Carolina Panthers

For Panthers training camp underdog Rasheed Bailey, is Spartanburg the final hill?

If Carolina Panthers wide receiver Rasheed Bailey’s path to an NFL roster sounds difficult or unlikely or irregular, it’s because it is.
If Carolina Panthers wide receiver Rasheed Bailey’s path to an NFL roster sounds difficult or unlikely or irregular, it’s because it is. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

The hill is just outside Baltimore, a football field long and stretching up to the clouds.

It’s become an off-season ritual of sorts for the Carolina Panthers skill position players, led by quarterback Cam Newton, to work out together in Baltimore weeks before training camp. This summer was no different. Players ran routes, worked on their footwork, caught passes — and then there was the hill.

Only, this is no ordinary field. It’s a test. Of physical strength, of quadriceps capacity and calf cramps, but more, too. It’s a test of will. The human spirit.

And Rasheed Bailey isn’t backing down.

It’s a set of sprints up the hill, Bailey recalls, five 100-yard bursts. After three runs, the first people drop out. We’re done. We can’t do anymore.

After four, it’s a few others who quit. That’s it. Just can’t do it.

Not Bailey, though. Even as the sun scalds his back from overhead, even as sweat beads trickle down his eyebrows and sting his eyes, he keeps running. His shirt becomes a thick, wet cape and clings to his skin, weighing him down as if he’d just jumped in a pool with his clothes on. And still Bailey keeps running.

There are two schools of thought here. The first is that Bailey, a 6-foot-1, 210-pound wide receiver, is doing everything he must to make the Carolina Panthers roster for this season.

And as he should, right? On a team with a revamped wide receivers room, Bailey is right on the fringes of a roster spot — a camp injury or stalled rehab might be his only hope of making the team. But regardless of numbers or the situation, he must prepare as if he’s a starter. As if he’s an NFL lock. And so he runs, even when it hurts, and it sucks, and the urge to quit is greatest.

But the second school of thought? Asking why Bailey runs the hill. For a job, of course, and to accomplish a lifelong dream. But also ...

“That hill, it’s like my life,” Bailey recalls days before heading to Spartanburg for Panthers training camp. “You know, I saw guys stopping, guys who didn’t finish the whole thing, but for me, it was like I’m going to die on this hill today. I’m not giving up. This is my whole career in the NFL right now.

“And just fighting that feeling in my legs — when they hurt, I can’t take no more, I just wanna give up — but no. I’m gonna finish. I’m gonna finish first. And when I finished, I knew I was ready for camp.”

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Carolina Panthers wide receiver Rasheed Bailey (16) knows the odds are against him making the roster. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

‘I love the underdog story’

If Bailey’s path to an NFL roster sounds difficult or unlikely or irregular, it’s because it is.

He was never a top high school recruit, never a major college football star. Chances are, before this story, you’d never heard his name.

None of that’s new to Bailey, though.

“I love the underdog story, man. It’s always been me, my whole life,” he says. “I’m used to it. I’m used to not getting interviews, or walking into locker rooms and nobody knows who I am.”

Part of that stems from Bailey’s upbringing in the “projects of Philadelphia,” as he calls them. With drugs, fighting and crime such a visible part of everyday life, it was difficult for anyone to escape that environment or truly stand out.

The turning point came his senior year at Roxborough High. One morning, Bailey arrived at school to devastating news. One of his best friends had been killed the night before.

“Hearing gunshots the night before, that’s just how we grew up,” Bailey says. “That really set me apart. That took my passion, my heart, my everything to want more and to show my peers more. Like, we’ve gotta get out of this.”

Without any major male role models in his life, most of what Bailey learned about the world was self-taught. He was never satisfied with the idea of life on the street corner. He didn’t want to become just another fighter, or dealer, or just caught up in the wrong crowd. Or, as he puts it: “I’ve seen so much bad that all I wanted was to say was, ‘How can I be different from this?’ ”

With football. Bailey, never the strongest or fastest receiver on the field, knew his way out of Philly’s worst neighborhoods wouldn’t come just via talent alone — it would take hard work, more work than anyone else was willing to put in.

That would be what separated him. That could be his way out.

‘It’s hope that you can come from anything’

The only issue with football as an escape is that you need resources to make that a reality.

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After not being selected in the 2015 NFL draft, Carolina Panthers wide receiver Rasheed Bailey originally signed with the hometown Philadelphia Eagles as an undrafted free agent. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

You need coaches, cleats, gloves, pads, JUGS machines, people to throw you the ball, people to organize practices, people to ... well, you get the picture.

And how much access do you think Bailey had to all of that?

“I didn’t get a trainer until my senior year in college. Everything I did, it was on my own,” Bailey says. “I’m not trying to brag about where I came from, but I literally went out and bought my own ladder, bought my own stuff. I used to be out there at the fields in Philly ... when it was dark out, then when the lights went out.

“I was the one who really put in the work.”

And for all that work, Bailey earned zero major college football offers. None. No invitations to nearby Maryland, Temple, Rutgers or even BCS-level Delaware. Instead, he ended up at Delaware Valley University, a Division III school with about 1,800 students and no NFL connections.

Bailey had to start again, from the bottom.

After two middling seasons for the Aggies, Bailey finally showed promise as a junior, leading the team in every receiving category.

Then his senior season, he practically doubled those numbers: 80 receptions, 1,707 yards and 19 touchdowns. He led all of Division III in receiving, set multiple school records in the process and was even featured in Sports Illustrated’s Faces in the Crowd section.

“Coming from a Division III school, (going to the NFL) is not even really talked about,” Bailey says. “It’s something that’s not really big or something that’s realistic. Guys like (San Francisco receiver) Pierre Garcon and (free agent) Cecil Shorts, those are the guys we looked up to.

“Those are the guys where I was like, ‘One day, I want to be like that.’ ... It’s hope that you can come from anything or nothing and be who you want to be in life.”

Indisputable talent, no guarantees

Bailey’s breakout senior season proved one thing: He could ball. That much was indisputable.

Too bad it didn’t guarantee him any NFL opportunities.

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After an impressive mini-camp in June, where Carolina Panthers wide receiver Rasheed Bailey made several high-profile receptions and impressed coaches, he returned to Philadelphia this summer to condition more than at any point in his life. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

After not being selected in the 2015 NFL draft, Bailey signed with the hometown Philadelphia Eagles as an undrafted free agent.

At the end of that summer, they cut him.

That set up a trend of the temporary for Bailey, who bounced from team to team for months at a time. From Philly to the BC Lions (Canada), then to Jacksonville, San Diego, back to Philly, then Cleveland and finally Carolina, never for more than half a year.

“I’ve been through the fire,” Bailey says. “Now it’s time to put things together. It’s time to finish something, to put it all together. I went to a smaller school and had to take some time learning the NFL system, but I feel like I’m catching up to speed now.”

After an impressive mini-camp in June, where Bailey made several high-profile receptions and impressed coaches, he returned to Philadelphia this summer to condition more than at any point in his life. And while he also worked on his footwork and route-running with close friend and fellow Panthers receiver Torrey Smith — “He’s giving me the knowledge because he believes in you and he wants you to do great things,” Bailey says — the focus this summer was his body.

The reason?

“When you get to training camp, everybody’s tired,” Bailey says. “The coaches want to know who can perform when they’re tired. That’s the true test.”

Now Bailey will get his opportunity — perhaps his final one — to prove he belongs. To show that even from the projects of Philadelphia, even with no major college offers, even from Delaware Valley University, if you put your mind to something, you can succeed.

Bailey isn’t naive. He knows the odds are against him. Smith, incumbent No. 1 receiver Devin Funchess and first-round pick D.J. Moore are likely penciled in as starters, with Jarius Wright, Damiere Byrd and the rehabbing Curtis Samuel as backups and return-game weapons.

But while everyone else watches those six names, Bailey will just keep doing what he always has — believe in himself and make those final cut decisions as difficult as possible.

“Camp is about who is going to finish,” Bailey says. “It’s not about who’s going to do good the first two days or three days or week. Nah, it’s every single day. Who’s going to finish it? That’s going to be me.

“And even if it doesn’t go the way it’s supposed to, I know I gave everything I was supposed to give. ... I’m ready for this challenge.”

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