LOS ANGELES – Every athlete does it: in the backyard, on the neighborhood court, on their home field. Imagining the moment they win an Olympic gold or NCAA championship.
For most of us, those are pipe dreams. Fun for sure, but ultimately unattainable because there comes a day where we realize our best is good but not Olympic-medal or NFL-level elite.
DJ Reader has been having his own dream ever since his Cincinnati Bengals stunned much of the NFL, upsetting the Chiefs in Kansas City to make their first Super Bowl appearance since 1989.
It involves winning the game against the Los Angeles Rams, of course, but more specifically, it’s about holding his toddler son Rocky aloft as black and orange confetti falls around them.
“It would mean the world to me. It’s something I envision every day,” Reader said Friday under the midday sunshine at UCLA’s Drake Stadium. “I’m excited for him to be at this game. It’s a blessing for me.”
Rocky’s arrival in 2019 offered Reader the opportunity to be the kind of father he’d had. David Reader Sr. was Superman to DJ after his own father’s death, David Sr. left his small hometown of Hamlet, North Carolina, with very little and would become a saving grace to students as a teacher, though none more than his son.
“My dad came to Greensboro [for grad school at North Carolina A&T] with a pack of T-shirts, the jeans he had on, and just a way to make an education for himself,” Reader said. “He went to school, built a family with me and my mom, and him being a teacher, that really translated for him with me. He was super patient, allowed me to be who I was as a kid but also instilled in me that I was never going to quit, I was never going to give up on anything.”
Reader said his dad suffered rheumatoid arthritis and was confined to a wheelchair. Reader was then taken out of school in sixth grade and homeschooled by his dad.
“[He] put in real work with me. I couldn’t make weight limits for football when I was younger so he had me run around in a trash bag,” Reader said. “He had me start playing baseball because there were no weight restrictions. Made sure I was really on top of my education, how important it was to be a Black man in America that was educated, well-spoken. How much it meant to him and everyone else. He just taught me it was going to be hard. He was real with me about it and the pressures I’d face as a person… anything, anything I ever asked him. He was truly a hero in my eyes. Everybody’s got their version of Superman, my dad was that for me.”
The medication that helped with David Sr.’s arthritis pain had a terrible side-effect: kidney damage. He eventually needed a transplant, but refused to let DJ give up one of his because his son needed both for a contact sport like football. He wouldn’t let his wife, Felicia, do it either, because he wanted to do what he could make sure his wife and son would be together if he didn’t make it. David did not get another donor and died in June 2014.
“When he passed, the things he left me will never be forgotten. Nineteen-year-old kid, getting ready to turn 20, I was really, really lost in this world and I felt like he’s with me every day, talking to me about figuring out this life,” Reader said. “I thank my mom all the time, every single day, because she really couldn’t have married a better man.”
Reader struggled after his father’s death. Once sociable, he withdrew from his friends and teammates at Clemson. Everyone worried, from his mother to coaches. A year passed and he was still struggling, which is when Clemson mandated that he get counseling.
It was what he needed. Reader graduated, and was drafted by the Houston Texans in the fifth round in 2016. In 2019, he learned he’d be a father. In 2020, he agreed to a lucrative contract with the Bengals, who to that point weren’t exactly known for being big spenders in free agency and were coming off a two-win season.
Reader didn’t know much about the coaching staff before arriving in Cincinnati, but he did know Nick Eason, who would be his coach position. Eason said Zac Taylor had assembled a good group.
“I had seen Lou’s [Anarumo, defensive coordinator] defense play before and what kind of style he played — I had played the Patriots defense in Houston so I figured it would translate,” Reader said. “Getting here, the organization was great, and knowing they were going to get Joe Burrow gave me confidence I would be playing with a good quarterback. I made the right choice.”
Reader’s first season with Cincinnati ended early after a torn quad, but this season he has reestablished himself as one of the best run-stoppers in the NFL. That was on full display in the Bengals’ divisional round win over the Tennessee Titans when he led the effort to stymie star back Derrick Henry with six tackles, including two for a loss.
The 27-year-old admitted that he’d heard pundits express doubt that Cincinnati would be able to contain Henry, and after the win he said he took it personally.
“It matters to you every time,” he said. “You’re a man. A human. Man, woman, anything — you want somebody to doubt you? Your ability to do your job? No, it’s disrespectful. You’ve gotta go out there and take it. You have to earn respect.”
The Bengals have been earning respect for weeks and now find themselves on the cusp of something no Cincinnati team has done before.
On Sunday, Felicia and Rocky will be in SoFi Stadium with several other family members and friends. If the Bengals win, Reader’s mother and son will get to be on the field with him as the confetti flutters down and the Lombardi Trophy is passed around.
“Everything I do is because of [Rocky],” Reader said. “I had a great dad, an amazing father who did everything he could do to put me in the best position in every part of life. I made a promise to that little kid when he was born, as soon as I knew about him. He made me take my life more seriously, check everything I had at the door, my ego and everything. He made me patient as a person. He changed my career, he changed my life.”
If the Bengals win and Reader’s dream with Rocky comes true, the role David Sr. played in that moment becoming real won’t be overlooked.