Sunday, June 22, 2014

Former UConn star returns home for a good cause

The NFL is holding a rookie symposium to try to help the next wave of promising prospects make the often difficult transition from college life.

Something tells me the first-year players with the San Diego Chargers don't need to head at a week-long group of seminars but merely spend some time with third-year defensive end Kendall Reyes.

If ever there was a visual of a professional athlete who "gets it", the festivities on the playing fields outside the Boys and Girls Club of Nashua yesterday during the second annual R.E.Y.E.S (Re-engaging Youth through Exercise and Sport) Family Field Day would certainly do the trick. Reyes was not merely the face of the event but he was at the forefront of every activity, engaging with the people who turned out, posing for photos and acting like anything but the resident NFL star. Of all the people who turned out for the event, it's highly unlikely any of them enjoyed themselves more than Reyes himself.

Reyes joins Donald Brown (now his teammate in San Diego) and Darius Butler as the only UConn products to be taken in the top 50 picks in the NFL Draft. He is the first kid from Nashua, N.H. to play in the NFL since linebacker Kole Ayi played a total of 12 games with St. Louis and New England during the 2001 and 2002 seasons and the first one to be drafted since tackle Herb Wester went in the fifth round of the 1988 draft. But there is so much more to Reyes than being the Big Man on Campus.

Even though he has started 20 regular-season games during his first two NFL seasons, including all 16 during the 2013 season, Reyes has not forgotten his roots.

Before he was attracting college recruiters to his games at Nashua North High School or playing a pivotal role in UConn playing in its first BCS bowl game, he was like one of the more than 200 kids who turned out on Saturday. The Nashua Boys and Girls Club was once his sanctuary, a place where he not only became a better athlete but a more well-rounded person as well.

"I spent a good amount of years mostly from fourth to sixth grade when my family needed me here," Reyes said. "The Boys and Girls Club, they had my back and our entire family's back. That is where I spent the bulk of my years here, they were very pivotal years growing up."

So when it came time for Reyes to organize an event in his hometown, it was only natural that the Boys and Girls Club and Nashua Police Athletic League would be at the forefront of the feel-good event. So shortly after the San Diego Chargers wrapped up mini-camp, Reyes was "on the first thing smoking out of San Diego, I hoped on the field flight I could and I came out.

"Giving back, that is just part of who I am. It is just the fact that I actually get to do it. I can get everybody together to do something for the community out in Nashua and basically all of Southern New Hampshire. Basically it is a blessing and I am so glad I get to do it, working with all of these people who are willing to give up some time and make sure these kids have a great time. That is what it is about at the end of the day, that this kids have a truly great experience that they can go and remember and help them in any facet of their lives."

When the inaugural event was held last year Stellos Stadium was the site but this year Reyes and the other event organizers decided to hold it at the Boys and Girls Club. So on the fields at Grand Avenue there was an obstacle course, dunking tank, 3 on 3 basketball games and a variety of other events set up.

"It's great," Reyes said. "I would say the first year was definitely the learning curve so you learn from that and I brought it back second year. I wanted it to do it here at the Boys and Girls Club of Nashua, it is a great location and it is easier for us to set everything up. The turnout is great, we have a bunch of food for everyone, the kids are having a blast and I am going out and playing games with them. I really couldn't ask for anything better."

This weekend was all about giving back and reconnecting with people who helped Reyes become the first player from Nashua to start an NFL game since Greg Landry in 1984. In about a month he will be back in San Diego looking to become a more consistently effective player in his third season with the Chargers.

"We put some good things together, we have some solid players and now we have to figure it out," said Reyes, who has 62 tackles and 10.5 sacks in his first two NFL seasons. "We have a solid team so it is just being consistent and things are looking good for us in 2014. You learn so much in this game, every year you learn more about the game, learn more about yourself. It is always adapting and molding to the game. Adaptability and ability to stay healthy, that is a huge part of it, taking care of your body and mentally staying with it is all a huge part of it."

He has a familiar face on board as the Chargers signed Brown, the only UConn player taken in the first round of the NFL Draft, in the offseason. When Reyes was a freshman Brown enjoyed a record-setting season with the Huskies as he ran for 2,083 yards and 18 touchdowns. While he's not going to reach those numbers this season with the Chargers, it didn't take long for Brown and Reyes to take trips down memory lane.

"Don's out there, we have gone golfing a few times and he is a solid dude," Reyes said. "I always looked up to him and now that he is on our locker room I still look up to him, the type of leadership he has, he is an excellent teammate and he always puts his team first and I always admired him."

Reyes admits his delight at seeing the ever expanding number of his former UConn teammates making it into the NFL.

"We all still chat it up and get together whenever we play against each other, it is awesome," Reyes said. "There are so many of us that are in the league now. Back at UConn we would also talk about the league and now we are there so it is dreams coming true. So many guys that made it and so many guys that are about to come on up, we have done some good things and clearly there is talent in Connecticut."

The most recent additions are defensive tackle Shamar Stephen and linebacker Yawin Smallwood, taken in the seventh round of last month's draft by Minnesota and Atlanta respectively.

"I was excited to see them drafted. I hit them up to tell them I was proud of them and now it is starts," Reyes said.

Byron Jones, who will be a senior cornerback on the 2014 UConn squad, figures to be up next as he was rated as one of the top five senior prospects at his position by one NFL draft analyst.

"He was a freak athlete since the day he showed up," Reyes said. "He is doing his thing and as long as he continues to work hard and continue to get better he is going to be a solid player."

Reyes admits that when he comes back into New England, he tends to gravitate to Nashua rather than head back to UConn but he said he has been getting positive progress reports on how things are progressing up new head coach Bob Diaco.

"I am not going to lie it is pretty tough getting back there," Reyes said. "I live year round in San Diego, I have a huge commitment here in New Hampshire. I go back when I can but it is pretty tough going back. I have heard a lot of good things about the coaching staff, even some of the former players I am in contact with, they love the (staff) and the changes."

Finally, I would have been remiss had I not asked Reyes for his reaction to the death of San Diego sports icon Tony Gwynn, who lost his battle with cancer last week.

"It is not news you want to hear," Reyes said.  "I can definitely empathize with his son Tony Gwynn Jr. and his family (Reyes' father Gerard passed away in February at the age of 49). I was at an event with him but I never got too close. The whole Chargers' organization we went down to the stadium and visited his statue so the community loved him."

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