For a day in August, D.J. Reed thought his 2020 season was done. The 49ers were ready to put him on injured reserve, leaving him resigned to spending the year trying to get healthy.
But on Sunday, there was Reed, in a rather bizarre twist of fate, making his Seahawks debut as the starting nickelback against his old team. He turned in one of the game’s key plays, an interception that stopped a 49ers drive in the first quarter at the Seattle 14 and jump-started an eventual 37-27 Seahawks win.
“God works in mysterious ways,’’ Reed said this week via Zoom.
Reed’s career is living proof.
He had not a single scholarship offer from a four-year school coming out of Independence High School in Bakersfield, California. He walked on at Fresno State, starting a circuitous road of three schools in three years before his career finally found its footing.
At one point, he lived in a two-bedroom apartment with six other teammates, often sleeping on the couch or the floor, while attending Cerritos (California) College in a last-ditch effort to revive his football career.
So, being told by 49ers general manager John Lynch in August that the team didn’t think he could recover quickly enough from a torn pectoral muscle he suffered while bench pressing during a summer workout to make it worth it to keep him on the active roster was not the biggest hurdle Reed has faced.
“I’m just very optimistic,’’ Reed said. “Life is not gonna be smooth; like there’s gonna be bumps in the road, there’s gonna be all types of controversy. So I’m kind of immune to it, and I just adapt to what happens.’’
The 49ers wanted to keep Reed. He played 31 games for them the past two seasons as a defensive back and returner after being drafted in the fifth round in 2018.
And they told him their plan clearly when they waived him on Aug. 4.
They would waive him as injured, assuming no team would want to take a risk putting in a claim on a player who they felt might not be able to play all season. He would revert to the 49ers’ injured-reserve list and spend the year getting healthy.
“John Lynch basically said nobody would pick me up because I have a torn pec, because, you know, the average recovery is six to 12 months,’’ Reed said. “So my mindset kind of went to ‘OK, I’m gonna just take this time to spend with my family and rehab slowly for next year.’’’
Said Lynch when the move was made: “Ultimately, (it’s) too difficult to keep a roster spot for something that may go into December.’’
The Seahawks foiled the plan by putting in a claim for Reed, which meant they had to carry him on their 80-man roster during training camp (he was claimed Aug. 5) even while he wasn’t healthy. They had the 27th slot in the waiver-claim order, meaning at least 26 other teams didn’t think he was worthy of the gamble.
Once the regular season started, the Seahawks could put him on the non-football injury list. But during camp, Reed counted as a roster spot the same as Russell Wilson in a year when teams had just 80 spots instead of the usual 90.
Some may have thought it was move made just to stick it to a division rival. But the Seahawks say they simply wanted to add a player they thought could help them this season.
Seahawks coach Pete Carroll recalled this week that general manager John Schneider told him at the time that “if we get this guy now he’s not gonna be ready for a while, (but) down the schedule there could be a chance for him. He could jump right in. He’s the kind of guy that could jump in quickly and help us if we need him. He (Schneider) called all of it.’’
Reed says he thinks the Seahawks may have been impressed by how he played against them in a 2018 game in Santa Clara, when he had the primary responsibility for defending Doug Baldwin. Baldwin had two TDs in the game but neither was against Reed, who played 59 snaps and had five tackles in San Francisco’s 26-23 win.
Reed said one of the first things he did when he got the news that the Seahawks had claimed him was check their schedule. He noticed that the first game against the 49ers was Nov. 1, which he felt was a realistic time to be healthy enough to play.
“I told myself, ‘I’m gonna get back for that game,’ ” Reed said. “So that was definitely motivation.’’
Reed returned to practice two weeks ago, but it was unclear where he fit on the active roster. Ugo Amadi hurt his hamstring against Arizona, and Reed was activated to the 53-man roster Saturday.
Reed played 36 snaps against the Niners, giving up five receptions on nine targets but for a passer rating of just 42.6. He had one pressure on four blitzes, helping pave the way for a sack by Bobby Wagner.
“He just played like he’s been playing,’’ Carroll said.
With Amadi still not practicing Wednesday, Reed may have to go again Sunday at Buffalo.
It’s exactly what he hoped for when he made the decision out of high school to keep pursuing football, even if football didn’t seem to be pursuing him.
He spent a year as a walk-on at Fresno State sitting out, getting the hint that he was probably not going to get a scholarship anytime soon. With uncertainty whether his family could continue to help pay the tuition, he left after a year.
“After I left Fresno State, I was feeling kind of down, just with what I’m going to do in my life, whether football is gonna work or not, (if) I’m gonna just get a regular job,’’ he said. “So it was kind of like a reality check.’’
He decided to keep playing, enrolling at Cerritos College, a two-year college in Norwalk, California. He finally caught the attention of coaches from major four-year schools and was offered a scholarship at Kansas State.
He flourished at KSU as a cornerback and returner, earning all-Big 12 honors both years and being named a captain in 2017 for a team that went 8-5 and beat UCLA in the Cactus Bowl.
Those experiences, he said, toughened him up for the harsh reality of the NFL he experienced in August. Reed said he long ago decided to make the best of it in a year of challenges that has also included the recent death of his grandmother.
“I feel like my mindset is just unbreakable, honestly,’’ he said. “I feel like just my whole path that God has put me on has prepared me for this moment.’’