I remember standing behind the Washington bench during the 2003 Apple Cup. I looked over and saw a freshman named Caesar Rayford standing there with his back to me. He was 6'7" and skinny. But I remember thinking: When that guy hits the weight room and physically matures, he might be something special.
But fate had other plans. The men pulling the strings at Washington were athletic director Todd Turner and president Mark Emmert. In December of 2004, they hired Tyrone Willingham as the new Washington football coach.
Thus began the dreariest period in Husky Football history. Not only did Willingham produce a disastrous 11-37 record, he also dealt with players in stupefying ways. For reasons known only to Willingham, many talented Husky players went into his doghouse, never to return.
Caesar Rayford ended up being one of those players. He never started at Washington and barely got a chance to play. I first spoke with Rayford back in 2010, as I wrote my book Bow Down to Willingham.
"I watched a lot of guys work their tails off and leave their blood and sweat out on the field," Rayford said then. "And their careers and scholarships would be taken away for reasons nobody understood. It was most devastating for guys that never got a chance to play."
Rayford's last game at Washington was the loss at Hawaii in 2007, to cap a 4-9 season. Many of his fellow seniors had lost all love for football while playing for Willingham, and they were ready to get on with normal lives.
But Caesar Rayford hadn't given up. Not by a long shot.
That's where this story really begins.
Here was this young man, standing 6'7" and weighing 245 pounds, with a relentless work ethic and rangy athletic ability. Certainly someone would take notice and give him a shot.
"Draft day came, no call," Rayford said recently to Hardcore Husky. "After the draft, no call. After a couple days went by, I thought this might be it. It might be over.
"I was working with my agent at the time to see what was out there," he said. "The BC Lions were at my Pro Day, and they were interested and wanted to see a little more of me. So I drove down to Portland where I did one of those free agent workouts where you pay$100 to basically try out. I did really well, and they offered me a contract. So I was like, Okay cool, I've still got hopes and dreams."
Rayford relocated to Vancouver, BC to play in the Canadian Football League. He worked his tail off and had a solid preseason. It was good enough that Lions GM and head coach Wally Buono offered him a contract and placed Rayford on the practice squad for the whole season.
But Buono also made a startling comment about Rayford. "It amazes me that (Washington) couldn't develop a player of his natural ability with the facilities they have there," he said. "If they had done this when he was 17, 18, 19, 20, look what he might have become. We did it in less than a year. If he had been at this point when he was 20, we'd probably be watching him on TV (In the NFL)."
After the season, Rayford returned home to Spanaway, Washington where he worked at Competitive Edge as a personal trainer. He returned to Vancouver for BC's 2009 training camp, where he had a solid preseason. But he got released in the final cut.
"I didn't hear back from any other CFL teams," he said. "I got a call from the Spokane Shock, an Arena2 Football team. So I went to Spokane in the spring of 2009. It was definitely tough, because at the time we were making $200 a game. Housing was taken care of, but making $200 a couple years out of college... I mean, I've got bills to pay and was barely making ends meet. But hey, it was an opportunity to play football and I was still holding onto that dream of playing in the NFL.
"I ended up doing a really good job," he said. "I was inserted as a starter. I was impactful, making plays, started the rest of the season. It ended up being the highlight of my life because we won the championship. It was the first championship of my life. I was like, okay I didn't make money, but I was very happy because we won a championship."
Rayford went back home and lived with his parents. He resumed working as a trainer at Competitive Edge and coached at his old high school at Bethel. Spokane was making a transition back to the AFL-1, and didn't contact Rayford at all about returning for the next season. Rayford thought: Here's a football dream coming to an end again.
Rayford toiled in the workaday world. But suddenly, in the fall of 2009, the BC Lions called him back.
"They had had some injuries," Rayford said. "They signed me for the playoffs. I played against Hamilton and Montreal for the chance to go to the Gray Cup. I was playing out of position at defensive tackle, but I played really well. Got 1.5 sacks in those two games, applied good pressure. So I thought, Sweet, maybe I'm back in the game. I've got a chance to get to the NFL.
But after the season, the Lions didn't offer Rayford a contract. He was back to square one.
The Spokane Shock asked him to come in for a workout. That was a head scratcher. "I was like, huh? I helped them win a championship and now I'm not good enough for a contract? I have to come work out? Okay this just isn't working out very well."
But word got to Rayford that the AFL's Utah Blaze was looking for players. He gave them a call and the two sides talked, before Utah offered him a contract.
"I said sweet, I am still able to live a dream even though I will only be making $400 a game. I still have a chance."
In February 2010, Caesar Rayford packed up his car and made the long drive down to Salt Lake City. "I came out there and my first year with the Blaze, we were like the Bad News Bears of the AFL," he said. "We were the worst team in the league. Getting blown out all the time, The talent we had just wasn't good enough.
"That time was a low point for me," he said. "2010 was hard because I was barely making ends meet. I was working 3 jobs and playing Arena Football. I used to wake up at 5:30AM and go to Gold's Gym, because in the Arena League, there aren't trainers or weight rooms. I would hit the gym, then go to football practice, then from there, I worked as a juvenile counselor and worked until about 5PM. I took a little break, then worked security at a couple of clubs. So I was bouncing until 1:30 or 2AM, and then I'd go home and would have to get back up again in 4 hours. I had bills, had loans trying to pay off, and had to take care of family. My life would be like that for the next 4 years."
Most people in this position would wave the white flag and surrender in the face of such formidable odds. But something within Rayford kept pushing him forward.
"I've always had this dream of playing in the NFL," he said. "You know that you've got to do the things you need to do, because life isn't going to give it to you. For 4 years, every morning became a fight. You know what? I'm going to fight until I make it to my dream. Yes, I wasn't a college starter. Yes, I went undrafted. No, I didn't get looked at from anybody. But I believed in myself and I wanted it bad. So if it meant that I needed to sleep 4 hours and hit the gym just to make ends meet, then that's what I would have to do. Here's my dream, here's my goal, and I am going to do what I need to do to get to the NFL."
Call it some kind of quantum mass, or maybe it was the law of averages finally falling in his favor. But things began to click on the field for Caesar Rayford.
"I started becoming a really dominant player," he said. "We started being known as Sack Lake City. I scored three touchdowns in a game against Arizona. I had an interception for a TD, a stripped sack for a TD and tipped ball for a TD. I had 3.5sacks in the game. And that gave me a little bit of a name. People were like, Okay, who is this guy in Salt Lake City?
"I became All-Arena, set several Utah records and became dominant," he said. "A lot people look at Arena Football as a semi-pro thing. But I was playing my butt off and working my 3 jobs.
"In a sense, I had forgotten about the NFL," he said. "Then one day at 6:30 AM, I was lifting in the gym, when the Indianapolis Colts called. They wanted to bring me up for a workout. I always told myself if I could get just a toenail in the door, that's all I would need. They wanted me to fly out the next day. I thought: Holy crap, this is real. it's not a workout. it's a tryout.
"I called my job at juvenile counseling and told them," he said. "They were excited and gave me some days off from work. I went out to Indianapolis. There was no signing bonus so I actually took a pay cut because I lost my income from Arena League and my other jobs. My debt was going up and I had to take out some loans. All I was given was a plane ticket and a chance to fight for a spot. That's all.
"I arrived at Indy, and I was a camp body. I was 6th on the depth chart, and everyone looking at me like I'm a semi-pro guy whatever. But you know what? Every day I scraped and clawed and fought. I did everything I could at every practice to better myself. Every day, every practice, every workout, every film study, I was going to leave it all out there. I had everything against me. The guys in there had been drafted in my same position with 10 million dollar signing bonuses. They're pulling up to the facility in their Escalades, and meanwhile I've got bills piling up in Utah. I was just there to make a name for myself."
As camp progressed, Rayford got better and better. Guys stopped giving him the silent treatment. Every day was fraught with the peril of getting cut.
At one point, Colts head coach Chuck Pagano pulled Rayford off to the side. "Caesar, we love your work ethic. We love your desire... Caesar, are you ready to compete and fight for a job with the Indianapolis Colts?"
"Yes I am," Rayford said. "I am ready to go."
"Here I am, 27 years old, have been out of college for 6 years," Rayford said. "I'm the 90th guy on the roster. But I am getting a chance to make a NFL team."
Rayford returned to his counseling job, bouncing at clubs and working out at Gold's Gym in Murray, Utah. "By this time, bills were really mounting up," he said. "And at the time I had a girlfriend who had 3 kids, so I had a family to take care of."
Come fall camp 2013, Rayford returned to Indy at 270 pounds with a scant 7% body fat.
"My only thing was that nobody was going to outwork me," he said. "We went into the pre-season, and walking out to my first pre-season game against the Buffalo Bills, I just got on my knees and thanked the Lord because he'd brought me so far and he'd blessed me. A couple guys went down with injuries, and I played a lot. I was nervous, the lights were on, the stage was big. It was real. I got my first sack and it caused a fumble. A teammate picked it up and ran it in for a touchdown. From there, I had one of the best pre-seasons a guy like me can have. I led the NFL preseason in sacks. I was rated the #2 defensive player in the pre-season. And then it was time for final cuts."
The players gathered together as coach Pagano addressed them and expressed thanks for their hard work. The players were then dismissed. "I went back to the hotel, and if you don't hear from them by a certain time, you've made the roster. At the end of the day, I hadn't heard from anyone. Holy crap, I've made the 53 man roster. I've cracked it!
"Here's a guy that never started in college, didn't play much in college, a 27 year old rookie, working 3 jobs and barely making ends meet in life. And for me to make it to the NFL on a 53-man roster was surreal and such a blessing."
Rayford received the biggest check of his life and quickly wiped clean all of his debts. He was about to place a down payment on a home when he got called in to see Colts GM Ryan Grigson.
"You've had a remarkable pre-season," Grigson told Rayford. "You did some great things for us. You'll understand that football is a business. We got an offer. The Dallas Cowboys sent us a draft pick for you. For someone to send a draft pick for someone who has never been in the league speaks volumes. We didn't want to let you go. You outplayed our first round draft pick. But nevertheless, you're now a member of the Dallas Cowboys."
"I was like, cool," Rayford said. " Walking into Cowboys Stadium for that first game of the 2013 season, Sunday Night Football, Dallas Cowboys vs. New York Giants, was amazing. I used to literally sit at home with friends and watch Sunday Night Football, and here I was as part of it. I thought, I am here."
Rayford appeared in 7 games with Cowboys last season. "I worked my tail off," he said. "I did some good things and they held onto me. Next year, I'm going to make some things happen. And that's my story."
Several weeks ago, Rayford returned to Seattle and got to see Washington's sparkling new facilities.
"Man, I am so happy for these guys," he said. "Those facilities are amazing. Part of me felt that my blood, sweat and tears helped pave the way for these guys to have all that. And the people at U-Dub still welcomed me like I was a player. I was like, Man, this is where it all started. I'm thankful.
Rayford was asked his thoughts toward his former UW coach, Tyrone Willingham.
"I appreciate him doing what he could," he said. "I just wish that I was given more opportunities. But maybe it was a test. Maybe what I went through at Washington was something to test me to make me fight more and make me a better player and more hungry. Maybe the things I wasn't given was a way to battle test me?"