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NFL draft: Small-school pass-rush star Chris Garrett navigating pandemic hurdles to chase NFL dreams

Eric Edholm
·12-min read

As if Sean Smith didn’t have enough on his plate as the men’s basketball associate head coach at Wisconsin Lutheran, a Division-III school in Milwaukee, and as a father to 1- and 2-year-old daughters, he felt he had no choice but to take on a third big job: helping his friend Chris Garrett get drafted into the NFL.

Garrett put up utterly absurd numbers in three years as a pass rusher at Division-II Concordia-St. Paul. But Garrett’s path to the NFL draft took a strange, sudden turn in what should have been his senior season, just as it did for many other prospects at the FCS level and lower, once COVID-19 threw college football into the disposal last year.

So to help his friend of only the past few years navigate the uncertainty last fall, the 28-year-old Smith took over part of Garrett’s draft preparations — not as his agent, but as his psuedo-manager.

“My wife would tell you I don’t have the time,” Smith said recently, laughing. “But I just believe in him.”

Smith and Garrett met a few years ago, introduced by Smith’s wife and Garrett’s then-girlfriend, who are sisters. The two young men became fast friends, connecting over sports and both having been raised by divorced parents. Smith watched Garrett blossom into a star at Concordia and was inspired to help give him the best chance to market himself to NFL decision makers.

There was a lot of work to do.

Smith helped Garrett vet agents, who started hovering around the player who racked up 36.5 sacks and a D-II record 15 forced fumbles in only 28 games over three seasons, with Smith sitting in on every one of Garrett’s agent meetings.

Once Garrett left the school that helped give him an opportunity to escape a tough upbringing and land on the NFL’s radar, Smith set up Garrett’s training this fall at NX Level in Milwaukee, a facility J.J. Watt and his brothers have invested in. Smith also reached out to NFL veterans such as Kevin Zeitler and Sam Acho on Garrett’s behalf, using whatever connections he had to help figure out how best to set a pre-draft course.

Smith even hunted down the phone numbers of “at least 10” NFL scouts to pick their brains on whether Garrett should stay at Concordia, transfer elsewhere for the 2021 college season for more exposure or enter the 2021 draft.

After those conversations, Smith felt confident that if Garrett wasn’t transferring to a program on the level of Wisconsin, then it was time to enter the draft.

Concordia-St. Paul EDGE Chris Garrett (52) pounces on a loose ball during his breakout season of 2019. (Courtesy of Concordia-St. Paul)
Concordia-St. Paul EDGE Chris Garrett (52) pounces on a loose ball during his breakout season of 2019. (Courtesy of Concordia-St. Paul)

One college scouting director even told Smith that Garrett could have risen to the third- to fifth-round range had the Golden Bears played last season. One national scouting service, Blesto, gave Garrett a late-round grade last summer. Many scouts believe now that, everything considered, he’s borderline draftable in 2021.

Set to turn 23 years old this summer, the 6-foot-3, 243-pound Garrett decided there was nothing left to prove on the D-II level. After all, this was a player who registered five sacks, three forced fumbles, 11 tackles and a pass breakup ... in one 2019 game.

He was all in on pursuing the NFL now.

“I just felt like it was time to take a risk,” Garrett said. “Yes, I am going up two levels. I’m playing at a different weight. I might be playing a new position. All big risks.

“But I am full steam on that risk. No looking back.”

Now Garrett must take a different path to his dream, one where his appearance at last week’s Hula Bowl all-star game was the first time NFL scouts had seen him on a football field in more than a calendar year. It’s also a pandemic-affected draft cycle where there are no private workouts prior to the 2021 NFL draft and where Garrett is still looking for a place to hold a pro day workout.

All while settling in to the first apartment he’s ever rented and planning his wedding next week to his fiancee, Mikayla. Until last week, Garrett had been living in Smith’s basement for the past six months, awakened daily by the early-morning din of his daughters, Haven and Kinsley.

“He’s never really had a place that he could call his own,” Smith said. “But he finds the positive about everything.”

And as for why Smith has been so gung-ho in helping Garrett, whom he’s only known for a few years, Smith said he can’t help by be inspired by his ultimate underdog story.

“I am just a big fan of his just because of what he’s gone through,” Smith said. “High integrity. Loyalty. Works for everything in his life.

“He’s a special kid who has gone through a lot. How do you not root for that?”

Chris Garrett’s long, hard road to this point

Chris Garrett’s parents divorced when he was 6. He and his five siblings were eventually forced to fend for themselves as the family problems grew, with things falling apart with both parents. Garrett lived with his mother the longest of all his siblings, eventually moving out when he realized it was not the best environment for him to thrive.

Garrett eventually moved in with his grandmother, Ambretta Reid, who opened her door despite her own health considerations. They were in and out of multiple houses over the years, but they survived together and developed a close bond — that parental bond he never truly had as a kid.

“I had to make a decision that was best for me, and she was there for me,” Garrett said. “We’d been close even before then. But when I’ve grown stronger and more mature as a person, I can feel her in me and [she’s] a huge part of my development.”

But he still struggled in school and, lacking the necessary GPA and test scores, couldn’t qualify for an FBS scholarship. Garrett’s dream school, Wisconsin, recruited him. But he was forced to take an alternative route, enrolling at CSP after they offered him a full scholarship.

It meant leaving Milwaukee and his grandmother, temporarily. But eventually, he’d have a support system around him. Garrett later was joined by two of his brothers, 26-year old Kenny Reid, his oldest brother (a defensive tackle), and 20-year old Darios Cauley-Reid (a running back), his youngest brother, last season on the Golden Bears football team.

The fourth brother, Antoine Garrett, lived a little more than an hour up the road in St. Cloud, Minnesota, having been adopted by a family there previously.

Garrett and Cauley-Reid, reunited the past few years on the team after being separated as kids, remain exceptionally close. For two brothers whose parents haven’t always been there for them, being there for each other has been an important development.

“They have a special bond,” Smith said. “When they were growing up, Darios was anywhere Chris was. He clung to Chris. They’re thick as thieves, for sure.

“Chris sees a lot of potential in Darios. He’s definitely in Darios’ ear: ‘Whatever you want, you can go get.’ They’re each other’s biggest fans.”

As Garrett has developed into an NFL prospect, he leaned on an inspirational quote Cauley-Reid found from British author Os Guiness: “I live before the audience of One — before others I have nothing to gain, nothing to lose, nothing to prove.”

“Darios first pointed it out to me,” Garrett said. “He was going through some stuff at the time, and he was just in this mindset of, ‘I don’t have to prove anything to anybody.’

“Once he said that to me, I started looking at myself. And it just changed how I approach life. Maybe other people don’t look at the quote the same way I do. But it just hit me in a crazy way.”

Everything lined up in Garrett’s personal and football lives in his tremendous junior season of 2019, with his head coach at Concordia calling him the best leader he’s ever had. Garrett became a D-II second-team All-American and a nominee for the Harlon Hill Trophy and Cliff Harris Award.

NFL scouts had taken notice. They’d seen him fare well in a matchup as a sophomore in 2018 against eventual Chargers third-round pick Trey Pipkins of conference rival Sioux Falls, and Garrett followed that up with 69 tackles (20.5 for losses), 14 sacks, seven forced fumbles and two recoveries in 11 games the next season.

Garrett was playing alongside two of his brothers, was receiving legitimate NFL attention and had found the girl he wanted to marry.

And then the pandemic hit.

“I never once thought we weren’t going to have a season,” he said. “We’re going to have a season, I don’t care what anyone says! No way we won’t, I thought.”

Narrator: Yes way, they wouldn’t.

“It really threw me for a loop,” Garrett said, “but I put my faith in God and tried to make the best of it. And that’s what I am still doing now. Every single day.”

A busy few months ahead

Garrett got engaged to Mikayla last Sept. 6, planning the romantic surprise — a scene adorned with flower petals, a wedding arch and candles at night — with help from her sisters ahead of time. Next week, they’re getting married. Smith and Garrett’s brothers are all in the wedding party.

Chris and Mikayla are going to soak up their special night next Friday in a small ceremony in the Milwaukee suburbs. Then it’s quickly back to the grind of trying to reach his NFL dreams.

“We’ll take Friday, Saturday and Sunday just for us,” Garrett said. “Then Monday it’s back at it.”

She was fully on board with the expedited process. After he’d decided to start his draft quest, Garrett explained to her that things might be hectic for a bit.

“My fiancée, just talking about everything with her when I decided to come out, I said, ‘Hey, this is going to be our life now. We have to be all in on this.’ I’m blessed that she is,” Garrett said.

From left to right, Sean Smith and his wife, Gabby; plus Mikayla and her fiancé, Chris Garrett. (Sean Smith)
From left to right, Sean Smith and his wife, Gabby; plus Mikayla and her fiancé, Chris Garrett. (Sean Smith)

So his wedding date is locked in. But Garrett’s all-important pro-day date isn’t.

With the NFL cancelling the 2021 NFL scouting combine, prospects now must work out at their respective schools’ pro days. That’s no problem for a player from Alabama or Ohio State, but it’s quite different with the smaller-school prospects such as Garrett.

Concordia typically has a pro day every year, but it’s almost always coordinated to be on the same day as the University of Minnesota, which is about a four-mile drive away. There’s no date yet set for the Gophers’ pro day, so Garrett and his school must wait, too.

Landing with another school’s pro day is a possibility, but many programs are using COVID as the reason for shooing outside prospects away this year.

“I know the opportunity is going to present itself,” he said. “I just have to be ready.”

Whenever Garrett gets to test, he’s setting some big goals.

Garrett wants to run his 40-yard dash in the mid-to-low 4.6s. As a rush end (or possible rush linebacker) weighing in the 240-to-250-pound range, that’s a very respectable number.

For his vertical jump, however, Garrett believes he can notch between “36 to 38 inches” — a number that would place him in the top 20 percent of all combine defenders in that weight range over the previous five years.

“My vertical jump, I am adding explosion every day in training,” he said. “My body fat is getting lower, and I feel great, probably the best it ever has felt this time of year.”

Garrett’s agent, Michael Hoffman, isn’t sure when or where the pro day will happen. But he believes his client is going to “shock people” with his athleticism whenever it happens.

Already Garrett has helped his cause with a strong week at the Hula Bowl pre-draft event. With the East-West Shrine Game and NFLPA Collegiate Bowl cancelled, it and the Senior Bowl were two of the very few pre-draft events that went off without hitches.

“I really think I did the best I could,” Garrett said. “It was a great experience.”

Garrett told friends he thought he only lost two reps all week in practice, spending time as both a down rusher — which is what he did most of the time in college — and also taking drops at linebacker, which might be a necessity for Garrett’s size. Measuring with 32 1/4-inch arms, Garrett is far closer to NFL linebacker size than he is to most pass rushers.

But Hoffman believes Garrett’s strong performance at the Hula Bowl helped put him “back on the map” as a prospect.

“He performed really well, and the feedback from scouts has been great,” Hoffman said. “It wasn’t too big a stage for him.”

That’s what months of lifting, working out, film study and positional work — a six-day-a-week routine — helped prepare Garrett for without the benefit of the senior season that was stolen from him. Garrett even found time for yoga four times a week this fall, which has helped his flexibility and focus.

Driving Garrett’s success is his unilateral focus to get his feet inside an NFL doorway. And whether it’s as a Day 3 pick or as a priority free agent, “Chris doesn’t care,” Smith said. “He just wants a chance.”

And Garrett brings with him the attitude that he belongs — wherever he’s at. It’s how he rose to stardom at the D-II level, and it’s how he plans to make it in the NFL.

“There, it was really just me dominating mentally and physically,” Garrett said. “Once I get in that mode where I feel like no one can block me, it’s not a pretty sight for the other guys.”

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