Few people have bad things to say about Malik Reed.
His parents, of course, rave about his humble and ambitious personality. His Denver Broncos teammate, Von Miller, calls him the “Dream Killer” for crushing quarterbacks’ dreams. His former high school and youth coaches say he’s the nicest and hardest-working kid they’ve ever coached.
And Ricky Thomas, who recruited him to Nevada, relates him to your local postman.
“He’s kind of like the mailman,” Thomas said. “He shows up every day, you can count on your mail being delivered and if you’re not careful, you’ll take people for granted like that. He just shows up and delivers.”
Reed, in his second year with the Broncos after going undrafted in 2019, has always been this way. Those closest to him describe him as unassuming — he’s a man of few words, who lets his play do the talking.
And right now, his play is as loud as it’s ever been.
Reed leads the NFL in sacks by an undrafted player with 6.5. He had 1.5 in Denver’s 20-13 win over the Dolphins last week.
He’s been given a tough task this season, filling the void of Miller, who’s been sidelined with a tendon injury in his ankle. Reed is no stranger to this, replacing Bradley Chubb last season after Chubb tore his ACL in the fourth game of the season.
“He’s a very conscientious player,” coach Vic Fangio said. “He plays hard and you like to see good things happen to those types of people.”
Reed’s path to the NFL has certainly been unique, from flipping tractor tires in Dothan, Ala., to studying orthopedic surgery in Reno, Nev., to shocking the NFL in Denver in his first two seasons after going undrafted. But now that he’s made it to the league — an accomplishment he credits to his strong faith and supportive family — he says he’s here to stay.
And he’s going to continue taking advantage of each opportunity he’s given.
“I think the biggest thing for me in my life is realizing the path God had for me — from Dothan to Reno to Denver,” Reed said. “In life, it’s about getting everything you can out of every opportunity presented. God says, ‘Faith without work is dead.’ And I’ve taken that to heart. You have to work for whatever you want. And nobody can step in the way of what is meant for you.”
To play youth football in Dothan, Alabama, one has to be 9 years old.
Reed knew this in 2004. His brother, Franklin, met the requirement, being born in 1995. But Reed, born in 1996, did not. So when he showed up to tryouts and was asked his age, Reed didn’t hesitate.
“Aug. 5, 1995,” Reed responded, lying to the coaches with his mom, Michelle, by his side.
“I smiled and hesitated to say something because I knew that would qualify him to play,” Michelle said. “If a kid can calculate like that at that age, you can’t take that from him. So I let him play.”
Reed’s youth football career was short-lived, quitting after a couple of years and shifting his focus to baseball — his “first love.” Growing up, football was never really something that occupied much of Reed’s time. The son of Anthony Reed, who is Troy’s all-time leading scorer in basketball, he grew up a fan of the Los Angeles Lakers and Kobe Bryant, after whom who Reed says he tries to model his work ethic. And being a standout first baseman in baseball, football was always third tier in his childhood, saying he "didn't even like football as a kid."
That changed when he got to Dothan High School, when he started playing again. He quit baseball and basketball following his sophomore year, focusing solely on football.
“He always had the work ethic,” said Kelvis White, Reed’s high school coach. “He was a young man that’s doing what he’s doing now — coming to work every day, getting better and having an unbelievable motor. By the time he was a junior and senior, he was a really, really good football player.”
As a senior, Reed was named Super 12 all-region and team Defensive MVP, recording 92 tackles, 12 tackles for loss, 12 quarterback hurries and eight sacks.
“He’s probably the best pass rusher I’ve seen in high school,” said Greg Greenwood, who coached Reed in high school and youth football. “He hasn’t always been the biggest, the fastest, the most athletic. But all of that came from his work ethic, working hard to be able to accomplish what you want."
Reed’s high school success, though, didn’t translate to many big offers. He was recruited by Army, Navy, Georgia Southern, Wake Forest and UAB.
But it was Nevada — 2,406 miles away — that caught his attention after Thomas invited him to campus his senior season. Reed later committed to Nevada in January of his senior year.
“I knew we were getting a steal," said Thomas, who was defensive assistant for Nevada at the time. "He may not meet all the measurables in terms of height and weight, but he is a guy that if you have him on your football team, he will be the last guy standing and he finds a way to be productive and help the team win.”
One of the biggest reasons Reed, 6-foot-2, 235 pounds, was so drawn by Nevada was its medical school where he wanted to study orthopedic surgery. In high school, he was invited to the National Youth Leadership Forum of Medicine at Emory University in Atlanta. That's when he decided that he wanted to be an orthopedic surgeon some day, which he felt Nevada could help him achieve.
“I thought we were just going to Nevada, play our four years, get a degree and move on," his mom said. "And then, well, football kind of took over."
By the time he was a senior at Nevada, Reed says he fell fully in love with football. His put his pursuit of becoming an orthopedic surgeon on hold and focused his attention solely on playing in the NFL, which is why he switched from defensive end to outside linebacker before his senior season.
He finished his Nevada career with 203 tackles, 38.5 for loss, 22 sacks and 11 forced fumbles. His senior year, in which he was named Nevada's most valuable player, he finished with 77 tackles, 15 for loss, eight sacks and four forced fumbles.
“He was always focused on what his contribution needed to be so that there was no confusion for those who were following him," Thomas said. "No matter who he’s played for, his play and his leadership could always be counted on and has always been consistent. You know what you’re going to get from him day-in, day-out, week to week in terms of the decisions that he makes and that's one of the unique things about who he is.”
Reed graduated with a degree in community health science and says that part of him still wants to pursue being an orthopedic surgeon some day, as well as maybe a sportscaster. But right now, football is the only thing on his mind.
"Football took up so much of my time and energy that I think that’s where my heart lies right now," Reed said. "I feel like med school, yeah, it’s an option that I want to pursue down the road. But I also have other things that I’m interested in.”
When Reed went undrafted, he stayed patient.
He knew all he needed was a chance and when the Broncos called, he did what he's always done.
“The ability to outwork people has been a trait that has defined who Malik is as a person. He’s relentless," Thomas said. "I knew when Denver presented him the opportunity to come into camp, I knew he was going to make it."
Not only did Reed make the 53-man roster, but he became a key contributor, leading the team in sacks in preseason games, which is when Miller gave him the nickname, "Dream Killer." And when Chubb went down with his ACL injury in Week 4 against Jacksonville, Reed stepped in like he was a seasoned veteran, starting eight games and coming up with two sacks.
“I wasn’t surprised that he made it, but it still was an unbelievable feeling that he did," Reed's dad said. “I’m so proud of him. Playing in the NFL or not, I’d still be proud of him because he’s done everything that he’s supposed to do."
Now, in his second year, Reed has solidified himself as a potential key asset for the Broncos going forward, replacing Miller better than anyone expected.
He's started seven of the Broncos' 10 games, with 35 tackles, 12 quarterback hits, eight tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks. All those numbers are all up almost double from last year, when Reed signed a three-year, $1.77 million contract.
“He has improved his run play and he has improved his pass rush play," Fangio said. "I think (outside linebackers coach) John Pagano has done a good job with him in advancing him in his second year. You’re always hoping for a big jump from year one to year two. He got to play a lot due to Bradley's injury last year and now he’s getting to play a lot this year due to Von’s injury. He’s taken full advantage of it.”
With Miller's contract having a club option at the end of the 2021 season and being an unrestricted free agent in 2022, some believe Reed could be Miller's eventual replacement. Reed says he's learned a lot from Miller, who told before this season "Go crazy, the sky’s the limit. Don’t limit yourself because there’s nothing you can’t achieve."
While Reed hopes to stay in Denver, he's unsure about his future. What he is sure of is that he's going to continue surprising people as he's done all his life.
"All I can do is control what I can control, which is my attitude each and every day," Reed said. "I’m continuing to learn and continuing to grow each and every day. It surprised people because they think they can identify who you are or who you’re supposed to be by how they’re thinking or what they feel or what they see on TV. Everybody can have an opinion, but it doesn’t matter because I know who and what I’m playing for.”
From Dothan to Reno to Denver, Reed has stayed grounded, patient and faith filled. And he's going to continue letting his story write itself.
“He’s not done," Thomas said. "He’s just starting to reveal the type of player he is and with this article, people will know the type of person Malik Reed is.”