EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. – On the spring day he was to be drafted into the NFL, Mistral Raymond(notes) pulled his truck to the side of the Manatee River back in his hometown of Palmetto, Fla. There, with a soft reggae beat skipping through the dashboard speakers, he looked into the sky, closed his eyes and prayed.
The river had always brought him his salvation, a place to escape the drugs, the guns. And as he sat there that day, gazing into the warmth, just hours from the phone call from the Minnesota Vikings that would make him a sixth-round NFL draft pick last April, he silently mouthed the words: "I'm sure you didn't bring me this far just to drop me in the middle of nowhere."
There are, in the NFL, so many stories of survival and perseverance. Mistral Raymond knows that firsthand all too well. Most of his half-brothers found their way to jail; so did many of his friends. His father was rarely around. His house burned down. His mother died. His half-sister would be found dead in a case that still has not been resolved.
As a little boy he slept with a football as if clutching the brown, oblong orb and dreaming the NFL would protect him from the trouble that swirled nearby. Football, though, didn't come to save him; he had to invent opportunity, begging colleges to look at him until one finally said yes when he never left.
"I just remember his persistence," said Mike Simmonds, who was an assistant coach at South Florida – the one school that said yes. "He just kept calling. I don't think he'd be where he is right now if he wasn't so persistent."
So determined that his agent, Melvin Bratton, the former star running back at the University of Miami, would laugh when asked if he had come across a player who endured more in making a football life for himself. Of course not, Bratton replied.
"When I say perseverance, Mr. Perseverance is his name," Bratton said.
As the river flowed gently past the car and Mistral Raymond prayed that spring day, the memories of a long, unlikely path flashed through his mind.
Here he is in tiny Iowa Falls, Iowa, talking a friend into borrowing her car. It is 2007 and Mistral has come to play football at Ellsworth Community College because no schools had been interested in him coming out of high school. No recruiters pulled him aside. Nobody chatted with his coach and dropped a business card. To college football he didn't even exist. He is sure this is because he got hurt during his senior year of high school after switching from wide receiver to safety, and the college coaches just never got to see him play.
Still, he believes his life is destined to be in football. He loved watching Washington Redskins safety Sean Taylor, who was murdered in 2007. Raymond patterned his game after the way Taylor stalked ball-carriers, flying headfirst into tackles, feeling the joy of his shoulder laying into a hit with the satisfying pop of his pads. He followed a few high school teammates who came here to Ellsworth but so far no one has taken notice. Recruiters aren't coming by. He isn't meeting coaches. He realizes he needs to do something.
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In a computer class, Mistral learns to make spreadsheets and he creates one listing every FBS (Football Bowl Subdivision) college team, scouring the Internet for phone numbers and emails until he has the contact information for every head coach, defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach. Nobody tells him to do this but he senses that if he doesn't, he is done as a football player. He sends emails to every coach, attaching a link to a highlight tape a friend has made for him. He prays that at least one of these coaches will see his letter, be curious enough to watch his video and then call back. But none do.
So now he is asking a friend to borrow her car. He tells her he wants to use it that night to go to the nightclubs and will return it in the morning. In reality, he has plans to leave immediately for Detroit with a handful of teammates to attend a junior college combine. Maybe there someone will notice. And it turns out somebody does. The coach from Temple takes his information and promises to stay in touch.
But nothing ever happens and he wonders if his chance will ever come.
He is standing now, early in 2008, in an Iowa Falls house about to shake hands with a man who will soon be famous. This was his mother's idea. "Always keep your dreams." How many times had Valencia Raymond said those words?
Her husband, also named Mistral, had stayed around long enough to have four children with her, then left, abandoning three girls and a boy with his first name. Lymphedema and diabetes made her sick, swelling one leg to 100 pounds, eventually keeping her from work. For a few years the family lived in a public housing complex. And yet in the bleakness of the apartment building, her unit sparkled. The furniture might have come from Goodwill but it was clean and all the pieces, put together, looked like they belonged in a design magazine.
Valencia was forever telling stories about great men, people Mistral should study. Martin Luther King. Muhammad Ali. Follow their paths, see what they did, she'd say. Lately, she has become infatuated with a man she keeps seeing on her television. She loves the way he talks, the things he says. And she tells Mistral he needs to listen, too.
"Don't you see what's happening?" she says to her son. "He's going to make it and so can you."
The previous night she called, her voice excited. "I heard on the news that the man I've been telling you about is going to be in your town today," he remembers her saying. "You should go see him."
And so Mistral got up the next morning and walked the four or so blocks to the house where this man named Barack Obama is holding a fundraiser before the Iowa Caucus. Mistral stepped in the door and started a conversation with the candidate's wife, Michelle, who he's now been talking to for several minutes. He thinks her perfume has the sweetest scent he has ever smelled. Her pearls glow. And when her husband comes down the stairs after speaking to the crowd in the house, she waves him over, introducing him to this football player she just met.
"What's a guy from Florida doing all the way up in Iowa?" he asks.
It is not long after Mistral met Obama and he is holding his cell phone, listening in disbelief. Just a couple of hours ago he fell asleep to the Halle Berry movie "Things We Lost In The Fire" and here Valencia is telling him her house had been firebombed. Everything is gone. The best he can understand is someone was seeking revenge on a cousin who lived next door and threw jars of fire into the wrong house, waiting with guns to shoot those who came running out. The gunmen hit his sister Nanise seven times with bullets, injuring her. It will take more than a year for her to learn to walk again but she survives. Nanise eventually escaped the house through another entrance, along with her children, Valencia and another sister.
Valencia's voice sounds hopeful on the phone. It seems incongruous to Mistral given the disaster that's just happened. But this is her way, never wanting to disrupt the football dream she's always encouraged Mistral to pursue. She says she is fine but it will soon become clear she is not. She has inhaled a great deal of smoke and her breathing – which had not been good before the fire – gets worse. There will be trips to the hospital, the search for a new house and the horror of that night will scar his sisters in ways none of them could have imagined.
Valencia makes Mistral promise he will stay at Ellsworth where he finally got to play the previous fall after redshirting for a season. But he will not remain long. Within three weeks it is clear he is going to have to return home.
His grandmother, Jean Moreland, worries about him. She is concerned that as the lone male in the family he will want to find out who did this and the cycle of insanity will continue. She tells him everyone needs to stay within boundaries and that the worst thing that can happen is revenge. "Believe in the Lord and the law," she says. And in the end she is sure he listened. "He didn't want to know [the identity of the attackers] because he didn't know how he would feel," she later says.
But now Ellsworth is gone. He is not in college. He has no next school, no plan, nothing but the belief that some football program is going to be interested in him.
The University of South Florida has just finished a spring football practice and Mistral Raymond is standing on the other side of the fence, looking through the chain links, waving. This is probably his last chance at football and so he has come to the FBS school closest to Palmetto to plead for an opportunity, begging to be a walk-on even though he isn't even a student at the school. He's scoured the spreadsheet, memorizing the names he needs to know. He clutches a DVD of the highlight tape his friend made and he's certain he sees USF's coach, Jim Leavitt.
"Hey, Coach!" he screams, "Coach!"
Leavitt stops and walks over. Only it's not Leavitt, it's the offensive line coach Mike Simmonds, who has nothing to do with safeties. But there is something about the desperation in Mistral's longing for a chance that touches Simmonds. Later he will realize he coached against Mistral in a high school playoff game, but for now he is taken by Mistral's desire. He tells Mistral to wait outside the football offices and he will try to have the defensive backs coach come talk to him.
For two hours Mistral lingers outside the building, the DVD in his hand. Finally he is summoned inside. Probably for the first time college coaches will examine the highlight tape he has sent everywhere and they will be impressed with his ferocity, the way he dives into ball-carriers. "You could tell he was a good player," Simmonds will later say. "There were highlights."
Mistral will come to stand in front of the building several more times that spring, waving to the coaches, calling Simmonds, begging for a chance. Several years later, Simmonds will explain that it is almost impossible for a player to talk his way onto a team at the level of South Florida. Coaches never have time to read the emails. They rarely watch the tapes. Unless you find a way to get yourself in front of the coaches, they will never consider a blind request for a chance. "The only thing that works is persistence," Simmonds tells Mistral.
Mistral figures he can do that.
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Then, on the first day of training camp prior to the season's start, Simmonds calls. There's a spot open for a walk-on if Mistral would like it. Of course Mistral will take it. Because he doesn't own a car and because he is not yet in school and doesn't have a place to live, he gets a ride every day from a friend in Palmetto. Every morning she endures a 45 minute drive before returning home to go to work, coming back up to Tampa at 9 p.m. to take him back. Even though the days are long and he has put a huge strain on his friend who drives him, these will become some of his happiest memories.
On Oct. 27, 2008, Mistral is in a car with the same friend speeding back to Palmetto. About two hours earlier, one of his sisters called saying Valencia was back in the hospital and doing poorly, her breathing had deteriorated. It didn't look as if she was going to make it. He needed to hurry home. The friend raced up to pick him up and now on the way back his phone rings again. It's his sister. Her voice is tired. Her words are flat.
Valencia was dead.
In a week Barack Obama will be elected president just as Valencia said he would, Mistral has little time to celebrate. His life is falling apart. He will think he is doing fine, balancing school with the needs of his family. Instead he starts missing class and soon the "F's" roll in. He will be kicked off the team. He mopes around the house for weeks until one day his grandmother will call Leavitt and ask the coach to take Mistral back on the team.
"I've got one space left on the roster," she recalls the coach saying. "I didn't think he was interested."
"Put his name on the roster," Moreland will reply. "I'll have him there tomorrow."
Eventually the coaches will take him back. He will spend months getting a hardship waiver from the NCAA and then will have to take a mountain of classes to become eligible. He plays that next season, his junior year, and even starts a few games at safety. In his senior year, perhaps as a testament to all he had been though, Mistral is elected as one of the team captains. The new coach, Skip Holtz, names him the starting safety and he will go on to be named second-team All-Big East. After years of pushing, he finally does make it. Somebody really did notice.
Mistral stands in an empty hotel room in the middle of a place called St. George, Utah on the first week of February 2011. And what about this place is going to keep his football dream alive? In a few days he is supposed to play in a college all-star game called the Dixie Gridiron Classic, a game apparently so forgotten that he hasn't seen a single NFL scout, coach or general manager at the practices. Players keep disappearing, pulled from the game by their agents who see the week as a waste of time.
On this day, Mistral's roommate disappeared too, leaving behind a pile of equipment on his bed along with a note asking if Mistral could please return the pads to the game's organizers. Now alone in this room, with the cold wind swirling outside, Mistral wonders how this could possibly be his opportunity. He dials his agent, Melvin Bratton who placed him here and asks if he should pack his bags too.
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"Absolutely not!" Bratton shouts, then curses. Bratton used to work as a personnel executive in the NFL and he is sure Mistral should stay in St. George. Mistral can only listen and nod. After all it was Bratton who took Mistral to Atlanta to work with a trainer friend, David Irons(notes), and it was Irons who watched Mistral run and realized the player was running all wrong – he never fully lifted one of his legs, almost dragging them. After Irons improved Mistral's form, Mistral's running times dropped and teams began to notice.
So Mistral stays in St. George. And when the all-star game comes, he is the star. He tackles every ball-carrier he sees. He has an interception. And when the game is over he's named the MVP. A few days later the game's tape begins to circulate around the NFL. Bratton is right: Teams do see. Suddenly NFL teams want to know more about Mistral. A couple set up interviews. One of those teams, the Vikings, calls Bratton twice to tell him that Mistral had the highest score on their defensive aptitude test.
It is not long before the draft and Mistral is on the phone with Irons. He has just finished a workout with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers only to learn his half-sister is dead. The police will not be able to determine if she was murdered or died accidentally. But Mistral is distraught. Irons is worried that Mistral knows who might be responsible. He worries too that Mistral might do something impulsive, something reckless, something that would destroy the dream of the little boy who clutched a football in his sleep.
They talk for two hours, player and trainer. Then Irons' wife gets on the phone.
"Promise me you are a man of God," she cries.
"I'm a man of God," Mistral replies.
And just like he did after the firebombing of his mom's house, he does not seek revenge. He does not fall into the violence of Palmetto but rather he walks toward the once-impossible dream that now seems so close.
On this Saturday morning, Mistral Raymond opens his eyes after praying. The river gives him strength. There will be a party later this day and his family and friends will celebrate the phone call that will come from the Vikings. Many months later, on a windy autumn afternoon, he will remember this moment with a visitor in his apartment just outside Minneapolis.
He will gaze into the fire that crackles in the fireplace and a distant smile will slide across his lips.
"You know it's amazing I got here," he will say. "I wasn't at all a perfect kid growing up. I could have been in trouble numerous times but every time I was protected. I've done some stupid things but I was always protected. There is a reason for everything."
He will say it is part of a plan. He will say he is supposed to be an inspiration to someone, to make them believe anything is possible. He has not played much in this first season, mostly on special teams. But slowly he has gotten more of an opportunity as starting free safety Husain Abdullah(notes) (concussion) and backup strong safety Tyrell Johnson(notes) (hamstring) have been placed on injured reserve. A real possibility exists that Mistral will start his first NFL game this Sunday against Denver.
When he is done telling his story and the late day light spills through his window, he will lead his visitor to the door of the apartment he has kept impeccably, having picked the furniture and the settings himself from a warehouse run by the leasing company just like Valencia would have done. Before reaching the door, the visitor glances through an open doorway, into a bedroom and notices something strange: A football, laying on the bed, as if waiting to be snatched up and held tight as its owner falls into a deep, dream-filled sleep.
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