Once upon a time (about a dozen years ago) in a schoolyard not too far from Kelly Drive (the one behind Thomas Mifflin School in East Falls), a young Eagles fan and his friends used to pass time throwing a football around or playing wall ball.
As time went by, the kid from public housing off Henry Avenue started on a life path that took him to Roxborough High School and Delaware Valley University, where the pigskin skills honed as a youth helped create a stand-out football player.
Fast forward to Tuesday. That kid, Rasheed Bailey, is now a 22-year-old man who traded a Northwest Philadelphia playground for the NovaCare Complex where he’s fighting to land a roster spot on his hometown’s professional-football team.
He’s facing long-shot odds, but to hear a confident Bailey tell it, that’s what he’s done all his life.
“Being from where I’m from gave me that chip on my shoulder,” he said while taking a quick break from post-practice drills. “Not a lot of people went to college. Not a lot of people graduated. It’s an extra motivation. It gives me my toughness, where I’m from. I’ve seen a lot of things growing up. It made me humble. It made me passionate. It made me want it more.”
He grew up an Eagles fan, specifically rooting for running back Brian Westbrook, who came from I-AA Villanova to have an NFL career that will see him inducted on the Eagles Ring of Honor during an October ceremony at the Linc. (Circle-of-football-life side note: Bailey won a Maxwell Club award named in Westbrook’s honor.)
As a senior tight end, Bailey scored seven touchdowns for Roxborough High, where he also played tennis, baseball and basketball. There was more to life than sports, though.
At Abbottsford, his childhood best friend and classmate Rashawn Anderson, with whom he’d ride the Route 32 bus to school each day, was gunned down in 2011. The tragic loss left a mark.
“It was tough. It gave me extra reason to want it more. Wanting to graduate. Wanting to be better than what I’ve seen growing up,” Bailey said. “That’s why I have so much passion, so much heart and desire, that’s why I come out here every day with a smile on my face. I’m happy to be here. This is what I love.”
In the aftermath of the 18-year-old’s violent death, investigators considered the possibility that it was tied to an ongoing beef between Abbottsford and the Allegheny West neighborhood. Police said this week that the case remains unsolved.
Beyond Abbottsford and RHS
The same year his friend was murdered, Bailey was acclimating to life at Delaware Valley University in Doylestown, which is much more further away from Abbottsford than 25 physical miles would indicate.
He successfully compartmentalized his life. He also left a lasting impression.
Duke Greco, who was named head coach duties at DelVal Aggies in 2014 after eight years as offensive coordinator, conceded that making the leap from a Division III program to the NFL is formidable, but he thinks Bailey’s work ethic could land him in the bigs.
“He’s so driven and focused that I definitely think he can do it. I’m glad the Eagles are giving him this opportunity. He’ll make the most of it,” Greco said earlier this week. “He never gets too high or too low. That’s the kind of kid he is. He has that same mentality.”
Buried beneath a lot of established and/or drafted talent on the Eagles receiving depth chart, Bailey could also land a place on special teams or the practice squad.
Greco noted that Bailey was a “great special-teams guy,” but he didn’t want to risk injuring his star receiver by foisting double-duty responsibilities on him during his senior year with the Aggies.
“He was too valuable,” Greco said. “But, he blocked a lot of punts, caught anything every day. He’s not going to be a ‘run everybody over’ guy, but he’s fearless and goes over the middle. He does all the little things. He’s just a different kid. Very, very focused.”
Bailey’s mission statement matches that review.
“The game is mostly mental. Once you get the mental aspect of the game down pat, and bring the confidence along with it, you can’t go wrong,” he said. “The competition, of course, gets higher and higher. But, at the same time, I think I have the skill set to match that competitive height.
“As [Eagles Head Coach] Chip Kelly always says, ‘Do your job.’ If you do your job, you’ll stick around. You come in here every day, you grind it out, do what they tell you to do, that’s how you stand out. Go above and beyond. Stay after practice.”
The Lincoln Financial leap
These days, Greco hopes his former player passes the roster-cut dates of Sept. 1 and 5 and lands a roster spot, as daunting a prospect as that may seem even if Bailey started practicing with the pro team back in April.
Considering Bailey’s success as an Aggie — he’s the all-time leader for receiving yards and touchdowns for both career and single season — it’s difficult to question his former coach’s confidence.
“He’s got to make some plays in the next two weeks,” Greco said. “This is all new to him, too, but he’s still a sponge. He’ll buy in, and it’ll be genuine, not a fake thing.”
If Bailey secures a roster spot — the final 53-man roster must be set by Sept. 5 — he’ll follow in the footsteps of the late Jesse Richardson, a Roxborough Class of ’49 grad who grew up near Abbottsford on West Queen Lane and played for the Eagles from 1953 to 1961.
On Tuesday, Bailey said it was a thrilling experience for his family and friends to see him on the field in an Eagles jersey during Sunday’s open practice at the Linc, but he wants to be out there when the regular season starts in early September.
“I’m out there trying to do what’s best for me and my family and most of all, represent this city. Being from Philly, playing for Philly, it is a motivation,” he said. “Once I step out here on this field, the motivation can help me, but I’m out here on my own. I have to handle it.”
Beyond a personal victory, making the squad would send a positive message to youth facing the challenges he once faced, Bailey said.
“It’s made me want to be an example for others,” said Bailey, noting that people at Abbottsford know what he’s up to down in South Philly.
“I’m not only here for myself and my family; I’m trying to lead a pack of people who are lost,” he continued. “I want to give them hope by playing this game, giving back to my community, giving back to the schools, giving back to the kids. That’s my goal: Not just playing football but to also impact people.”