me find what my purpose was and it helped grow and manifest into where I am today."
A late-bloomer finds the right fit
Reed's path to the NFL wasn't the typical route. He wasn't a five-star recruit (he only got two stars, in fact). He didn't go to a college powerhouse. And he didn't even enjoy football in his youth.
"My story is probably different from a lot of guys," Reed said. "When I was younger, when I was a kid, I didn't even like football. I just played it because my brother played it."
Reed quit the sport during his youth before joining the team in high school because his friends were on the team. Reed also played baseball and basketball, which was his father's love (his dad is in Troy University's athletic Hall of Fame as a basketball player). But Reed noticed not many kids from his area got college scholarships in baseball and basketball. Plus, he was doing things on the football field other kids couldn't. So he quit baseball and basketball in 11th grade to focus on football.
"I was a late-bloomer for finding a love for football," Reed said.
When he got to Nevada, the Wolf Pack had three veteran all-conference defensive linemen with NFL aspirations in Brock Hekking, Ian Seau and Lenny Jones (all three signed with NFL teams, although none made regular-season active rosters). Reed studied those players, figuring if their goal was to make it to the NFL, he might as well model himself after them while redshirting during his first season on campus, a decision he wasn't thrilled with but one that ultimately paid dividends.
Off the field, Reed enjoyed his new-found freedom. While he never got in any trouble, he admits "I was going out all the time partying." But it didn't keep him from succeeding in the classroom where he was a three-time All-Mountain West academic honoree. He rivaled Andrew Caudill, the Wolf Pack's assistant athletic director for academic services, for hours spent in Nevada's academic center.
"Malik may end up being the best young man I have ever worked with," Caudill, who's also a Washoe County School District trustee, once said.
While growing academically and spiritually during his first two years in Reno, much improvement was still required on the field if he was going to achieve his NFL dream. Reed had 18 tackles and one sack in his first two seasons, including the redshirt, but was primed for a larger role in year three. In 2016, Reed racked up 59 tackles, including 9.5 for loss, five sacks and three forced fumbles. He was named second-team All-MW. He made the All-MW first team the following year after posting 10 tackles for loss and eight sacks. That's when Reed realized a pro career might not be far-fetched.
"After making the all-conference team my redshirt sophomore year and then first team the next year, I was, like, 'OK, it's not a coincidence you keep making these all-conference teams," Reed said. "I felt like that's when I definitely started to figure out what I could do and how impactful I could be on the game by being me and doing the things I could do. I'd watch NFL games and college games and say, 'I'm doing pretty much the same things they're doing whether I have the hype or not.' My senior year, I was thinking, 'Let's go.'
Prior to his senior season, Reed was moved from defensive end to outside linebacker, in part to increase his odds of making it to the NFL at 6-foot-2 and 235 pounds, small for a defensive lineman. Reed had his best season yet in 2018, setting or tying career highs in tackles (77), tackles for loss (15.5), sacks (eight), forced fumbles (four), fumble recoveries (two) and touchdowns (one).
Despite his position change and great production — 203 tackles, 38.5 tackles for loss, 22 sacks, 11 forced fumbles in his career — Reed went unselected in the 2019 draft. But there was always somebody in his corner who knew he was destined for greatness, his now wife Cidavia “CeCe” Hall.
“It's from the work ethic, from the mentality, from the drive," CeCe said. "It's from his story, from his upbringing, from everything about him. It just makes sense. He never had anything handed to him. He had to work for everything. He was never just granted the luck of being the one everyone wanted to give everything to. He had to work for everything, and people like that they're always gonna be destined for greatness. And I think God just chose him. Honestly, I think he did. I think he specifically designed him for this. And that's why I knew he'd be great."
Finding a partner in life
CeCe's first memory of her future husband came on the basketball court. She was running stairs at the gym at Dothan High when a junior varsity player caught her eye.
"He was missing a layup," CeCe said with a laugh. "But I saw him and I'm like, 'Who's that?' I'm just looking at him like, 'I have to know who that is.'"
CeCe said she didn't talked to Malik for the next two years before seeing him again in the lunch room during their junior year.
"And I was like, 'Who is that guy again?'" CeCe recalled. "And after that, I formed a plan to get him."
CeCe befriended one of Malik's friends, a kid named Connor, and one day she asked Malik to sit with them during lunch break.
CeCe and Malik were friends at first. CeCe jokes the two were "secretly in love" but were more aptly labeled best friends. They'd get into little squabbles here and there, but both knew they'd end up together. They were both high-level athletes and could relate on that level. CeCe admired Malik's drive, which made her want to pour more into her sport, volleyball. But they were never officially together in high school, neither wanting to be the first to say they were in love. But the day before Malik left for Nevada, CeCe cracked.
"He was leaving for Nevada the next day, so we all hung out," CeCe said. "And I went home and I cried and I told Connor as we were driving home, 'I love him.' He slammed on the brakes and said, 'What did you say?!?' And then he called Malik. I said, 'Stop it! Don't call him!' And then he told me he loved me, too, and that's how we knew. The day before he leaves me and goes to the other side of the country, he said he loved me."
As Reed headed to Nevada, Hall played two seasons at Wallace State, a community college in Hanceville, Ala., before transferring to Alabama. They didn't leave high school as a couple despite admitting to loving each other. It wasn't until 2016, two years into college, that they decided they were meant to be together. The long-distance relationships wasn't easy, but it forced them to improve their communication skills, a blessing in the long run.
"It was hard," CeCe said. "It was very hard. We had to communicate a lot. We learned to communicate very well because of it. But it was hard because we would both be in season at the same time and then offseason was at the same time. It was really tough. But we just knew that it was meant for us, so whatever it took to get through it is was what we did."
While Reed didn't believe playing in the NFL was an achievable goal until after his junior season of college, Hall knew much earlier. She knew in high school he was going to be great because of how much he wanted greatness.
"When he invested, he invested completely," CeCe said. "And so when Nevada came to me and asked me what I saw in Malik, the words I'd use to describe him were, 'Driven, ambitious,' all these different things. That's when it really hit me and I was, like, 'This man is gonna go. Just watch.'"
CeCe said Reed's time at Nevada "was like 360" for his personal development. She helped him through his true freshman season, a year in which Reed wanted to play but Nevada's coaches redshirted him because they believed he needed more on-field improvement. During that year, Reed grew spiritually and improved his confidence as he began to chart the path he wanted in life.
"In the South, your family is so close to you that sometimes you kind of become who they see," CeCe said. "Wen he got here, he became who he wanted to be. His spiritual growth was the biggest pivotal point. After that, he just started to be conscious of certain things and how he carried himself, how he thought about things. His mindset was the biggest part of it."
After several years of dating, the Reeds were married last July and took their honeymoon to Mexico in March following the 2020 season, marking the first time Malik had left the country. They recently added a silver lab named Thor — Malik is a Marvel fan and CeCe threw the name out as a joke — and are planning on adding to the family with a kid in the near future. First as his best friend, then his girlfriend and now his wife, Malik is grateful for CeCe's steady guidance the last decade.
"It's helped change me for the better, just like coming here to Nevada," Reed said. "I've grown as a person. CeCe has helped me realize things about myself that I wouldn't have realized or wouldn't think was a bad thing or something that would hinder me from being a better person. Having a person who will be honest with you and trust in you and want to see you succeed and be your best self, those are things I've learned since being a married man, and those are things I want to be for her. It's been amazing, a journey, good day and bad days, but it's been amazing."
Earning a spot in the NFL
If you wanted to interview Reed after one of his Wolf Pack practices, you'd be in for a wait. That's because after each practice, when his teammates would filter out of Wolf Pack Park back to the locker room, one man stayed and worked extra. That was Reed, who would run sprints across the width of the field after each practice. Sometimes, he'd be out there for 15 to 20 minutes after everybody left. And when he was done with his extra work, he'd run — not walk — to the locker room.
With an unparalleled work ethic and elite four-year résumé of rushing the passer, Reed went into the 2019 draft expecting to hear his name called. In total, 254 players were selected. Reed wasn't among them.
"I thought I would get drafted," Reed said. "People were calling me left and right. I was just trying to figure it out, but once the draft ended, it was just more calls, calling about free-agent deals and trying to negotiate. I didn't even know they negotiated with undrafted free agents. The process was crazy. But the same way with choosing to come to Nevada, I felt the same way that Denver was where God wanted me to be."
Two years before the draft, Reed had a dream about being on the field with Broncos star Von Miller, a Super Bowl MVP and one of the best pass rushers in NFL history. With Denver offering to add him as an undrafted free agent, Reed followed that dream and signed with the Broncos. After a strong preseason, a period in which Miller nicknamed Reed "Dream Killer" because he terrorized quarterbacks, Reed made the 53-man roster.
As a rookie, Reed started eight games and had 27 tackles and two sacks, not bad for an undrafted player. With Miller sidelined last season with injury, Reed took it to the next level. Starting 13 games, Reed had 53 tackles, eight sacks and a forced fumble, ranking 26th in the league in sacks ahead of stars like JJ Watt, Joey Bosa, Ndamukong Suh and Chase Young, among others. While Reed has had his "pinch me" moments in the NFL, he now knows he belongs.
"I'm seeing that I am good enough and I'm supposed to be here and have a purpose for being here," Reed said. "Beyond the work that you put into it, it's how you view yourself. I'm in the NFL right now because I'm supposed to be here. I have this opportunity to come in and start because I'm supposed to be here. I'm making these plays because that's what I'm supposed to be doing. It's having that confidence in who you are and who you are becoming, beyond whether people saw that or not coming up. I've had NFL coaches come and tell me, 'We made a mistake. You should have been drafted.'"
The 24-year-old is entering a crucial season. An unrestricted free agent after the 2021 campaign, Reed has targeted double-digit sacks as a goal next year. If he hits that, he could be highly sought-after on the free-agent market after making less than $900,000 in each of his first three seasons in the league. Reed is optimistic Denver will value him for his production and reward him for that in the coming months. But his focus right now is the daily work of getting better, something he learned at Nevada, a blue-collar mid-major program.
"I feel like the grit of it all," Reed said of the lessons he learned at Nevada. "The grind. I'm not taking away from any Power 5 players. I feel like they have a passion, they grind every day as well. But something about coming here, you have to have a different mentality. It's all about what you put into it. When you get here, nothing is really gonna be given. It's not a given that you play three to four years here and you go into the league. If you develop a passion for it, it's 'How much are you willing to invest? How much are you willing to give up?'"
Reed has become a role model for the current generation of Wolf Pack players looking to make it to the NFL. The blueprint he's provided of hard work and self belief could power others to make it to the league. And while Alabama is Reed's home state and Colorado is currently where he lives, Reno will always be special as his recent trip to campus reminded him.
"Driving by the dorms, I was just, like, 'Dang, I remember moving all my stuff in and meeting all these new people and things being so different,'" Reed said. "When we were flying in, it was a feeling like when you go home. I had the same feeling. This is like my second home, and it will always feel that way. No matter where I am, no matter where we are, you just feel a sense of comfort."
Columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @ByChrisMurray.