PHILADELPHIA — Sitting in the passenger seat of his mother’s car parked outside his college apartment, Haason Reddick told her he was ready to give up on a dream.
Early in his time as a Temple walk-on struggling to get on the field, Reddick was running out of patience. He had plenty of support, chiefly from his parents, but the Camden, N.J., native had yet to make meaningful progress on the depth chart.
Raelakia Reddick’s Ford Focus was stocked with groceries she had brought for him, and he reflected on the sacrifices she was making for him to pursue a college football career. Between the student loans and the grocery runs to save whatever she could over the school’s meal-plan costs, Haason couldn’t bear it.
“I thought it was a failed dream,” the new Eagles edge rusher told The Philadelphia Inquirer. “I thought I was doing it for no reason. Being a walk-on, I just remember telling her, ‘I’m ready to come home, Ma. I think I’m wasting my time here.’ ... It wasn’t looking good, so I was like, ‘If I’m not getting the opportunity to play, why should you continue to put yourself in debt?’”
Raelakia’s response was simple, but it put her son back on the path that would lead him to become a first-round pick in 2017 and an Eagle this offseason when he signed a three-year, $45 million contract as a free agent in March.
“My whole thing was, you finish what you start,” she said. “ ‘We’re here. We’re not going backwards. We’re not turning around. What is the other option? There isn’t one. We’re finishing what we start, you’re going to graduate college. Whatever happens with football happens, but you will have your degree and you will do something that you love.’”
Reddick, 27, is now situated as the Eagles’ top edge rusher going into next season. He has had double-digit sacks in each of the last two seasons with Arizona and Carolina and will be tasked with improving a defensive front that ranked 31st in sack production last season.
A handful of days before the news was official, Raelakia’s ears perked up when her son told her she should start looking at houses in Jersey.
“I knew it!” she responded when he finally called her with the news.
Once Reddick accepted his mom’s advice and stayed with football, he moved forward with one goal.
He was going to repay his mom, and his coaches knew it.
“I remember him talking about how important it was for him to be successful,” former Owls defensive line coach Elijah Robinson said. “To just be able to pay her back after everything she’s done for him. After that conversation we had, to watch the way he worked to try to achieve that goal and then to watch him get drafted, I was watching his dreams come true.”
Hard work aside, part of Reddick’s path to success at Temple was sheer luck.
After he redshirted his freshman season, Owls coach Steve Addazio told him there wouldn’t be a spot for him the following year. Fortunately for Reddick, Addazio left for Boston College later that offseason. The next coaching staff, led by Matt Rhule, was willing to try to find the right position for the undersized, unheralded player from across the bridge who had played just four games in his junior and senior years at Haddon Heights High School due to injuries.
Rhule’s staff put him at outside linebacker and he eventually carved out a special teams role as a redshirt freshman. That next offseason, the Owls moved him to defensive end. He might have been small — he was listed at 6-foot-1, 225 pounds — but he was one of the strongest players on the team.
Once they saw Reddick working the edge, everyone knew they were on to something.
“He was a natural from the jump, to be honest,” said New Orleans Saints edge rusher Sharif Finch, who shared the defensive-line room with Reddick at Temple. “He never really had a problem. It was only a matter of time.”
Seeing Reddick’s speed around the corner, his coaches decided to hold off teaching him the finer details of their defensive scheme. He wasn’t exactly allowed to freelance, but they didn’t want him making too many reads on his way to the quarterback.
“With the tools he had, you don’t slow that down,” Robinson said. “He was a weapon. He was a guy that could bend, could get off the ball, he was violent with his hands. You have to allow guys like that to do what they do best. He was best at causing havoc.”
Reddick, who has “Weapon for the Philadelphia Eagles” in his Twitter bio, remembers similar instructions.
“When I first started playing, everything was, ‘Get off the ball, run around the guy and try to get the quarterback,’ ” he said. “ ‘That’s all you do.’ ”
The specialized role suited Reddick. By his redshirt senior year, he’d become one of the best defensive linemen in college football and was an unquestioned leader in the locker room. He had 22.5 tackles for losses, 9.5 sacks, and three forced fumbles in 2016.
On the field, he was an athletic marvel who was fast enough to run conditioning drills with the skill position players but strong enough to successfully grapple with offensive linemen who outweighed him by nearly 100 pounds.
In the locker room, he was “Haas,” an upperclassman who balanced a good sense of humor with a certain seriousness about him. People knew not to push his buttons.
“He was the OG of that D-line,” said Kareem Ali, a former Temple defensive back who met Reddick growing up in Camden. “He’s just Haas. If you know Haas, he’s just a funny dude who means business. Haas don’t take nothin’ from nobody.”
It didn’t matter where he was drafted, Reddick was destined to play in unfamiliar territory in the NFL.
His college production was as a line-of-scrimmage player, but his size precluded him from staying there in the minds of most teams. Aside from quarterback, edge rusher might be the most valuable position in the NFL. Those two spots on the outskirts of the pocket are typically reserved only for the freakiest of the physical freaks.
Reddick ran a 4.52-second 40-yard dash and jumped 133 inches in the broad jump at the combine, but those weren’t the numbers that disqualified him for the position he’d taken to North Broad. He was about four inches too short and 20 pounds too light for the edge. Instead, he was projected as an off-ball linebacker.
His athletic testing was good enough for him to become one of the quickest risers from the NFL scouting combine that year, and he went 13th overall to the Arizona Cardinals in 2017 with the plan to become an inside ‘backer.
This time, Reddick didn’t seem like a natural at a new position. He struggled early, and those struggles were amplified by the constant turnover on the Cardinals’ coaching staff. By 2019, Reddick was playing for his third head coach in as many seasons and was being labeled a bust by some.
Going into 2020, Reddick felt his NFL career hanging in the balance.
The Cardinals declined his fifth-year option after he’d started just five games in his third season. He was suddenly in a contract year with a fleeting chance to prove he belonged in the league.
“I thought that I could possibly either be done with football, I thought that maybe nobody would want me, or that I could have been on special teams,” Reddick said. “I could have been somebody that went from a first-round pick to just playing special teams.
“Those years were frustrating, man. I had a lot of expectations for myself, so I was dealing with the expectations from myself and the expectations from people in the building and the fans. It weighed down on me. Not only that, I was put in a position that I never played.”
Rewriting the story
After the 2019 season, Reddick called Robinson with some exciting news.
He was moving back to his old position and wanted his old coach to help him prepare.
The two Camden natives met at Texas A&M, where Robinson is the defensive line coach, for some offseason training.
Reddick knew what was at stake the next year: A chance to set his career back on track.
“Moving back to the edge, I knew that I had control over my own destiny,” Reddick said. “I knew I could rewrite the story and change the path that my career was going on.”
Robinson remembers Reddick having some extra juice during those training sessions, energized by the chance to return to what was most familiar to him.
“He had a chance to get back to what helped him become a first-rounder,” Robinson said. “He was no longer projected as a position, he was allowed to do what he did best. He was back to doing what made people fall in love with him when they put his Temple film on TV and watched him. They put him back in his natural habitat.”
Just like at Temple, Reddick’s move to the edge paid dividends in short order. He had 12.5 sacks in the 2020 season, including a five-sack game against the New York Giants in Week 14.
He hit the free-agency market the following offseason and signed a one-year, “prove-it” deal with the Carolina Panthers for $6 million, reuniting with Rhule. In 2021, he answered any questions about the sustainability of his pass-rush productivity with 11 sacks, including two against the Eagles.
Reddick still isn’t prototypical edge-rusher size. He was listed at 235 pounds for the last few seasons, about 30 pounds lighter than the average weight of an edge rusher according to mockdraftable.com, which compiles scouting combine data.
How does Reddick overcome being smaller in stature?
“He’s one of the strongest guys I’ve ever been around, pound-for-pound,” Robinson said. “He has a knack for getting to the quarterback. That’s the type of skill that was God-given. With his God-given talents and his work ethic, it allows him to be successful.”
During his introductory news conference, Reddick mentioned he’d bulked up to 242 and was entertaining getting up to around 250 depending on how the additional weight impacts his speed.
Although the strength helps, Reddick believes his success as a smaller rusher comes more from his approach than anything else.
“I don’t care who you put in front of me,” Reddick said. “It could be the biggest guy or the smallest guy, I’m going to treat you the same: You’re in my way. At the end of the day, I’m going to do whatever I have to do to get you out of it.”
Reddick was eventually able to pay his mother back for the belief she had in him during his college years.
He got her a Mercedes-Benz for Mother’s Day in 2018 and bought her a new house in the area recently. This Mother’s Day, Haason and his sister surprised their mom with a reservation at a nice restaurant in Philadelphia.
They brought her flowers and a few presents, but there was one snafu.
“We missed the reservation,” Raelakia said, laughing. “The clock moves faster than I do, let’s just say that.”
They didn’t bother making another reservation. They just ordered takeout and stayed in.
“We just sat and we laughed, and we talked, and we ate,” Raelakia said. “We just talked about things we wouldn’t have been able to talk about in a crowded restaurant around a whole bunch of strangers, so it actually was perfect.”
Reddick said the chance to spend more time around his familial support system was a major factor in why he signed with the Eagles. He’s close with Raelakia, his father Raymond Matthew, and his seven siblings, and typically returned to Camden each offseason to spend time with them and train.
“They weren’t able to come out to as many games as I would have liked them to because of the distance,” Reddick said. “Being able to close that gap now ... it’s extremely wonderful.”
Reddick’s return to his hometown will also give him more chances to work in the community that helped shape him. A few days after he signed with the Eagles, Camden Mayor Vic Carstarphen and other city representatives publicly welcomed him back to the city with a walkthrough of developing areas.
He had been presented with a key to the city in 2017 and has since donated to charitable foundations in the area, including a $15,000 donation of toys and holiday presents for local families last December.
“He has an opportunity now to spend a lot of time with the youth from Camden,” Robinson said. “They’ll be able to say, ‘I can be Haason one day. I have a chance to be successful one day.’ ”
©2022 The Philadelphia Inquirer. Visit inquirer.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
This story was originally published May 18, 2022 2:30 AM.