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The Athlete: Ed Reed

Cigar lover Ed Reed has taken his football knowledge to the University of Miami, teaching a new generation his unrivaled defensive skills
By Kenneth Shouler | From America’s Most Notorious Mobsters, November/December 2020
The Athlete: Ed Reed
Photo/Jeffery Salter
Ed Reed, called the greatest safety ever to play football, relaxing with a fine cigar at The Tank Brewing Co. in Miami.

Ed Reed, chief of staff for the Miami Hurricanes, stands before the television in his office, examining film and explaining how he gets young players ready. “I’m watching a little of Virginia’s offense right now,” he says. The Cavaliers are abysmal, surrendering 119 points in three losses. Never mind. “I have to get these guys to understand that everyone wants to be the team that beats Miami. They are going to be on their best behavior, concentrating and practicing hard, watching extra film. Every week.”

Who wouldn’t want to upset a team so cocky it refers to itself as “THE U,” players and fans raising index fingers and joining thumbs to mimic the letter?

“There’s power in the tongue,” Reed says. During his playing days in the NFL, he used his mouth as a weapon. “You gotta hit hard,” Reed would bark on the field. “They don’t wanna be hit.” It worked. “That was for my teammates to understand what you are dealing with.” It’s the same now, and he’s hoping to pass on his sage advice to a new generation. “I tell young players this is a smart man’s game. I don’t want reckless players who are not using their heads properly.”

If anyone is uniquely qualified to get players ready for battle it’s Reed. “Ed’s more like a culture coordinator,” says Manny Diaz, the head coach of the Hurricanes. “He’s so intertwined into the fabric of Miami football. He fills my blind spots as a coach. I don’t see the body language of players, so it’s the interpersonal things. He might talk to players in a way his coach can’t.” Arguably the greatest safety ever, Reed won a National Championship with Miami, a Super Bowl with the Baltimore Ravens and entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2019. 

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Cigars have become part of Ed Reed’s image. (Photo/Miami Athletics)

During a Zoom interview, Reed sits before his laptop, and topics fly everywhere—his playing days, his part in the NFL 100 commercial, his own personal cigar, his new post at Miami. He isn’t smoking a cigar while he talks, but he had four the previous day while playing 18 holes of golf—when he doesn’t play he’s good for two. Did he hear what Rex Ryan (his last NFL coach) said about him? “He’s the best safety in the history of the game,” Ryan said. “And it’s not close.” 

Reed’s face brightens to a luminous smile at the praise, showing off oval, almost football-shaped, eyes. He’s 42, with a vulnerable yet rugged face and thick, black-and-white beard. His taut, muscular arms and prominent chest resemble his physique when he last played seven seasons ago. Yet he seems undersized. If you were going to sculpt a football player to survive the pounding skirmishes of 12 seasons, would 5'-11" and 205 pounds be the indestructible proportion you settled on? Hardly. But Reed reminds you of that old saw: it’s not the size of the man in the fight but the fight in the man. 

Reed owns or shares five NFL records. His reaction to being selected as one of the NFL’s top 100 players? “It’s an honor knowing that I am mentioned among the greats,” he demurs. Reed’s a philosopher. To his mind, all success is united by one principle: process, a word he uses often. It’s attention to details. Focus. Work. Repetition. Process.  

And laughter, as when he recalls the shooting of the NFL 100 commercial in 2019, which aired during halftime of the Super Bowl. Directed by Peter Berg of “Friday Night Lights” fame, it included 21 NFL Hall of Famers, yet Reed’s role was a centerpiece. A football falls off a celebration cake, Mike Singletary screams “fumble!” and a mad scrum ensues. The ball squirts free, before being thrown and carried by legend after legend, until LaDainian Tomlinson snatches it, plows between banquet tables, shedding one tuxedoed defender after another. But Reed draws a beat on him and springs, leveling his prey shoulder first, driving him straight through a banquet table and crashing a tower of Champagne glasses to the floor. 

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Ed Reed holding a cigar in his mouth during his 2019 induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. (Photo/Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Director Berg wanted to send in the stuntmen for that scene, but Reed was ready to hit for real. “I said, ‘We don’t need a stunt double for me. I still have one more tackle in me.’ They gave me the layout of how they wanted it done. We did it in one take,” Reed says. So was that really Tomlinson? “No, LaDainian chose to bring the stunt double in,” Reed laughs. “With the stuntman I was like, ‘I’m not gonna hit you that hard.’ He said ‘No man, this is my job. Hit me like you would hit in a game.’ ”

Reed hit him. And the guy stayed down. “He laid there for like three minutes. I thought, ‘Is he good?’ He finally got up,” Reed says. 

Since that time, Reed has tackled one obstacle after another. The Hall of Fame welcomed him to their shrine in Canton, Ohio, in August 2019. Then in January 2020, Miami hired their alum—whose key defensive plays helped seal Miami’s fifth championship 19 years before. If that’s not enough to keep him busy, he has an eye on the cigar market, and he’s blending tobaccos for his own ER smoke, which will be made by the Plasencia family in Nicaragua. He hopes to have it on sale sometime in 2021.

Reed shows off one of the samples, a 6 by 60 cigar, which he pronounces “SIG-arr.” Plasencia is one of his preferred brands. “I smoke a lot of Plasencia. I was able to meet Nestor, Sr. and Jr., and visit the factory.” His time at the Plasencia operation in Nicaragua helped guide him on his way to make his own brand. “I found out what they were doing to make their cigars, the way they smoke, the way they taste. To actually experience that was mind-blowing.” 

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Reed passing on his sage advice on the practice field. (Photo/Miami Athletics)

He speaks excitedly as someone does who’s discovered a new passion, even though he has been smoking for years. He began smoking cigars in college, at Miami, with his roommate and teammate Reggie Wayne, who would go on to be a star wide receiver with the Colts. But he was smoking cheaper cigars back then, only moving recently to the Plasencias and Fuentes of the world, or what he dubs “the good stuff.”

He’s fascinated with the minutia that goes into the tobacco growing side, which is also a major part of Plasencia’s massive operations that also extend into Honduras. “The work that they put into the agriculture. To see what they were doing agriculturally with the worms. You know, from the ground up. I mean they are nurturing the ground. They have pools of dirt and worms that they are waiting to put back into the soil. It makes for great cigars, obviously.”

Reed has plenty of smoking spots in the Miami area. “After practices and meetings, I have a cigar spot, American Caribbean Cigars [in Miami] with my friend Alex. I’m always there playing dominoes with him, talking football and drinking Cuban coffee.” He’s also known to frequent The Tank Brewing Co., a combination cigar bar and brewhouse that makes its own beer. While he enjoys Plasencias regularly, he also smokes other brands, such as Fuente. “I’m also smoking [Fuente Fuente OpusX] Angel’s Share. The smoothness—the smoke is not overbearing. The construction is very good. I smoke that SIG-arr down to the tip.”

Reed’s not one to let a good smoke go to waste. “That’s my thing,” he says. “I’m not that guy to let my cigar go out at times. Something’s not right there.”

What is right are Reed’s stats. He’s the Ravens’ career leader in interceptions with 64 and led the league in interceptions thrice, and his 1,590 yards on interception returns ranks first all-time. Versatility? He’s the only player in NFL history to score touchdowns on a punt return, a blocked punt, an interception and a fumble recovery. His three blocked punts returned for touchdowns ties for most ever. He posted 13 multi-interception games, best ever. His nine post-season interceptions ties for best ever. When he copped NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2004, it was the first time in 20 years that a safety swiped the award. His 108-yard interception return against Philadelphia in 2008 remains the longest in league history. 

Hearing this roll call, the kind of stuff that guarantees gridiron immortality, Reed doesn’t flinch. “The numbers don’t matter. At the end of the day, man, I personally just wanted people to know that I was putting my heart into something that I was doing—that I took the time to work out, the time to study—you know, the stuff they never see.” Again, the man cares about process.  

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Ed Reed and former Cigar Aficionado cover star Ray Lewis (right) do the classic “The U” pose for their alma mater. (Photo/Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images for Fanatics)

What do others say about Ed Reed’s career? “The most complete and best safety I have ever seen in the National Football League,” says Bill Belichick, a man who isn’t known for fawning comments, especially about the opposition. Several YouTube videos, possessing a sort of cult status, show the New England coach and Tom Brady meeting, worrying what to do about Reed for an upcoming game. If you think Belichick never lets loose, watch him describe the one interception that makes him gush, from November 22, 2009, Baltimore against Indianapolis. Peyton Manning aired one out to Reggie Wayne, who beat his man by five strides on a go route. “Ed turns and wheels, turns his back on the quarterback, and beats Wayne to the ball,” Belichick says, turning his body to imitate Reed reversing course. “Best play I’ve ever seen a free safety make.”

Reed was born on September 11, 1978 in St. Rose, Louisiana, population 8,122. The small town has produced seven professional athletes (six of them NFL players) but when Reed was at Destrehan High he was simply called “the athlete.” If the school offered a sport, he played it. On the diamond, he played infield, outfield, pitcher and could hit. He ran track, competed in the long and triple jumps, was on relay teams and threw the javelin. On the hardwood he averaged 17 points as a junior. “The best athlete I ever coached,” says football coach Scott Martin. He played track and baseball in one afternoon, going back and forth between the two venues. 

Things went poorly away from playing fields, however. “He was a mess at Destrehan High,” says Jeanne Hall, the office specialist who Reed has called a second mother. Seeing his schoolwork lag, she told him, “You know, not everyone is blessed like you, the talent you have. You can waste it or you can choose to do something really good with it.” Drawing from his parents, Reed forged a steely work ethic. His father, Ed Sr., was a welder at a shipyard for 30 years. His mother, Karen, cooked at a restaurant and raised five boys. 

Hall allowed Ed to stay at her house when he needed to focus on school. “I don’t think people understand how much it means to a kid just to have someone check in on them,” Reed recalls. “My parents worked. I made a choice not to hang around guys who were selling drugs and not going to school. I moved into Mrs. Hall’s house because I didn’t feel like I was in the right environment.” When Coach Martin traveled with the football team to Atlanta for a preseason camp, Reed saw that he could outplay other players in the South. His attitude toward the future changed. Miami recruiters said he would need the grades. He studied and became a Hurricane.

 When did he first know he’d be a pro? “I knew by going to Miami that my foot was in the door to the NFL,” he recalls. “It really didn’t hit me until I started to hear it in the media, because they began to talk about drafts.” Meanwhile, his “ball hawk” legend grew. He peaked with nine interceptions his senior year. But he hadn’t won a championship. 

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The former NFL safety holds the Lombardi trophy after winning Super Bowl XLVII with the Baltimore Ravens in 2013. (Photo/Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

Miami began the 2001 season on fire. Facing Boston College with a 7-0 mark, Miami clung to a 12-7 lead with a minute left. With Boston at Miami’s nine, defensive end Matt Walters snatched a deflected pass and ran ten yards, when Reed ripped the ball from his teammate and ran it 80 yards for a touchdown and an 18-7 victory. Miami then blitzed Syracuse and Washington, with the combined 124-7 score setting an NCAA record against ranked opponents. Miami finally made it to the BCS Championship Game, playing second-ranked Nebraska, and won easily 37-14. Miami had its fifth and last national title. 

Reed was selected in the first round by the Baltimore Ravens in 2002, and earned nine Pro Bowl appearances in his first 10 seasons and that Defensive Player of the Year award in 2004. But Baltimore’s postseasons were tortuous. Finally, in 2013, they reached Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans, where they defeated the San Francisco 49ers led by Colin Kaepernick, 34-31. 

Reed, who was 34 and playing with two sprained knees, grabbed his ninth postseason interception. After winning the Super Bowl, he became a free agent and was planning on retiring, but he came back to the game. He divided the last year of his career, 2013, between the Texans and the Jets, and didn’t play in 2014. He signed a one-day contract with the Ravens on May 7, 2015, and retired.

Just as Reed would talk and rally his teammates during his playing days, he now gives the best of himself to younger men. In this year of Covid-19 the challenges are greater. “This year is relentless,” Coach Diaz admits. “Players aren’t in a bubble. But a lot of people didn’t think college players could limit themselves. But I’m very proud of them.”

Reed says cigars “eased the anxiety” while he worked his “exit plan” from his playing days. So they ease it during difficult times now, when planning for a big matchup for the U. “We’ll smoke a cigar the night before a game and just relax. We talk about stuff, not about the game outside of wanting to win. It’s just camaraderie and getting together people from different walks of life, different parts of the football facilities. It’s not always just coaches, but film guys and recruiters, too.”

He also looks after the Ed Reed Foundation, which is located in his old St. Rose neighborhood. “We are wrapping up construction now, but kids are already on it,” Reed says. “We have a football field with artificial turf, basketball courts, a walking track and a small play area for little kids. There is something for everybody. We haven’t even finished, yet kids are still working out on it,” Reed says. 

Looking at Ed Reed’s career and achievements, we can see that greatness, regardless of the endeavor, leaves tracks in the sand. That is true in literature and music, science and statesmanship. And in sports. Records are imprints that survive time. The name “Ed Reed” isn’t flashy and thus not ideally suited to put up in neon lighting. But Ed’s accomplishments, flashy or not, are lasting. Thought by many to be the greatest safety of all time, Reed is not satisfied with that designation. Returning to a college he played for 20 years ago, he has the opportunity to shape the attitudes of young men. He will always be ready for the next challenge because, aside from the prospect of success, he craves the process of getting there.

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