EDEN PRAIRIE, MINN. (AP) - Mistral Raymond had every excuse to go the wrong way, to leave football behind and descend into sorrow, depression or, worst of all, vengeance.
Three years ago, his sister survived multiple gunshot wounds on the same night his family’s home in Palmetto, Fla., was burned down by masked attackers who hurled Molotov cocktails through the windows while he was away at junior college in Iowa. Raymond said the assailants were targeting a cousin of his who lived next door and had the wrong house.
And just a few weeks ago, his pregnant half-sister was found dead in Bradenton, Fla., with authorities calling it a homicide.
Somehow, Raymond persevered through it all, and he finally had something to celebrate on Saturday when the South Florida defensive back was chosen in the sixth round by the Minnesota Vikings.
“Just having my family here with me, having them see my name come across the screen and seeing the excitement that it brought them, I think it was a relief for all of us,” Raymond said. “It helped me realize what type of position that the Lord has put me in. He has blessed me to be an outlet for my family.”
Raymond was one of eight selections the Vikings made on the third and final day of the draft. They chose Iowa defensive tackle Christian Ballard in the fourth round, Utah cornerback Brandon Burton in the fifth, Raymond, Arkansas offensive lineman DeMarcus Love, Slippery Rock center Brandon Fusco and Ohio State linebacker Ross Homan in the sixth, and Arizona defensive end D’Aundre Reed and West Texas A&M receiver Stephen Burton in the seventh round.
Ballard slipped in the draft after reports that he tested positive for marijuana at the combine in February, but Vikings vice president of player personnel Rick Spielman said the team did plenty of due diligence and did not have any concerns.
“I’ve made mistakes in the past, but I’m going to look to the future,” Ballard said. “I’m a Viking now. Whatever happened in the past is behind me.”
The Vikings addressed numerous needs throughout the weekend, including at quarterback (first rounder Christian Ponder) and in the secondary, where Raymond and Brandon Burton add depth to a group that struggled with injuries last year.
“We felt very fortunate the way the draft fell to us this year,” Spielman said. “Everything just seemed to kind of click and hit right in place.”
But the story that stuck with team officials was that of the Raymond’s heartache, and they were blown away when he recounted the facts to them in meetings leading up to the draft.
“That story is unbelievable,” Spielman said. “I sat there for a half hour and just listened to that story. It tells you what type of character that kid is.”
After the tragedy three years ago, Raymond eschewed scholarship offers from several northern schools to walk on at South Florida so he could be closer to his family. He eventually earned a scholarship and was named team captain for his senior year.
He had 56 tackles, an interception and seven pass breakups last year, playing both cornerback and safety.
“There’s one of two ways you can look at it,” Raymond said. “My first instinct was to look at it like I should have been there for my family and I should have been there to protect them. But then again, as my grandmother told me, had I been there maybe I would have done something trying to be heroic, going out of my way and maybe gotten myself injured or possibly killed.”
That was Spielman’s first question to him.
“One thing I asked him was did you have any revenge things or anything like that in your mind,” Spielman said. “He just said, ‘I’m moving forward. Things happen and you can’t let that linger and keep thinking about that.’ To me, that’s why he is where he is today.”
Vikings coach Leslie Frazier, who is entering his first full season as a head coach, is big on character, and it was clear Raymond’s story of perseverance made an impact.
“My heart goes out to he and his family for some of the things he’s experienced,” Frazier said. “It says a lot about him as a person, some of the adversity that he’s faced and how he’s stuck with it and has not given up on life and certainly not given up on his self. A tremendous young man.”
Raymond said he used football as an outlet to channel the grief and emotions he was dealing with, and the primary reason he has not gone down the wrong path.
“I could always get on the football field and forget about everything and just play the game,” he said. “It’s something that I found at an early age that I had an extreme passion for and it’s carried me this far. I’m excited to see how far it will carry me in the future.”
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