DENVER -- Malik Reed started his tackle football journey when he was 4. This, you figure, is the touchstone in assessing his road to the NFL.
"My brother (Franklin Williams) played. He was two years older than me. I wanted to be involved in everything he was doing. If that meant telling people I was a little older, that's what I was going to do. It's crazy to think about now," said Reed smiling and shaking his head at starting so early against his mother Michelle Ebiake's wishes.
"But I really didn't like it. Baseball was my first love."
Growing up in Dothan, Ala., known as the "Peanut Capital of the World," Reed became a slugger, hitting in the middle of the order as a muscular first baseman. He thought for a long time his swing represented the quickest path to a college scholarship. Then, he wondered if basketball was a better fit. His father Anthony Reed, after all, was inducted into Troy University's Hall of Fame as the school's all-time leading scorer.
Life, though, tugs in mysterious ways. When Reed entered high school, he began fiddling with idea of returning to the gridiron. His brother was on the team, and so were many of his friends. Reed made a decision as a teenager that changed his life forever.
"I got back out there and hit the field and saw some of things I could do to impact the game," Reed told Denver7 in an exclusive interview last week. "I stopped playing basketball and baseball in eleventh grade to focus on the sport. And the rest is history."
Over the course of the the next nine years, Reed morphed into a top recruit, a star for the Nevada Wolfpack, the surprise of Broncos' 2019 training camp as an undrafted free agent, and the owner of a career-high eight sacks last season. It represents a journey that is hard to fathom until you spend time talking with Reed. He is equipped with an unquenchable thirst, a man of purpose and conviction.
While his path to the Broncos did not connect the traditional dots, he has blossomed into a solid player who defines what is possible when a player is available and ready.
"I had faith that God placed me in Nevada. And he placed me in Denver. This is exactly where he wanted me to be. It's no coincidence that I was able to have success. Faith is about believing in yourself, that you belong," Reed said. "You have to consistently get better, and grow. You can't put limitations on what you can do. There are not any. The sky is the limit. If you are not shooting for that, what are your goals, really?"
Reed exceeded expectations last season, his crease to the lineup opened for the second straight year because of awful injuries. As a rookie, Reed started eight games, forced into extended action after Bradley Chubb tore the ACL in his left knee. Reed finished with two sacks, his head spinning as he adjusted to outside linebacker, a position he played regularly only in his final season in college.
Last September, poised to begin as a valuable reserve, Reed became a critical figure when Von Miller dislocated his left ankle tendon in a workout before the season opener.
"You know when it happened it was like the air went out of practice. A lot of things got quiet. When it looked like he was going to miss a big part of the year, it was tough. It happened with Chubb last year -- for it to happen to guys like that is terrible. You never want to see it," Reed said. "To come in and have so much responsibility as a rookie and see how it could be implemented when guys are down, I feel like it got me ready to embrace the role and thrive in it."
Reed, who caught the eye of former Nevada standout linebacker Brandon Marshall -- "I was definitely paying attention to him in college," Marshall said -- capitalized. He produced eight sacks in 13 starts with 17 quarterback hits and eight tackles for a loss.
If Miller returns -- as with safety Kareem Jackson, the Broncos have not made a decision on Miller's contract option which must be exercised by March 17, and if so, guarantees the former All-Pro $7 million of his salary -- Reed would fall into a super sub role, not unlike that of Shaquil Barrett for several seasons.
"(Reed) took advantage of his opportunity and had a good season for us," coach Vic Fangio said last month. "There’s still a lot of things that he can do better and improve on, and hopefully this season will lay the foundation for that. Hopefully, we’ll have an offseason where we can get to work and get him better in all the areas of his play for an outside linebacker and outside rusher.”
Chubb never failed to mention Reed when talking about reaching his first Pro Bowl. He credited the young player for helping his development.
Yet, sometimes complacency surrounds professional athletes. They are at the top of their profession, so they instinctively take their foot off the gas. Not Reed. He explained that his adult life has been defined by "branching out." He took the road less traveled to Nevada because it would expose him to him a different world. His football career is similar.
"It's hard to grow if you don't give yourself space and room to do it," Reed said.
"You know it’s crazy because you feel like you have been playing football a long time that you know the game. I feel like I am still learning. With the offensive formations reading them -- what they can run out of it and studying that during the week so that you can get ahead of the curve -- it really slows things down. I feel like I am able to react off the game: see ball, go get ball. I know it sounds simple. It’s things I took from Von and took from Chubb to help make my game better."
Honest self-evaluation is often difficult. The best athletes stare into the mirror long enough to realize it is not going to change -- that they have to. After his first season, Reed remained in Denver to work out to become more acclimated to the altitude. He also altered his diet with the help of his wife Cidavia.
"She actually met with the nutritionist with the Broncos. He kind of gave me a guideline to follow. She just took that and went to Pinterest and was coming up with all kinds of ideas of stuff she can cook that was healthy and good for us. And she knows how to make it taste good too and that’s always a plus. She did a great job with it," Reed said.
"That accounted for me adding strength. Strength and speed are what you always want to focus on. I was pretty much at the weight I wanted to be at (he plays at 245 pounds). It was about cutting down and making sure it was good weight. I felt a lot better during the season. I was getting the bumps and bruises, but I still felt like I had gas in the tank at the end."
As Reed began to gain traction on the field, he found his voice off it. He has been active in social justice issues. Teammates Justin Simmons, Kareem Jackson and Alexander Johnson inspired him. As did a watershed moment with his wife.
"I feel like it really came to a point where me and my wife had a conversation about it and she was really challenging me, telling me it was important. I knew it was, but I had never spoken out about it or made sure my voice was heard. To be honest, that is part of the problem and why things were not changing," Reed said. "It's part of the issue that’s been deep in our country for years and years. To be blessed to have this platform, it’s the least I can do. It’s going to take work to see things change in our lifetime and our children’s lifetime."
For Reed, a challenge, whether on the field or off, is not a detour. It represents an avenue for success.
"I am blessed to be in this position and to realize its purpose. It's not just for me. It's to give back as well," Reed said. "Granted, it's not always someone's choice the position they are in. But I honestly believe, you can choose something different for yourself. If you are not trying to be the best, consistently improving and moving forward, you are not dreaming big enough."