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Sammis Reyes and the Path Never Taken

Every rookie has an origin story, but nobody has one quite like Reyes: on a new continent, a new language (thanks to Wu-Tang) and, now, a new sport.

The meeting that pointed Sammis Reyes toward NFL history wasn’t a meeting at all, but rather an impromptu Italian feast in Manhattan between friends after a Wu-Tang Clan concert.

The party of four packed into a corner table at Serafina on Broadway in January 2020. They ordered pasta and pizza, then recapped the show—a 25th-anniversary celebration for Loud Records at Radio City Music Hall. Reyes sat between his girlfriend, Nicole Kotler, and his best friend, Alex Rifkind. They were joined by Christian Dawkins, best known as the middleman at the center of the FBI’s investigation into college basketball recruiting.

Dawkins knew that the Chilean downing slices across the table had played in college, as a bruising forward and prolific dunker. But because Reyes stood 6-foot-5 and weighed roughly 260 pounds, Dawkins wondered the same thing people always wondered about Reyes: Why hoops?

“You look like a football player,” Dawkins said.

Closeup of WFT tight end Sammis Reyes preparing to catch a pass during practice

Reyes shrugged, same as always, having heard some version of this argument—you’re too big, too strong and too athletic not to go all-in on football—dozens of times before. They weren’t wrong. He knew that. Reyes had left a physical imprint on his basketball opposition, catching attention of Division I football programs after a handful of practices. He had passed over gridiron glory in favor of hoop dreams, but those were more or less over. He knew that, too.

Something about the delivery, the timing or the serendipitous combination of music, friends and carbs landed differently for Reyes in that moment. He had, after all, moved to a foreign country, learned another language, gone to college, studied business, made a life. If anybody could, at 24, simply pick up a sport as intricate as football—and not for fun but for gainful employment—it was him.

“Why don’t you give the football thing a shot?” Dawkins asked.

Born in the central port city of Talcahuano, Reyes moved with his family 300 miles north to the capital city of Santiago as an infant, where he was surrounded by gold mines, coal mines and poverty. Football meant soccer, the beautiful game that contrasted with his unglamorous life.

His mother, Rossana Martel, worked as a teacher; his father, Daniel Reyes, took on odd jobs, and his family did whatever it could to survive. If that meant walking 45 minutes to and from school because he couldn’t afford the bus fare, he walked. If that meant there wasn’t enough money for food, he starved.

Thank God for basketball, his sport and his solace and the source of his earliest memories. His parents, both hoopers, placed a roundball in his hands before he could walk. He would eventually dribble all over the neighborhood, mimicking his idol, LeBron James. He dreamed about dunking and NBA riches, an alternate universe, another life.

Reyes could play, and after a growth spurt, the Chilean national team called. He tried out. Made the under-15 team. Flew to Texas for an AAU Tournament, where he averaged 28 points and 14 rebounds, catching the eye of a coach from his country with connections to AAU programs in the States. This coach, George Perez, connected Reyes with the coaches at Westlake Prep in south Florida, and just like that, his life changed—for the first time.

His parents begged him to stay before eventually relenting. His mom insisted on teaching him how to do laundry and cook before he left. He spoke little English and arrived with next to no money. His teammates were older, his coaches difficult to understand. But he knew: He would figure something out. He had no other choice.

Sammis Reyes smiles during a WFT practice

Every month, his parents sent $50 for food. Reyes would spend $23 on protein powder at Walmart and allocate the rest toward cans of beans, Ramen noodles and jars of peanut butter and jelly, which he sometimes combined and ate without bread. He befriended the manager of a donut shop nearby, arriving just before close to buy the leftovers at a discount, 12 doughnuts for $1. Then he’d portion them out to last for days.

To learn English, he borrowed a Blackberry, looking up words in the dictionary and writing them down. He filled notebooks with trickier ones, like “cucumber.” He watched The Matrix and other films with the subtitles turned on, pausing after each scene to translate. He did the same thing with rap lyrics, pulling up YouTube, using the subtitles, until he could recite every Wu-Tang lyric. It sucked, all these Rosetta Stone imitations, the grumbling stomach, the prospect perpetually in search of a home. There’s no way around that. Reyes even slept on a park bench one night, when he had flown back from Chile and no one knew he was coming in, so nobody picked him up.

But go back? Hell no. Reyes never considered the possibility. He had come too far, surrendered too much. When he could, he purchased gas station phone cards to call home, and when his parents asked for progress updates, he said things were great, terrific, easy. He didn’t want them to worry, not with so much at stake.

Reyes met Rifkind on the AAU basketball circuit. He would ride with Alex’s family to games, still learning a new language. But he piped up whenever Wu-Tang blared over the speakers. He could not yet carry full conversations, but he knew every word to “Gravel Pit.”

Only later, after they became friends but before they became housemates, then more like brothers, did Reyes discover what Steve Rifkind, Alex’s father, did for work. Steve had founded Loud Records and signed Wu-Tang to his label. His influence—on music, on culture—stretched across the world.

The bond between the prominent family and the son they all but adopted grew from genuine roots, from teenagers cursing each other out in the middle of games and the alley-oop passes Alex threw that Sammis slammed home. Eventually, Reyes moved in with the Rifkinds, who lived in Boca. The boys transferred together to North Broward, and, in a city of privilege, where cars, shoes and connections mattered, Alex calls his friendship with Reyes “the purest I’ve had.”

As Steve watched the boys play basketball, though, his talent scout instincts kicked in. He couldn’t help but project Reyes as a better fit in a different sport. Beyond the size, strength and speed, Steve noticed “incredible hands” and the football mentality of a basketball bully. Reyes didn’t resemble LeBron James, the NBA All-Star; he looked like LeBron James, from the alternate universe where he became an All-Pro tight end. “[Steve] was on my ass to play football,” Reyes says.

The music exec kept trying. He knew the North Broward football coaches had begged Reyes to try out, and he pushed for a compromise, reaching one in Reyes’s junior year, 2013. It was decided: He would try one week of spring football and see how it went.

The coaches slotted him at defensive end and offered but one instruction: See that guy? He’s the quarterback; give chase. So Reyes did, and so well, in fact, that major college football powers like Virginia Tech, West Virginia and Michigan reached out, scholarships at the ready. Nicole, then a member of the North Broward dance team, watched Reyes register sacks and thought, He looks like a football player. Steve Rifkind noticed the coaches across the field, how they threw up their clipboards to exchange gleeful high fives.

Perhaps Reyes should have listened. He did not. Basketball still clouded his vision. It was the reason he left home, the reason he scarfed down old doughnuts, the reason he rose at 5 a.m. for workouts. He didn’t understand football and had so much to learn. He could not simply abandon the familiar pursuit for the unfamiliar one. “I came here so single-minded,” he says, “that I didn’t see the opportunity.”

Reyes called Steve Rifkind to relay his decision.

Steve told him, “You’re making a huge mistake.”

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NFL player Sammis Reyes goes up for a rebound while playing for Tulane University's basketball team

Eventually, a basketball dream was out of reach for Reyes (far right).

Eventually, they all moved on, no hard feelings, family still, family always. Reyes moved in with the Kotlers, and he and Nicole began dating. They stayed together as the hoop dream teetered, as Reyes landed a scholarship at Hawaii in 2014 but left after one semester due to the dismissal of the coach who had recruited him and the school’s issues with the NCAA. Homesick two ways but still not discouraged, he transferred back to Florida, to Palm Beach State Junior College, while continuing to play for the Chilean national team. The kid who learned English through Wu-Tang hits made the Dean’s List, compiling a 3.6 GPA. At Tulane, Reyes registered a 3.9 and made the American Athletic Conference’s All-Academic Team.

His basketball dream died there, though. He played sparingly. The university’s football coaches joined the chorus of those urging him to switch sports. ESPN commentators noted his build. Still, he graduated with a degree in business management in 2018. Then he transferred once more, finishing the hoops sojourn at Loyola, an NAIA school in Louisiana, where he enrolled in graduate school to study business administration. When that season ended, he had exhausted all of his basketball options, beyond a longshot professional career overseas.

Reyes knew he needed a new plan. But first, he needed clarity—the exact thing he stumbled upon that night in New York. After all the lives changed and careers boosted in the music industry, Steve Rifkind had an even more meaningful, more personal, discovery. He joked that if Reyes had taken his advice earlier he would already be rich.

“This one touches my soul more than anything, because I consider him my son,” Steve says. “When this story unfolded, I cried. It’s like The Blind Side. But better.”

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Reyes couldn’t sleep. His mind twirled in a thousand directions. He knew, after the dinner, that he wanted to play football. But he had never considered the next question: How?

Eventually, he and Nicole settled on a trial period of one year. They would sacrifice everything—time, money, building their future together—for Reyes to pursue an entirely new sport.

He found a trainer in Justin Kavanaugh, owner of the Sport and Speed Institute in Virginia, the facility not far from where the Kotlers now live. NFL prospects often prime there for the scouting combine. Key phrase: NFL prospects.

Kavanaugh could not have expected much when Reyes showed up, unannounced, having found the facility through a Google search. The lack of pro experience didn’t startle him. The lack of rudimentary football knowledge did. But then Coach Kav sized up the giant who stood before him. “Take off your shirt,” he said.

“Damn, who trained you?” Kavanaugh asked, followed by, “Where the hell did you come from?”

Intrigued, Kavanaugh paced Reyes through drills that day, examining speed, agility and potential above all else. Those things he could work with. Then he threw passes toward Reyes for over an hour, to see whether he could play tight end. The prospect didn’t drop one. Then Coach Kav looked Reyes square in the eyes. “I don’t play around with [fools],” he said. “Are you ready for this?”

Of course. Reyes called Nicole and told her, “You’re never going to believe what happened today. I think I can really do this s---.” Meaning football. Pro football. He joined the college players who trained with Kavanaugh for the draft. Their workout lasted for eight hours. Same for the day after that—and every day after that one. To pay for his training and chip in for expenses, Reyes worked as a driver for DoorDash, one who often limped, still sore from workouts, to doorsteps with burgers, noodles and pies. He often drove during lunch breaks, too—anything, like always, that he could sacrifice.

Alex Rifkind connected his AAU teammate turned TE-in-training with Tabetha Plummer, a sports agent and entertainment attorney based in Los Angeles. At first, she doubted whether Reyes could make the pivot work. Who wouldn’t? But then she followed him on Instagram, caught a few of the workouts and saw a prospect who reminded her of another client, Tony Gonzalez, a college basketball forward who became a Hall of Fame tight end.

In part due to the pandemic, Team Reyes failed to drum up much interest for the 2020 NFL draft. “Crickets,” Plummer says. But that pushed her to dig deeper, and in her research she came upon the NFL’s International Player Pathway Program. On a whim, she sent the group an email, and she received an immediate response.

Reyes enrolled, traveling earlier this year to IMG Academy in Florida for 10 weeks of training in the program. It was like learning a new language all over again—and one even more complicated than English. The group then worked out at Florida’s pro day, in front of NFL scouts and executives, on March 31. Reyes sped through a 4.65-second 40-yard-dash and managed a 40-inch vertical—elite numbers for a tight end prospect. That he had also played high-level basketball, like Gonzalez, Jimmy Graham and Antonio Gates, made for an easy comparison, the kind that makes NFL decision-makers drool as they project.

His paradigm changed that day, in an instant. Where most Pathway players are slotted onto NFL rosters, usually as an extra practice squad player, Reyes suddenly had options—immediate ones. Representatives for 20 organizations asked for interviews, as a line formed nearby, made up of executives who normally don’t wait. Plummer estimates that 12 teams subsequently reached out, wanting to line up visits.

Reyes continued to toil. He studied film of Rob Gronkowski for blocking tips, emulated George Kittle’s route-running precision and looked into big wideouts, like DK Metcalf, to see how he might translate his physicality from the basketball court.

Eventually he met with Washington, the team closest to the Kotlers, for his first official visit. The team made an offer, then another offer, then a third. The WFT wanted to sign Reyes that badly. He says that Marty Hurney, the franchise’s executive VP of player personnel, told him, “We want you; we’ll do whatever it takes.”

Sammis Reyes works out shirtless during a WFT practice

The basketballer in search of a home had found one in the last place he ever desired to look until that dinner. When Reyes and Nicole called her mother, she screamed so loud and jumped so high that the family dog almost went flying. Reyes would opt out of the Pathway program and sign a contract. If he makes the 53-man roster and takes the field in 2021, he will be, by all accounts, the first person from Chile to play in the NFL.

It’s not the history that’s heavy, though. It’s the work. It’s the dropped pass in minicamp that Reyes obsessed over. It’s the whiteboards set up all over the Kotler house so that Reyes can learn the playbook. It’s Nicole calling out plays and Reyes scribbling, cramming for a test. It’s books serving as defenders so that he can learn formations. It’s random household items strewn all over the floor to simulate X’s and O’s. It’s balancing all that with 400 interview requests.

“I came to this country, and I fought for every single opportunity I got,” he says, meaning he won’t be satisfied with a Rudy-like ending, his career limited to a cute story, a single play.

“If that was on my mind, I wouldn’t be here,” he says. “I need to be out on the field every Sunday, busting heads. That’s my mentality, my choice.”

If that happens, expect a movie script for the tight end now known as the Chilean Rock. Nicole even knows who will play Reyes—actor Dwayne Johnson, who played football in college at Miami, The Rock himself. Coming soon, to nearby theaters: Better Than Blind Side, the true story of a boy who left Chile, starved for his dream, failed in basketball and found a home anyway, thanks to pizza, friendship, a Google search and a push from a music icon. It almost sounds fictional. But it’s based on a true story.

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