Chris Thompson saw the tears, but he didn’t think many others did.
Silas Redd had fought through many bumps and bruises over the years. His tenure at Southern California was pockmarked by injury; in his junior year of high school, his coach challenged him to push through an ankle sprain.
Yet there he was, on the sideline of the Redskins’ practice field one day in early August, unable to get the precious few repetitions afforded to an undrafted rookie because of another measly sprained ankle.
Heartbroken, Redd started to cry.
“I just wanted to practice so bad,” Redd said Wednesday, the pain of the missed opportunity still apparent in the tone of his voice. “I didn’t want to squander any reps, any opportunities for me to show them what I had. Just things like that are frustrating.”
The return to practice two days later mattered, but not as much as the one three weeks after that. Last Saturday, as Redskins personnel waited to escort those who had not made the team to the coaches’ offices, Redd walked through the front door of the main facility at Redskins Park, down the staircase and into the sanctuary of the locker room.
Despite facing the longest of odds throughout training camp — six running backs were with the team, and only three were likely to make it — Redd had made it, the third running back behind starter Alfred Morris and backup Roy Helu.
Among those he beat? Fourth-year pro Evan Royster, sixth-round draft pick Lache Seastrunk and, as it turns out, Thompson.
“It’s a little surreal, just thinking about the whole process,” Redd said. “It’s a testament to my hard work and how I was brought up by my family and stuff like that. I couldn’t be more happy.”
The 5-foot-10, 200-pound Redd didn’t take the most direct path to the league. One of the best running backs to come out of Connecticut in years, Redd rushed for more than 4,000 yards and 65 touchdowns in high school, accepting a scholarship offer from Penn State, his dream school, the spring of his junior year.
He ran for more than 1,000 yards as a sophomore, including a stretch of six consecutive games in triple figures, but his future became murky during the fallout of the Jerry Sandusky scandal in 2011. Bill O’Brien, formerly New England’s offensive coordinator, was hired to replace the legendary Joe Paterno as coach, and in the wake of NCAA sanctions, any player was allowed to transfer to any other university without consequence.
After a summer semester at Penn State, Redd headed to USC, leaving the Nittany Lions days before training camp was set to begin. He arrived in Los Angeles the same day the Trojans reported to campus.
O’Brien, now the Houston Texans’ coach, said he wasn’t surprised Redd left the program. “I don’t have too many memories because he wasn’t there very long,” O’Brien said this week, declining to elaborate.
Said Redd: “I just felt like it was the right thing to do for myself. A lot of people say that’s selfish, but you know, you don’t live for anybody else but you. I thought that was the best decision for my career.”
Redd was the Trojans’ top running back as a junior, rushing for a team-high 905 yards with nine touchdowns. He underwent surgery the following spring to repair torn cartilage in his left knee, but failed to stay healthy as a senior, playing in only six games because of ankle injuries.
His first game was in early October against Arizona, and with USC trying to wear down the clock late to preserve a victory, running backs coach Tommie Robinson was not afraid to turn to Redd to carry that responsibility.
“When the rubber met the road, and I had to have one back to go in and win this game for us, put the whole team on his back, I didn’t hesitate — it was Silas Redd,” said Robinson, who now coaches running backs at Texas. “I trusted him. I knew he was going to do exactly what he was supposed to do. I knew he was going to secure the football, but more than that, I knew nobody on that field had more heart and more determination than Silas Redd. I knew he was going to take us home.”
Though Redd was regarded as a capable zone runner — the Trojans ran an NFL-style running scheme during those two years — there were plenty of questions about his durability. His performance at the NFL combine in February was nothing spectacular, and he went undrafted in May.
The initial shock hurt, but Redd was comforted by the phone call he received shortly after it ended. The only team to reach out was the Redskins, whose running backs coach, Randy Jordan, spent time getting to know Redd during the pre-draft process.
“We feel like his learning curve is pretty good,” said Redskins coach Jay Gruden. “He’s learning. He’s picked it up faster than all the backs we had in here as a rookie, so we anticipate him knowing what to do and how to do it.”
As the backup to Morris and likely third-down back Helu, Redd’s opportunities may be scarce. In Houston, he could be limited to playing on the kickoff and punt coverage units — or merely standing on the sidelines, watching his teammates.
If there are any tears on Sunday, they won’t be because Redd was missing an opportunity.
“Every rookie has their days where they doubt and everything,” Thompson said, “but I told him. I was like, ‘Don’t worry, you will be on this team. No question about it.’”