ASHBURN — Sammis Reyes could tell just by the accent. As he walked off the field of his first-ever football game, someone threw the Chilean flag at the Washington tight end and Reyes noticed right away they were from the same country. The man, speaking in Spanish, asked Reyes to sign it.
Reyes was happy to do so. Days after Thursday’s preseason opener at New England, the 25-year-old still gets emotional, talking about what it means to represent his native Chile in the NFL. Reyes, who had a pack of fans in the stands there to see him, had a decal of the Chilean flag on his helmet.
“I get emotional because there’s never been another guy from Chile in the NFL,” Reyes said, his voice slightly breaking. “Where we come from, we don’t get too many opportunities. And now we have a lot of guys, we have a lot of kids who look up to me and send me messages every single day.
“I’ve been able to represent my country on this stage — It means the world to me.”
Reyes, a former college basketball player at Tulane turned tight end, played a position-high 33 snaps Thursday in what amounted to the first organized game of football in his life. Reyes, after all, began training for football just last year after spending most of his life focused on playing basketball. And in his debut, Reyes was better than expected.
Reyes caught only two passes for 25 yards, but the fourth-stringer shined particularly in the blocking game. Rivera declared the next day that Reyes, at 6-foot-7 and 265 pounds, might be the team’s most physical tight end. “I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself,” said Rivera, who then raved about Reyes’ potential.
One look at Thursday’s tape against the Patriots, it’s clear what Rivera means. On one specific play in the third, Reyes cleared a lane for running back Jaret Patterson by moving a defensive lineman across the field and into the pile. Reyes was also physical in running routes, plowing through defensive back Myles Bryant on a 21-yard gain.
Reyes laughs when he’s asked about his physicality. As a basketball player, Reyes said he never had a problem using his body to overpower someone — but it cost him, at times. He’d foul out “all the time,” sometimes racking up five fouls over the span of a quarter. Coaches would plead for him to be less aggressive.
Reyes is learning quickly that, in football, it’s quite the opposite.
“You’ve got to bring it out every single play,” Reyes said. “You’re not going to win every time you bring that energy and that physicality. But you’ve got to bring it every single play because the guy on the other team wants to crush you, right? So it’s either you or him. And in my mind, it’s going to be me every time.”
Despite the basketball background, the learning curve for Reyes has been steep. He said he showed up to camp trying to be physical, only for teammates to shove hands in his chest and knock him off balance. Tight ends coach Pete Hoener, an old-school drill-sergeant type of teacher, could be heard routinely screaming at Reyes. “You got pads on don’t ya?! Run it again!” he yelled last week.
But Reyes has caught on. What changed? Reyes said that now, he uses better technique to go along with his toughness. It’s not enough for Reyes to throw his body into a defender. He needs to understand what moves to use and when.
“He’s a little bit of a bull in a china shop right now,” Rivera said. “He quite hasn’t learned to focus his energy. But when he does, he’s very powerful. He’s playing with good leverage. He’s got good core strength. That’s another thing: A lot of (physical) guys have good body control. They can be very powerful.”
Reyes, fighting to make the roster, is eager to learn. After his debut, the tight end couldn’t sleep because he was too excited. So he fired up his iPad to watch the game and study his performance. As he reviewed the film, Reyes said he reviewed each play to analyze what he could have done differently. He wanted to “improve mentally” first, so he could apply the lessons when practice resumed.
On Sunday, Reyes took the field ready to go. As hard as he could.
“I wish I could say out loud what I say to myself when I’m lined up, when I’m ready to go, but I think that would be inappropriate, “Reyes said with a smile. “Maybe I’ll get fined. I don’t want to do that.”