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Football Career Comes Full Circle for Rocket-Fast Restaurateur Rico Gafford

Rico Gafford has returned to cornerback, the position he played in college. One of the fastest players in the NFL shares his story.
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GREEN BAY, Wis. – Life is full of twists and turns.

Rico Gafford was in the process of opening a sports bar in his hometown of Des Moines, Iowa, in early 2020 when COVID struck. And, in the spring, Gafford was in the process of learning the Green Bay Packers’ playbook on offense when the team signed Sammy Watkins and drafted three receivers.

Life also is about navigating around those twists and turns, adapting to change and fighting through adversity. Gafford’s done that in the business world. Rico’s at Drake is thriving to such an extent than he and his wife recently opened Vibes Kitchen and Bar in downtown Des Moines. And Gafford has embraced the sudden career change, as well.

When he signed with the Packers in January, the intention was to have one of the fastest players in the NFL compete for a roster spot on offense. Instead, he’ll spend training camp competing for a roster spot at cornerback.

“No, I didn’t know I was going to corner,” Gafford said this week. “We showed up for offseason workouts and I was with the receivers, with the offense. I was learning the playbook, doing routes on air and going over certain plays and all that stuff.”

In April, the Packers drafted Christian Watson in the second round, Romeo Doubs in the fourth round and Samori Toure in the seventh round. Along with the addition of Watkins and last year’s third-round selection of Amari Rodgers, the Packers suddenly were awash in receivers.

With that, Gafford was about to encounter one of those major twists and turns and go back to the future.

At the University of Wyoming, Gafford was a standout cornerback who intercepted two passes as a junior in 2016 and four passes as a senior in 2017. Despite a rocket-fast 4.22-second clocking in the 40-yard dash at pro day, Gafford went undrafted. He signed with the Tennessee Titans, where Packers coach Matt LaFleur was entering his one season as offensive coordinator.

Fast forward to 2022. LaFleur, looking at the potential depth at receiver and the lack of depth behind his stud starting trio of cornerbacks, pulled Gafford aside.

“After the draft, Coach LaFleur came up to me and was like, ‘It would be in your best interests to go back to corner. You’ll probably have a better chance of making this team,’” Gafford recalled. “He told me straight up, ‘We love the things that you’re doing right now. You’re showing us a lot and we see that you can play.’”

It was an idea that Gafford welcomed.

“Honestly, I was contemplating doing that, anyway,” he said. “I had a few teams call me before I signed with the Packers to see how I felt about going back to defense. It’s been a long road. I appreciate Jon Gruden for helping me make the transition to wide receiver and all the coaches with the Raiders that helped me along the way. But I’m going into Year 5 and I haven’t really made a splash or anything in the league. So, I’m like, ‘If I go back to corner, I can really showcase what I can do on the field and what I really am and who I really am at heart, and that’s a DB.”

In the five offseason practices that were open to reporters, Gafford made a few breakups. With superb athleticism and his four years of experience at receiver giving him unique insight into the thoughts of the men he’ll be asked to cover, Gafford exited the offseason feeling good about his prospects.

“Playing DB is what I love. That’s who I am,” he said. “Just being out there, being able to compete, I just have a different type of feeling when I’m out there. I would explain it as having more swag out there. That’s what I would say. I just love it because I can really be myself.

“At receiver, you have to think about the route you’ve got to run, your assignment, who you have to block, different types of calls that they can make at the line. You have to really think about what you’re going to do within seconds. At corner, it’s completely different. Depending on the coverage, you might only have two responsibilities on any play. It’s a different type of swag and feeling, and I’m more comfortable when I’m at corner.”

Gafford also feels comfortable in his other profession. As a young practice squad player with the Raiders, he was pondering other ways to enhance his income. His stepfather introduced him to a few people who would become his business partners and help him start Rico’s, which is located right across the street from the Drake University campus.

COVID delayed its opening until late May 2020, and early capacity restrictions didn’t help. But, Gafford said, Rico’s is thriving. His personal touch is good for business. It’s not just his name on the place.

“When I’m in town, I stop by most days,” he said. “I’m a people person. I don’t really talk too much but I love people. I love to share my story with the kids and be around people. I’m not one of those guys who’s not interactive. I like to get to know people; I want people to get to know me. I want to be someone people can talk to and learn from.”

And to serve a tasty burger. The Gafford Burger is one of the house specialties.

“It’s a beef burger with bacon, jalapenos, cheese and barbecue sauce,” Gafford said. “That’s my favorite. That’s me, that’s my signature burger. That’s what I would want on a burger if I was walking into a place.”

Gafford lives in and trains in Des Moines, so he can visit Rico’s most days. That’s going to change soon. The first practice of training camp is scheduled for July 27. The cornerback-to-receiver-to-cornerback convert has a job to win. He’s played in only eight NFL games, including zero last season.

A golden opportunity awaits. Beyond Jaire Alexander, Rasul Douglas and Eric Stokes, Keisean Nixon is the only cornerback with significant professional playing time. The Packers didn’t draft a cornerback and lost Chandon Sullivan in free agency.

“Absolutely,” he said. “There’s only a few guys that are proven and it’s all up in the air from there. I’m ready to compete. I’ll bring the best that I have.”