IRVING, Texas – Even though the NFL inundated the media this past weekend with its annual draft, dominating headlines like Bob Lilly at the point of attack, the reality is not one down has been played professionally for three full months. While agonizing to football fanatics, the players welcome the hiatus.
“My off-season has been great,” Cowboys defensive end Caesar Rayford said.
The AFL-turned-NFL product stated it is the first time in his life he has been able to relax and rest his mind about making ends meet. Previously, he has had to trudge through nine-to-five jobs or, like last year, play football for a full calendar year. In 2014, Rayford took a vacation to Cabo with his girlfriend at her parents’ vacation home.
“I can actually relax and get actually get myself together,” Rayford added.
Don’t mistake Rayford’s respite as an insidious insouciance stupefying him and preparing him for the Turk’s call. No, a year ago, Rayford had logged ten games for the Utah Blaze of the Arena Football League before the Indianapolis Colts signed him. In fact, he had been practicing or playing football since February, when AFL teams convene for training camp. Playing a full calendar year worth of football took its toll on Rayford. Getting his shoulder healed is one of his off-season goals.
“After the season, I had an MRI and found out I had a torn labrum,” Rayford explained. “You know, so, after the season, I have surgery to repair my labrum and just rehabbing that — focusing on getting strength and range of motion.”
“I was bothered with my shoulders a lot during the season. Just didn’t know what it was. Just thought it was this nicks and bruises and my body’s sore because when you think about it, I pretty much played year-round football because before me getting to Dallas and Indy, I was playing Arena Football which started training camp in February.”
Aside from healing, the University of Washington product is focusing on getting “bigger and stronger.” Standing at six feet, seven inches, Rayford knows he needs to get his pads lower and his feet to move quicker.
Rayford also knows he needs to improve what goes on inside his helmet. He is determined in “becoming a student of the game.” Nearly every day, he studies film – film of himself and film of other defenders. He wants to know what his defense does and its function when different calls are relayed. Rayford is bulking up his brain too.
The Dallas Cowboys selected three defensive linemen in the draft, even to the point of trading up in the second round to nab the best on their board. How does an undrafted player who was signed from an indoor league, traded, cut, and then re-signed last year process this? Is it a horrifying harbinger that the Turk stalks him still, or is it a beacon of hope to a defensive line that a dearth of stability last season?
“It’s encouraging for me because every day you’re fighting for a job,” Rayford replied. “You’re fighting for a dream, and just being to be able to in this situation to fight for it is a blessing. It’s encouraging. It doesn’t threaten me because it’s just something that’s going to happen.”
The 28 year-old doesn’t see his new teammates as threats. Rather, he is happy for them because together, they are “living the dream.” He finds it encouraging, just as he finds being a Dallas Cowboy a daily encouragement.
Caesar has gone to take this encouragement on the road with him. In February, he spoke to the students at DeAnza Middle School and Dina Vanks Middle School in Ontario, California, just outside of Los Angeles, about pushing for their dreams and dedicating themselves to the pursuit of excellence.
Persistence and pursuit of a higher standard is a message he spreads in the Metroplex too. From speaking to students at South Grand Prairie High School to helping Brandon Carr run a football camp, Rayford dedicates himself to community involvement. Describing himself as once a “knucklehead,” Rayford visits juvenile detention centers every other Wednesday and their equivalent halfway houses to encourage youngsters to not let life beat them down; to hold forth and claim their potential.
Just recently, Caesar spoke for the “Do The Write Thing Texas” speakers challenge at a DeSoto high school. This was in addition to his helping run a free youth football camp at Plano’s Williams High School.
Rayford and his giving heart make him a player Cowboys fans can’t help but root for.
Come October, when Rayford returns to his home state of Washington to take on the hometown Seahawks at CenturyLink Field, there will be relatives and friends rooting for him.
“Growing up there, I have a lot of family and friends out there,” said Rayford. “It’s going to be a crazy homecoming because I just totally with my friends Seahawks fans. We all grew up watching the Seahawks. Definitely family and friends will be in attendance at that game.”
If Rayford’s skill catches up with his heart, Cowboys fans will be his friends for years.