NASHVILLE, Tenn. — To call Tennessee Titans receiver Kalif Raymond’s journey to the NFL “off-schedule” would be somewhat inaccurate. A truer claim would be that, in his journey, there wasn’t much of a schedule at all.
“It was hard,” Raymond recalled of his long, winding path to the NFL. “You were kind of going in there thinking, ‘I’m just going to do whatever I can to get a shot.’ There were no steps, there was no process.”
Over the last month, Raymond has become a key contributor for the Titans. He is now their primary kickoff returner, and his 40-yard receiving touchdown in the fourth quarter on Sunday iced a crucial win for the Titans against the Colts.
The path to Raymond getting where he is now was filled with plenty of uncertainty, a bit of thriftiness, loads of diligence and constantly overcoming the odds.
PREP DAYS IN ATLANTA
For high school, Raymond attended the academically rigorous Greater Atlanta Christian School where he caught just 30 passes for 511 yards over his career.
Following a serious injury toward the end of his senior year, it seemed to Raymond and his family—he and his seven siblings remain very close to this day—that collegiate athletics would not be a legitimate possibility.
But Raymond did something that, probably, very few players currently in the NFL did to get a college scholarship offer. Raymond began sending cold emails to various schools that had football programs but were mostly known for academics.
“It was a long process,” he said. “I broke my ankle my senior year of high school right before the end of the season. I had to send out emails to a bunch of schools for me to get an opportunity.”
Only three schools responded to Raymond’s emails with interest in the tiny speedster: Georgetown University, Lehigh University and College of the Holy Cross. Raymond settled on the latter.
TO HOLY CROSS
At Holy Cross, Kalif Raymond was a dual-sport athlete, playing football and running track. In football, he established a reputation as a do-it-all player, returning punts and kickoffs in addition to playing receiver.
When Raymond’s college career came to an end, his future was unclear. He was not invited to the NFL Scouting Combine, and Holy Cross had never put on a Pro Day to showcase its graduating players to pro scouts.
Still, Raymond knew he wanted to play in the NFL.
“I think I just told myself, ‘look, I know I want to play in the NFL,'” Raymond said. “‘I don’t know how it’s going to happen, I don’t know how to make it happen, but if I get a shot, be as prepared as possible.'”
To make himself “as prepared as possible,” Raymond started by securing a spot at another school’s Pro Day. He was allowed to participate in drills at Harvard University, which is roughly an hour’s drive east from Holy Cross.
“THERE WASN’T ANYONE TO CALL.”
Nobody does the cone drill quite like Kalif Raymond…. pic.twitter.com/6v0kcfM5Zf
— AtoZSports Nashville (@AtoZSports) November 27, 2019
But when that opportunity was lined up for Raymond, another obstacle arose.
He got confused about the time at which the drills were set to begin, leading to him nearly being late. The biggest factor behind that gaffe was Raymond’s, and Holy Cross’s, general lack of knowledge on the pre-draft process.
There was no real roadmap for Raymond to follow.
“There wasn’t anyone to call at Holy Cross and ask, ‘hey, what’s this going to be like?'” Raymond said. “I got the times wrong so I ended up getting there just before it started, and I was third in all the lineups. Everything was just so new at the time.”
Raymond was relatively successful at Harvard’s Pro Day, running an impressive 4.34-second 40-yard dash. He failed, however, to catch the eyes of any of the NFL scouts who were in attendance.
BUMPY START IN THE PROS
🚨TOP PLAY ALERT🚨
— New York Giants (@Giants) August 1, 2018
As a result, Raymond was not selected in the 2016 NFL Draft. When the draft ended, only two teams were interested in Raymond, at all, as an undrafted free agent: Arizona and Denver.
Thanks to an impressive phone call with then-special teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis, Raymond chose the Broncos.
“We had a lengthy conversation,” Raymond said. “He was very truthful, very honest with me. Hearing his voice, hearing him talk to me, I knew that was where I wanted to go.”
Raymond’s career in the NFL began exactly how one would expect the career of an undrafted and mostly unsought after Holy Cross-alumnus to start: being cut several times.
The Broncos waived Raymond as a part of their final cuts during the last week of the 2016 preseason. He then spent most of the season on Denver’s practice squad before being called up to the team’s active roster for a few games in December.
After being waived again by the Broncos during final cuts in 2017, Raymond found a temporary home with the Jets, who waived him from their active roster and, subsequently, their practice squad by the end of September.
Since that 2016 phone call with DeCamillis, Raymond has been waived a total of nine times by four different teams.
The Titans are one of them. After Raymond initially made their 53-man roster after 2019 Training Camp, the Titans waived him after just one game and added him to the practice squad.
CARVING OUT A ROLE WITH THE TITANS
— AtoZSports Nashville (@AtoZSports) December 1, 2019
It was on the Titans’ practice squad, as a member of the scout team, that Raymond began to carve out a role for himself, a first for him in the NFL.
Often in early-season practices, Raymond switched out his number 14 for the jersey number of a receiver the Titans’ secondary was getting set to face. In Week One, he played the role of the Browns’ Odell Beckham, Jr. Week Two saw Raymond portraying T.Y. Hilton of the Colts.
It was a job that Raymond enjoyed and one that he took seriously.
“It’s a good feeling if you go out there and give the defense a good look as that player, and then they go and shut him down during the week,” Raymond said. “It means I did my job.”
Members of the Titans’ secondary, one of the NFL’s most productive units in 2019, knew they were seeing something special in their early-season practice matchups against Raymond.
“When I went out there, I would tell him to go 100%, even if it was a walkthrough,” corner Adoree’ Jackson said.
“‘Give me some releases, give me something.’ I appreciated that level of competition from him. He was out there going hard as he battled us.”
“From a veteran guy, he has my utmost respect because I see how he works day in and day out,” corner Logan Ryan said.
“I want him to do well. He’s tough to cover, let me tell you that. I think people are starting to see that.”
BACK TO THE ACTIVE ROSTER
Raymond’s role with the Titans switched, again, just one day ahead of the team’s Week Eight matchup with Tampa Bay when the Titans elevated him from the practice squad to the active roster.
Darius Jennings, the Titans’ kickoff returner for the first seven games of 2019, was struggling to make things happen in the return game. So, the team waived him and gave Raymond a shot.
To no one’s surprise, he took full advantage of the opportunity.
Since returning to the active roster, Raymond has produced numerous chunk gains on kickoff returns, becoming an integral part of an extremely effective Titans special-teams unit.
“He’s taken full responsibility for that kick returning job, and he’s done a great job gaining yards and making the right calls,” said safety Dane Cruikshank, another key special teams player for the Titans.
Raymond’s biggest contribution to the Titans since coming back to the active roster, however, came in the fourth quarter of the team’s Week 13 win over the Colts.
— Tennessee Titans (@Titans) December 1, 2019
The Titans offense faced a third-and-6 with a 24-17 lead and 3:11 left in the game. Instead of opting to run the ball with star tailback Derrick Henry to keep the clock moving, the team put its trust into Raymond’s hands.
QB Ryan Tannehill faked a give outside to Henry, stepped up into the pocket and fired a shot downfield for Raymond, who tracked the ball over his shoulder and dove into the end zone for a game-clinching, 40-yard touchdown.
It was the first receiving touchdown of Raymond’s four-year NFL career.
WHAT’S NEXT FOR KALIF RAYMOND?
Raymond’s football career continues to defy odds and convention. The 5-8 receiver from a Catholic college with just over 3,000 students has managed to solidify a key role on an NFL team with more-than-realistic hopes of winning its division.
The only rhyme or reason behind Raymond getting to the point he’s currently at has been a refusal to give up or quit.
“It doesn’t matter where you went to college, it doesn’t matter how you got here, it matters what you do when you’re here,” said head coach Mike Vrabel, who called Raymond’s game-winner against the Colts offensive coordinator Arthur Smith’s “best call” of the season.
“Kalif has taken advantage of every opportunity. When he comes in, he’s prepared. He studies. He has a great attitude, he’s tough. I’m happy for him.”
In the midst of his recent success, Kalif Raymond’s focus, as it always has, remains on the present.
“One of the mental things I’ve learned is, ‘if you look too far into the future, you lose today.’ I try to take advantage of every day, every minute, every hour. That way, if I do well during the day, I won’t have to worry about my future.”
Cover image: Jeremy Brevard/USA Today