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Recovery Speed

Last Thanksgiving, Stedman Bailey was in a hospital bed after being shot twice in the head. One year later, the former Ram and West Virginia legend is determined to complete an improbable return to the NFL.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Stedman Bailey couldn’t wait to get back on the field.

The Tuesday before Thanksgiving 2015 was supposed to be another day forward in Bailey’s redemption story. Halfway through his third season as a wide receiver for the then–St. Louis Rams, Bailey found himself at a career crossroads. Two weeks earlier, he had been slapped with a four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy, the second time he had run afoul of league rules in as many years. In 2014, he sat out two games for violating the policy on performance enhancers.

With this latest setback, Bailey’s maturity — and professional future — were called into question. On November 11, his 25th birthday, he posted a message of contrition on Instagram: “Ever since I was little, all I ever wanted to do was play football…For me to put that opportunity at risk was idiotic.”

Growing up in Miami Gardens, the “stop-and-frisk capital” of Florida, football had always been Bailey’s way out. His single mother, Tara, took multiple telemarketing jobs to provide for Stedman and his older brother, Brandon. “Things weren’t really always good for me,” Bailey says. But they would get better. Once a skinny wide receiver out of Miramar High School, Bailey would go on to become one of the most electric offensive threats in college football at West Virginia, breaking school records and lighting up scoreboards alongside future NFL pros Geno Smith and Tavon Austin.

But at the time of his second suspension, the offensive numbers that Bailey had produced in high school and college had yet to translate to the NFL. A third-round pick in 2013, he started just eight of his first 38 games as a Ram, finding the end zone three times. His participation in the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” pregame protest in November 2014 following the Ferguson unrest earned Bailey more national attention than his play on the field.

On November 24, 2015, Bailey was back home in Miami, two weeks into what he promised would be his last suspension. “With this time away,” he wrote on Instagram, “I’m dedicating my energy to doing a lot of self-work & making sure it never happens again.” That day Bailey worked out with his close friend Terrance Gourdine, a former high school and West Virginia teammate, before meeting up with his cousin, Antwan Reeves, 39. They went to get haircuts at a local barber shop, wanting to look sharp for the upcoming holiday. Then they picked up Reeves’s 10-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter to do some shopping in Cutler Bay.

The plan was to drive to Atlanta the next morning to gather with extended family at Bailey’s mom’s house for Thanksgiving. But first they had one more stop — the house of Gourdine, who would be joining Bailey, Reeves, and the kids for the trip. Bailey drove the group in his rental Chevy Tahoe to the end of the 19800 block of Northwest 38th Place. Gourdine ran inside to change clothes while Bailey, Reeves, and the two kids waited outside the pink home, pastel-colored like many in the neighborhood. Bailey scrolled through his phone in the front seat while behind him in the back, Reeves asked his kids what they wanted to eat.

“They said they wanted shrimp,” Reeves tells me. “We were going to get them some shrimp and bring them home.” His voice softens. “Unfortunately, we didn’t make it home.”

Around 8:45 p.m., about five minutes after they’d arrived, Reeves noticed the headlights of a car pulling up behind the Tahoe. Reeves asked his cousin if the car was there for Gourdine. Bailey turned to look but didn’t recognize the vehicle. He returned to his phone, and the group resumed waiting.

It was the last peaceful moment they would have for a while.

When Geno Smith woke up the next day for practice, the Jets quarterback had a flurry of calls and texts. Something had happened to his former teammate.

Long before they set the college football world afire at West Virginia, the bond between Bailey and Smith had started in middle school and continued to Miramar High, where the burgeoning receiver transferred in to join Smith. At Miramar, the longtime buddies became unstoppable teammates. “We always pushed each other hard when we were together,” says Smith. “We knew we both wanted to be NFL players.”

Damon Cogdell was Bailey’s football coach at Miramar High (Timothy Bella)
Damon Cogdell was Bailey’s football coach at Miramar High (Timothy Bella)

That dream was nurtured by Damon Cogdell, the head coach at Miramar when Smith and Bailey helped turn the Patriots from an unheralded team into perennial state playoff contenders in Florida. Looking up at a framed jersey signed by Bailey in his office at Miami Carol City High School, where he is now the defensive coordinator, Cogdell remembers how he once benched his star duo for the first half of a game because they had both arrived late for a 6 a.m. practice. With Smith and Bailey on the sideline, Miramar led 10–3 at halftime. After they returned, the Patriots exploded to a 42–3 win. “It was a good half,” Cogdell says, smiling.

Off the field, says Cogdell, Bailey was a respectful kid who always responded to his coach with “Yes, sir” and “No, sir.” His mother made sure he was in church every Sunday. Codgell was impressed not only by Bailey’s work ethic, but also his fun-loving side. “He’s the life of the party,” he said.

Smith was more highly recruited than Bailey, and Cogdell remembers how both ended up in West Virginia, which was in hot pursuit of the quarterback. “I told them, ‘If you guys take Geno, you gotta take Stedman, too,’” says Cogdell, who sent eight Miramar players to Morgantown. (Cogdell himself would end up spending two years as co–defensive line coach with the Mountaineers.)

In Morgantown, fans were psyched to land the blue-chip QB Smith. There was considerably less fanfare when they signed his three-star teammate. “We pretty much made a vow to our families that we were going to focus and take care of school and go ball out,” says Bailey. “And that’s exactly what we did.”

Twenty miles northwest of Miami Beach lies the unglamorous suburb of Miami Gardens, a neighborhood of strip malls, fast-food joints, and vacant buildings. Though the overall crime rate has declined in recent years, murders have increased and gang activity is frequent. Still, the 19800 block of Northwest 38th Place is an unassuming road of fenced-in residences and palm trees, about a mile away from where Bailey started his high school football career.

At a quarter till 9 p.m. on that November 24, gunshots disturbed the relative tranquility. It wasn’t until the first bullet hit Reeves in the back that he knew there were shots directed at their car. A barrage of bullets pierced the SUV, sparking horror and confusion. Reeves tried pushing his cousin’s head down, while also jumping on top of both of his children to shield them. Bailey, in disbelief, looked over his shoulder to see his family in the middle of the cross fire.

Later, police estimated that about 30 shots were fired; a neighbor counted 33 shell casings littered along the narrow sidewalk. “It felt like they were shooting for two days,” Reeves says. After the final shot had been fired and the assailants had peeled off, Reeves checked on his children. Amazingly, neither was hit by a single bullet. He turned to his panicking son, Antwan Jr., who saw the blood dripping from a hole in Bailey’s forehead.

The 10-year-old shrieked at his father: “Dad, Sted is dead! Sted is dead!

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Throughout the Milan Puskar Center in Morgantown, the West Virginia football team shuffles from meeting to meeting, some in shower sandals, others in socks. It’s September 2016; the Mountaineers are 2–0 and in the middle of an early-season off week. Displayed prominently throughout the halls of the building are pictures of the team’s celebrated history. Many of West Virginia’s best moments in recent years involved Bailey, whose 210 receptions, 3,218 yards, and 41 touchdowns in three seasons make him one of the most decorated players in school history. Bailey holds six West Virginia receiving records, including most touchdowns in a game, season, and career.

A day before hitting the recruiting trail, head coach Dana Holgorsen smiles in his office when asked about the year he first arrived in Morgantown, 2011. West Virginia’s final game that season, its last in the Big East, was an Orange Bowl date against Clemson. What most expected to be a close game turned out instead to be a famously lopsided victory, as the Mountaineers trounced the Tigers, 70–33. Wideouts Bailey, then a sophomore, and Tavon Austin, a junior, ended the campaign as first and second in the record books for most receiving yards in a season in WVU history. Along with their quarterback, Smith, the Mountaineers had one of the most electrifying passing games in college football.

“I mean, people were scared to death of those three,” says Holgorsen. He points to the framed panoramic photo taken the next season during West Virginia’s game against Baylor, the Mountaineers’ first conference matchup as a member of the Big 12. Holgorsen knew his 2012 team, picked to finish second in the conference, wasn’t as good as people expected them to be. But he also recognized that his offensive trio was special. The Baylor game is Holgorsen’s favorite memory of Bailey, who went for 13 catches, 303 yards, and five touchdowns — the last two breaking school records — in a wild 70–63 win.

“I was like, this guy’s pretty good,” Holgorsen tells me, grinning. Barely 5-foot-10 and 193 pounds, Bailey stood out not for his size but for his reliable hands and determined physicality. Austin says he still marvels thinking about some of Bailey’s one-handed catches in practices and games. Holgorsen recalls Bailey’s contagious energy and competitive spirit, as well as his positive influence on the team. As Smith’s roommate for the first couple of years, Bailey kept the two on track academically so they could stay on the field for Saturday.

By the end of his junior season, Bailey had completed what remains the greatest season for a wide receiver in West Virginia history: 114 catches, 1,622 yards, and 25 touchdowns — all school records. He finished as a second-team All-American and a finalist for the 2012 Biletnikoff Award, given each year to college football’s best wide receiver.

Bailey had nothing left to prove at the collegiate level. The next logical step was the NFL.

Inside the Chevy Tahoe, the situation was dire. Reeves handed Antwan Jr. his cell phone and told him to call his mom. Thanksgiving would not be going as planned.

Exiting the shot-up Tahoe, Reeves somehow managed to stand up; he had been hit 11 times, in his back and right side. The Rams warm-up gear he wore — gifts from Bailey — was covered in blood. “I didn’t know I had been shot that many times,” says Reeves. “After the first three or four bullets, I didn’t feel anything else.” Opening the passenger’s-side door, Reeves saw Bailey’s face — and the hole over his right eye. “After the shooting ended, I just sat there, still in disbelief,” says Bailey. With his cousin fading, Reeves hit him in the chest to wake him up. “I said, ‘Damn, cuz, they shot you in the head,’” Reeves recalls. “He said, ‘For real?’”

“The fact that I couldn’t feel any pain, I found it hard to believe that I was hit,” says Bailey. “When I then looked down … and saw blood streaming off my face onto my shirt, at that point I knew things were real.” Gourdine came running out of the house upon hearing the commotion. Stunned to see the bloody aftermath, he hopped into the Tahoe and gunned it to the nearest hospital, just over 5 miles away. Don’t stop at any red lights, Reeves instructed Gourdine, not even for the police. The cousins were now racing against time. The first hospital, Jackson North Medical Center, didn’t have a trauma center, so they were transferred 6 miles to Aventura Hospital. There, both men were rushed into surgery. Reeves, who had almost bled to death en route, was actually in worse shape than Bailey. Reeves would need an emergency blood transfusion before going on life support with damage to his liver, colon, and lungs.

Meanwhile, Bailey had survived two bullets to the head — the first entered behind his right ear and exited above his right eye, fracturing his skull and shattering the bone above his right eyebrow. The other grazed the right side of his head just above his ear. An intensive surgery would be required, but miraculously, there was no damage to his brain tissue.

Once alerted, Bailey’s family immediately left Atlanta for South Florida. All they could do now was pray.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Bailey left West Virginia after his junior year, alongside seniors Austin and Smith, to enter the 2013 NFL draft. There were questions about Bailey’s size, but scouts were impressed by his intelligence and ability to track the football. Though he was a projected third-rounder, Bailey flew to New York on draft day to show support to his more highly regarded teammates. He was there to see Austin chosen eighth by the Rams; by the time Smith’s name was called by the Jets the following day, Bailey was back in Miami for his own draft party, at his grandmother’s house.

He’d soon be celebrating his own selection when the Rams picked him in the third round, no. 92 overall, reuniting him with Austin. As in Morgantown, the less-heralded Bailey would have to prove he belonged in St. Louis. He started slowly, with only two catches through the first 11 games of his rookie season. But he began to show glimpses of promise toward the end of 2013, nabbing 15 catches for 195 yards over the season’s final five games. He scored his first NFL touchdown on a 27-yard double reverse against Tampa Bay.

The momentum heading into his second season was blunted by Bailey’s first suspension. A month after he came back, Bailey had his best moment yet as a pro with a memorable trick play against the Seahawks — fittingly, it was his ex-Mountaineer teammate Austin as his co-conspirator on the punt return.

On November 30, 2014, in the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” protest game, Bailey had a career-high 100 yards receiving in a 52–0 rout of the Raiders. For the season, Bailey finished with 30 catches for 435 yards and one receiving TD — numbers that indicated some progress for a second-year player. “The first couple seasons had its high and lows,” says Bailey. “It’s a blessing to be an NFL player and to have been a part of the Rams, but I want so much more out of myself.”

By the end of the 2015 preseason, Tony Fleming, Bailey’s agent, was bullish that his client was about to again become the playmaker who had once befuddled college defensive coordinators. “He was kind of the star of the camp,” says Fleming. “Everyone was like, ‘You should see Stedman. He’s shining out there.’ It was a big jump. They were surprised how far he had come.”

Halfway through that season, with only 12 receptions through eight games, Bailey was trying to find his place in the Rams offense. Then, on November 9, came the announcement of his second suspension. “[It was] me thinking I could get away with certain things,” he explains. “I can say I’ve learned from those mistakes.”

Two weeks later, getting back on the football field was the least of his worries.

Geno Smith was expecting the worst when he first entered the hospital room. Smith had come to Aventura on Thanksgiving Day to be by his friend’s side. Bailey’s eyes were barely open. But his former quarterback was encouraged by Bailey’s ability to remember a shared ritual.

“We’ve had this secret handshake since junior high,” Smith says. “He put his arms up and he did it, and I knew he’d be all right after that.” Bailey’s high school coach, Cogdell, was also an early visitor. “It was very odd to see this energetic and outgoing kid … with a big wound on his head and half his hair cut off,” Cogdell says.

(Courtesy of Stedman Bailey)
(Courtesy of Stedman Bailey)

Bailey had undergone a grueling seven-hour procedure that altered the shape of his face; a titanium plate the size of a golf ball was inserted above his eyebrow. “I closed my eyes many times and just meditated,” Bailey says, “praying to God to pull me through this horrific moment.”

Confined to a hospital bed and unable to walk for weeks, he suffered from hallucinations, a side effect from the medicines he took to deal with the incessant pain. Bailey thought about his future, wanting to be there for his 4-year-old son, Stedman Jr. But he was also already thinking about a return to the field: “I remember telling my doctors and physical therapist that my goal was to get back to playing football,” says Bailey. Though supportive, his team wasn’t so sure. While his third-year player was in the hospital, Rams head coach Jeff Fisher said that Bailey might never play again, but also added: “He may surprise everybody.”

Bailey’s cousin, Reeves, had struggles of his own. One of the 11 bullets that had pierced his body was lodged in his back. When he was released from the hospital two days before Christmas, Reeves couldn’t walk, needing nurses to tend to him daily for the next two months. His kids, traumatized by what they witnessed, were put into counseling. Reeves, a security specialist for Miami-Dade County Public Schools, eventually started a nonprofit called Mission Born Out of Madness and spoke outside the U.S. Capitol last summer on the need for stiffer laws against gun violence. “When you take a life or hurt someone, you put your family in jeopardy of being hurt, too,” he says. “We can all share this world without killing one another.”

Antwan Reeves (Timothy Bella)
Antwan Reeves (Timothy Bella)

There has yet to be an arrest connected to the shooting in Miami Gardens last November. Bailey believes the attack wasn’t premeditated. “I have heard different stories from the streets and I really think whoever the dudes were that did the shooting had the wrong [people],” Bailey says. “Senseless gun violence happened to us being in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

One year later, the motive for the shooting still confounds Reeves. “To this day, I don’t know,” he says. “I don’t know what would be the motive to shoot up a truck with innocent people in it.”

In June, Fisher announced that Bailey had been waived by the Rams. “As I’ve said numerous times, he’s lucky to be alive,” Fisher said at the time. “Really at this point, there’s no medical research that will permit him to play. He’s seen several specialists. With that being said, we’re going to take care of Sted.” How they would, exactly, remained unclear.

For Bailey, the five months that followed the shooting were trying — and at times, deeply depressing. The scene in Miami Gardens kept playing in his head. But slowly, Bailey began to adjust to his new reality. He relearned to walk, jog, and run in rehab. By April, there was progress, with Bailey posting videos to Instagram of his first workout sessions since the shooting. “To me, Sted hasn’t lost a beat,” Austin says. “I try to push him to the limit. … A lot of people would have given up doing what he’s doing right now.”

The optimism surrounding a possible comeback cooled over the summer. The two gunshot wounds to Bailey’s head have been compared to an extremely severe concussion, which has led to a neurological concern that Bailey would be more vulnerable for head trauma if he were to resume playing football. “I’m leery of him going back,” says Cogdell, his high school coach.

Even though Bailey is able to run routes and participate in independent drills, doctors have told him that they would not clear him for at least a full year, holding him out until he can be evaluated in February. At that time, his agent Fleming says, they’ll reevaluate his status. Bailey may be determined, but his playing fate is not in his hands.

“We’re going to make sure Stedman Bailey is OK no matter what happens,” Smith says. “This gift of being in the NFL was taken away from him. He didn’t deserve that. … I’m with him every step of the way.”

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

The day after the shooting, police said that they were searching for a light-colored, four-door sedan, possibly a Buick Regal. Since then, there have been no further developments. A spokesperson for the Miami Gardens Police Department says that Bailey’s case remains an active investigation, and is “all-encompassing,” mentioning that outside agencies are involved, but refusing to name them. Calls and emails to the Miami Gardens chief of police and the lead detective on the case weren’t returned. The head of the Violent Crimes Unit declined to comment.

In September, Bailey said that he’d heard the three people responsible for the shooting had been apprehended. But this is hearsay, and hasn’t been confirmed by the Miami Gardens PD. “I don’t know the identity of anybody,” Bailey says. “Hopefully, I’ll find that info out sooner than later.”

Reeves is also in the dark about what happened to him and his cousin last November. “I’m just waiting on a call to tell us they got somebody,” he says. “Until then, I’m just trying to live.”

Once he cleared waivers after being cut by the Rams, there was some talk that Bailey might join their coaching staff. Instead, he called Holgorsen. The Mountaineers legend and his ex-coach worked out a deal: Bailey would return to Morgantown to get his degree and be a student assistant for the team this season. As an incentive, Fleming says, the university offered him financial aid comparable to that of a graduate assistant.

“I wanted him to come back,” says Holgorsen. “What happened to Stedman is life. The NFL is not always going to be there for you, so while you’re in college, you need to do everything you can to prepare for life after football.” Bailey is currently focused on completing the 22 credits he needs to earn a communications degree while also helping out the team. Daikiel Shorts Jr., a senior wide receiver, says Bailey has worked with him specifically on his technique in goal-line situations. The Mountaineers are ranked 14th in the nation in total offense. “[Stedman] could be a good coach, but he’s gotta give up the playing dream,” Holgorsen says. “But he’s got a year to figure it out.”

Indeed, Bailey hasn’t surrendered hope on a return to the NFL, continuing to rehab and stay in playing shape. His agent says that if Bailey is medically cleared in February, he could be back on an NFL roster as soon as next season. His relationship with the Rams is cordial, but Bailey is eager to go to any team that will give him a chance. “He’s still Stedman,” says Austin. “One of these days, I want to be standing next to him or standing across the field from him.”

The redemption story, then, has been interrupted, but it’s not over yet. “I’m gonna keep working my tail off, stay prayed up, and I’m gonna find my way back into the league,” says Bailey. “We, as human beings, will all face adversity. What makes you as a person is how you respond.”