South Alabama’s Jeremy Reaves caps his breakout season in the NFL with a Pro Bowl trip

Jeremy Reaves’ breakout pro football season culminates this weekend when he joins the NFL’s top players at the league’s Pro Bowl games in Las Vegas.

Former South Alabama star Reaves went from roster to one of the mainstays of the Washington Commanders in just a few short months. The 26-year-old safety was named a first-team All-Pro and selected to attend the Pro Bowl as a special teamer after finishing among the leaders with 17 tackles in kickoff and punt coverage.

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“It’s super exciting,” Reaves said during a visit to Mobile last week. “It’s the 5-year-old kid in me — I wish I could go back and tell him, ‘Man, you actually did it. You weathered the storm and finally became what you always thought possible.” It’s everything I imagined.”

Although Reaves was named the 2017 Sun Belt Conference Defensive Player of the Year as a senior and played in the Reese’s Senior Bowl, he did not leave South Alabama. The Pensacola, Fla. native signed with the Philadelphia Eagles but was fired at the end of the 2018 preseason.

Reaves understood Washington but was cut four years in a row, ending up on the practice team each time. He played in a handful of late-season games over those four seasons — and recorded his first interception of his career in 2020 — but was never able to secure a permanent roster spot.

That finally changed in 2022, when Reaves pulled the 53-man roster of Commanders out of training camp for the first time. He appeared in all 17 games for a total of 33 tackles and became one of the league’s best on special teams.

Reaves was voted to the Pro Bowl in December. In a video that has now gone viral, he received the news in a surprising manner from Commanders head coach Ron Rivera, bringing tears to both of them.

“I believe in a higher power and I believe in God,” Reaves said. “And God led me through my time of waiting and I had to go through my storm to get to where I am today. All of this prepared me for what I got. I can’t tell you, ‘oh, I did it differently. I did it differently.” I’ve had the same (training) program every year in my career. It just all happened at once.”

Though 2022 was a year of professional triumph for Reaves, it came after great personal tragedy. His mother Rose died in November 2021.

But Reaves persevered. Not only did he finally make it onto Washington’s roster, he earned widespread recognition from more than just teammates and coaches, and was voted a first-team All-Pro — the NFL’s best player at his — by both the media and players in the league Position.

“That selection probably meant the most to me because it’s a big deal,” Reaves said. “There are a lot of great players in the league who have never been All-Pro. So I don’t take this lightly. I’m super happy and thankful for my teammates and support (network). From the time I started playing in the little league, through high school to South to where I am today, it’s taken a whole village. Everyone has contributed their part.”

Reaves said he’s signed up for three different “events” at the Pro Bowl, which has eschewed its traditional standard All-Star game format for a series of light-hearted skill contests. He competes in dodgeball, competes in a bench press competition, and then reunites with his NFC teammates for a game of flag football.

However, what the future holds for Reaves after the Pro Bowl is still unknown. He’s an unrestricted free agent, meaning he has the right to sign with any team he can contract with once the NFL’s free agency period officially begins on March 15.

And as he once again heads into the offseason with uncertain status, things aren’t the same as they have been for years past. Now he’s negotiating from a position of strength as a first-team All-Pro.

“I’m in a completely different place,” Reaves said. “It’s different being a free agent when you know you’re a practice team player and you’re getting fired, whereas as a guy who just went to a Pro Bowl you go into free agency and you’re All-Pro.

“There’s an excitement about it, but at the same time there’s uncertainty. I don’t know what our team will do or what other teams will do. I like Washington and I hope to be there. I hope we can achieve something. But there is also a business side. I’m excited to see. This is a new step for me.”

Speaking of success stories, Reaves said he watched with pride as South Alabama had its best season as an FBS program in 2022. The Jaguars finished 10-3, doubling their overall wins from the previous season and playing in a bowl game for the first time since Reaves was a junior in 2016.

South Alabama’s head coach is now Kane Wommack, who was defensive coordinator for Reaves’ last two college seasons. Reaves said the Jaguars’ 2022 program has become what he “always envisioned.”

“I remember when I signed here from high school in 2014, I said I wanted to do something here that had never been done before and I wanted to create a path for people to come after me,” Reaves said. “I think I ticked a few of those boxes.

“Seeing what became of it is what I always wanted to do when I was there. We were the building blocks of what it is now. And so it’s super cool to come back and see the stadium and the excitement around the team and what they’re bringing to the field. It’s super cool man.”

The NFL Pro Bowl Games will be held at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas on Sunday. ESPN and ABC will broadcast the event from 2 p.m. Central.