“Right here, bro” was the common retort from Buffalo Bills receiver Andre Reed to quarterback Jim Kelly as they approached the line of scrimmage throughout their long career together.
It was almost an involuntary reflex on the part of Reed.
Teammate Steve Tasker describes a scene in July 2002. The Bills’ retired stars from the Kelly era gathered for a touch football game at the University at Buffalo against a team led by Dan Marino.
“It was a flag, touch football game for charity,” Tasker said. “It’s a dog and pony show. People loved it. It was fun. We’re getting ready to play, and Jim calls some play. ‘You do this. You do an out. You do a cross. Break.’ As we break the huddle, Andre can’t help it. He says, ‘Hey, right here, bro.’ Jim goes, ‘Are you joking?’”
Right here, bro? In a touch football game?
It takes more than remarkable talent to make the Pro Football Hall of Fame. One trait that sets Hall of Famers apart is a competitive fire that burns like a nuclear reactor, year after year, undiminished by success, fame or money.
Reed demonstrated it from the time he was a youngster in Allentown, Pa., to his first practice as a Bills rookie to the end of his 16-year NFL career. When he retired in 2000, he ranked third in NFL history in receptions with 951 and fourth all-time in receiving yards with 13,198.
On Saturday, that uncommon drive lands him in Canton, Ohio, where he will be inducted as the 10th member of the Bills in the pro football shrine. His journey to NFL greatness is a testament to one man’s yearning to excel.
Growing up in Allentown, competition was part of the daily routine for Reed. His father, Calvin, was a construction worker who loved athletics and coached little league football. Andre played on the same team growing up with his older brother, Tyrone, and younger brother, Dion.
When the boys weren’t playing football, Calvin would take them to local parks where they would run laps and sprints, do exercises, run pass patterns against each other.
“We were the most competitive family in the city of Allentown,” Andre says. “Everyone knew the Reeds. Whether we were playing in our yard or at the park, we always had some kind of game going.
“ ‘An idle mind is the devil’s workshop,’ that was one of my father’s sayings,” Reed said.
Reed says his competitiveness was honed early on.
“It just came from growing up,” Reed said. “Me and my brothers, we took on all comers. You want to get a basketball game, a pick-up football game? Let’s go. That really set the tone for what was to come for me. I never backed down from anything. I might have been one of the smallest when I was young but I never backed down.”
Reed needed to be tough because he was such a late bloomer.
“He played in little league even in 10th grade,” said his mom, Joyce. “He was only 109 pounds entering 10th grade. He played for the 110 pounders that fall.”
Reed weighed a mere 140 pounds to start his junior season at Allentown’s Dieruff High School and spent much of that year on the scout team.
“That year we just tried to toughen him up,” said then-Dieruff coach Bruce Trotter. “We did a lot of scout team work with him. We had an undefeated team, and he was the backup quarterback. He got the daylights kicked out of him, because we had a very good defense. He started maturing.”
“I got into working out my junior year in high school,” Reed said. “I was getting taller. I started developing. I put on 20 pounds in one offseason before my senior year. So by the time I was a senior I was 180 pounds."
Reed enjoyed an outstanding season as a senior quarterback, operating a run-oriented, veer offense. A few big colleges, like Pittsburgh and West Virginia, noticed him but wanted him to go to junior college to develop.
That’s why he opted for Kutztown University, the Division II school down the road.
“I was a young, 17-year-old kid coming out of high school,” Reed said. “I wasn’t fully mature. And I was kind of a homebody. I liked to stay home. Kutztown was only about 45 minutes away. It had a good academic program, a good football team and I was looking to play right away.
“Hindsight is 20-20,” Reed said. “Who knows? If I had gone to junior college for two years and then gone to a big school, I might have gotten lost in the shuffle.”
The Kutztown Kid
It didn’t take long for Kutztown to realize it had a steal.
“My first day of training camp there at Kutztown, the coaches were trying to figure out what to do with me because being a quarterback, I could run and I could handle the ball,” Reed said. “But they had an all-conference quarterback at the time who was a senior.”
“The coach said to me, ‘We want to put you at wide receiver. We need some skill players who can run.’ That was the start of it.”
“He came in as a very confident freshman, very confident,” said Greg Gristick, the senior QB that season. “He used to always tell me, right from the start, ‘Greg, I’m going to play in the NFL one day.’ He started to convince me by the end of his freshman year.”
Gristick recalls Reed’s first touchdown at Kutztown.
“It was near the end of the year,” Gristick said. “The play was called 50 Stone Bootleg. He was split wide right and just ran a go route. I remember he got double-teamed, and it was about a 55-yard pass. I just threw it up there. He out-jumped two defenders and caught the ball at its peak for a touchdown. I just shook my head and said, ‘Wow, the kid’s going to be pretty good.’ ”
Reed did not take college success for granted.
“He was a hard worker, really dedicated,” Gristick said. “He didn’t really like the weekend party scene. He just wanted to focus on getting better.”
“Everybody else would be out on Friday nights, and you would hear weights clinking,” recalled Kutztown assistant Al Leonzi. “It was Andre working out.”
Reed finished his Kutztown career with 142 catches, 2,020 receiving yards, 14 touchdowns and nine school records.
The Bills picked him 86th overall, in the fourth round of the 1985 draft. He was the 13th receiver picked, and the Bills took a receiver (Chris Burkett) in the second round.
“I told Mr. Ralph Wilson at the time when we took Andre in the fourth round that he was better than Chris Burkett,” said Elbert Dubenion, the former great Bills receiver who scouted Reed for Buffalo. “It was good to be right.”
It didn’t take long for Reed to make a big impression.
The making of a legend
In one of his first practices as a rookie, Reed went up to catch an over-the-middle pass, took a huge hit from a defensive back and landed hard.
He got back up and forced himself back into the front of the wide receivers line, ahead of others waiting to run routes.
“I jumped up like a Mexican bean, like nothing was wrong,” Reed recalled. “Back in the day in training camp you had, like, 125 guys out there. We had 15, 16 receivers. When you got a rep, you had to take full advantage of it. I would tell the quarterback, ‘Throw it to me even if there’s three guys there. I’m gonna go get it. I didn’t come this far to shy away.’ That was my signature right there, the toughness and reliability. I really took pride in that.”
Despite shaky quarterbacking, Reed had a good rookie year, catching 48 passes for 637 yards.
Few Bills players ever worked as hard as Reed to build on success.
A big part of Reed’s offseason workout regimen was going back to Allentown and running up Cumberland Hill, near his childhood home. Reed had seen a television special on Chicago Bears legend Walter Payton that showed the great running back running up and down hills in the offseason. Reed emulated Payton.
“It had three tiers to it,” Reed recalled. “You had to go up a hill, then it was flat a little bit. Go up another hill and then it was a little flat, and then the last part of the run was straight uphill.
Starting in his college days, Reed practiced juggling to improve his hand-eye coordination. And he was a weight-room fanatic.
“The most time I took off in the offseason my first 10 years in the league was three weeks,” Reed said. “I was back at it. I was a maniac when it came to working out.”
“Andre was one of the hardest workers that I ever saw,” said Bills Hall of Famer Thurman Thomas. “Every year he came back looking better than the year before.”
The addition of Kelly and then Thomas in ’88 turned the Bills’ offense into a juggernaut. Reed’s production improved each of his first five seasons. In 1989, he had 88 receptions, second most in the NFL, for 1,312 yards and nine touchdowns.
By that point, Reed’s strength in his upper body and thighs made him a run-after-the-catch terror.
“I remember when James Lofton came in 1989, and it was before James was actually getting in the game all the time,” Tasker said. “We were standing on the sidelines and he’d say, ‘Man, he’s so strong on the ball.’ He’d catch it and guys would have to just hang on to get him down.”
“He was hard to bring down, and you better bring him down or he was gone,” said Steelers Hall of Fame cornerback Rod Woodson.
“There are guys who are fast, and guys who are shifty and guys who are strong,” said former Bills quarterback Frank Reich. “Andre had a perfect blend of all three. Explosive. I’ve never seen a receiver be able to catch the ball on a stop route over the middle and then have the acceleration to turn it into a big play in quite the same way.”
Despite taking a pounding from defenders, Reed missed only three games to injury his first 10 seasons.
“I’d say to him, ‘Oh my God, how do you catch the ball?’ ” Joyce Reed said. “He’d say, ‘Mom, if I go across the middle and I don’t catch the ball, I’m going to get hit. If I catch the ball, I get hit. So I might as well catch the ball.’ ”
Reed went on to catch 50 or more passes in 13 seasons, second only to Jerry Rice at the time of his retirement. He and Kelly teamed for 665 passes and 9,538 yards, which were all-time records for a QB-WR combination at the time of Kelly’s retirement in 1996.