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Former sprinter Cyril Grayson completes marathon journey to NFL glory

The Bucs receiver won four national relay titles at LSU, but never played college football.
 
Bucs receiver Cyril Grayson (15) scores the winning touchdown late in the fourth quarter in last weekend's 28-24 win against the Jets in East Rutherford, N.J. Grayson, who didn't play college football, has emerged as a solid Tom Brady target in the regular season's final stretch.
Bucs receiver Cyril Grayson (15) scores the winning touchdown late in the fourth quarter in last weekend's 28-24 win against the Jets in East Rutherford, N.J. Grayson, who didn't play college football, has emerged as a solid Tom Brady target in the regular season's final stretch. [ JOHN MUNSON | Associated Press ]
Published Jan. 7, 2022

TAMPA — In track and field vernacular, Cyril Grayson’s role on LSU’s 4x400-meter relay team was known as the “cleanup leg.” In essence, he was a setup guy, delivering consistency while deferring glory.

“You’re going to give Cyril the stick, he’s either in first (place) or right there close in second,” said longtime LSU relays coach Bennie Brazell, a former Tigers football/track star drafted in the seventh round by the Bengals in 2006.

“Cyril’s job was just to keep it close, or if he could pass him, pass him. But whatever you do, just keep it close, and he always came through.”

In terms of championships, Grayson surely cleaned up. In a sparkling four-year track career at LSU, Grayson served as that paradoxical third leg — a job both priceless and thankless — on four national-title 4x400 relay teams (two indoor, two outdoor) between 2014-2016.

He finished his Tigers career with those four NCAA crowns, an SEC title, seven All-America honors and not one down of football. Yet more than a half-decade later, his occupation has transitioned from starting blocks to streak routes.

The role in which he excelled in purple remains strikingly similar in pewter. During this surreal stretch, when the Bucs have been mired in injuries (see Godwin, Chris) and drama (see Brown, Antonio), Bruce Arians chose to hand the figurative baton to a guy who went eight years without playing in an organized football game that counted.

Cyril Grayson, left, celebrates after the Bucs beat the Jets last weekend.
Cyril Grayson, left, celebrates after the Bucs beat the Jets last weekend. [ COREY SIPKIN | Associated Press ]

Grayson, 28, came through again, helping keep his team near the front — nipping at the Rams’ heels — in the race for the NFC’s No. 2 playoff seeding.

“He’s made the most of his opportunity, and I think that it started last year,” quarterback Tom Brady said. “He did some good things for the team, and then continued in the offseason and in training camp, and then really got a shot.”

Grayson’s fourth-quarter, 50-yard scoring catch on a busted coverage in his de facto homecoming — a Halloween-night loss in New Orleans — was the second reception of his NFL career.

The 10th came with 15 seconds remaining last Sunday at MetLife Stadium. Brady pump faked before finding Grayson on the right side — a millisecond before a safety swooped in — for the winning 33-yard touchdown in a 28-24 victory against the Jets.

It was Grayson’s sixth catch of the day, equaling the number of NFL teams with whom he signed with — but never played for — prior to hooking up with Tampa Bay in December 2019.

“Sometimes I was like, ‘Man, I can go and get a job,’ and I wanted to have some stability more than bouncing over everywhere and not knowing what’s going on,” he said. “But I still had my vision on the goal that I set before myself.”

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A dream deferred

LSU's Cyril Grayson, right, hands off the baton to teammate Darrell Bush, left, on the final exchange of the 4x400-meter relay at the NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championship in Fayetteville, Ark., on March 9, 2013.
LSU's Cyril Grayson, right, hands off the baton to teammate Darrell Bush, left, on the final exchange of the 4x400-meter relay at the NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championship in Fayetteville, Ark., on March 9, 2013. [ APRIL L. BROWN | Associated Press ]

Those who bothered to look beyond Grayson’s documented fleetness would have encountered a football past, albeit a limited one. The son of a pastor, Grayson played four seasons at Louisiana prep heavyweight Archbishop Rummel in Metairie, where his dad starred as a fullback in a wing-T offense a generation before.

Former longtime Raiders coach Jay Roth said Grayson began as a quarterback, but didn’t truly flourish until being moved to receiver as a senior. That year, he established a Rummel single-season record with 731 receiving yards (and eight TDs) for a 10-2 team. The record was eclipsed five seasons later by Ja’Marr Chase.

“I coached his father in high school, so I knew the family and I watched him grow up,” said Roth, a New Orleans native with a gumbo-thick accent. “He wasn’t bouncing no basketball in the offseason and playing baseball during the summer. He was a football/track guy, and he took them both very serious.”

When the record-setting season failed to move the needle in terms of football recruiting, Grayson signed a track scholarship with LSU. Naturally, he inquired about playing football for the Tigers, but was stifled by an NCAA rule forbidding athletes on Olympic-sports scholarships from playing major sports until their junior year.

Once his track career ended, he again tried hooking up with the football team, only to be told it had no scholarships available, according to The Advocate of Baton Rouge, La.

“But I just didn’t let it deter me from the ultimate dream that I had from being a little boy,” Grayson said Thursday. “I always wanted to get to the NFL.”

The last-gasp opportunity arrived at LSU’s pro day in April 2017, when he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.33 seconds, which would have been the third-fastest time at the previous month’s NFL combine. Two days later, he signed with the Seahawks, able to bypass the draft because, well, he never played college football.

“I just trusted God that he had given me a vision of being where I am,” he said.

From cleanup to closer

Bucs receiver Cyril Grayson, raised in suburban New Orleans, had a 50-yard touchdown reception late in the fourth quarter to give the Bucs a short-lived lead against the Saints at Caesars Superdome on Halloween night. New Orleans won, 36-27.
Bucs receiver Cyril Grayson, raised in suburban New Orleans, had a 50-yard touchdown reception late in the fourth quarter to give the Bucs a short-lived lead against the Saints at Caesars Superdome on Halloween night. New Orleans won, 36-27. [ TYLER KAUFMAN | Associated Press ]

Grayson spent five months with the Seahawks before being released. None of his ensuing NFL stints — with the Colts, Seahawks (again), Texans, Bears, Saints and Cowboys — lasted more than nine months.

The Bucs signed him off Dallas’ practice squad on Dec. 17, 2019. Twelve days later, Grayson made his first NFL reception — a 3-yarder from Jameis Winston — for an injury-depleted Bucs receiving corps in a 28-22 overtime loss. From there, a tedious odyssey of waivings, re-signings, practice-squad stints and active-roster elevations ensued.

Through it all Arians saw something.

“He had a redeeming quality — he was fast, and he was strong,” Arians said. “That’s a great start. Then he started working on his hands and route running and all of the nuances of playing wide receiver. You just saw him work at it so hard and get better. He was killer on the scout team, so I was like, ‘This guy can play.’”

The watershed moment may have occurred on a bright, wet day during a 2020 practice. Grayson slipped when Brady targeted him on one route, then lost another Brady throw in the sun.

“He’s like, ‘I don’t need no excuses, you’re an NFL receiver,’” Grayson recalled.

“I was like, ‘Man, he’s being too hard on me.’ But then right after that, he came back and said, ‘The reason why I’m so hard on you is because you have this talent, and I just want to pull it out of you. I see that in you, and I just want you to see that in yourself.’

“From that moment, I knew he felt something in me. And all it took was me getting out there every day and him actually being able to throw me the ball to earn that ultimate trust.”

Last Sunday, that trust manifested itself in a last-second spiral. The sprinter snagged Brady’s pass with both hands slightly above his helmet near the 4-yard line, then tumbled slightly backward as his momentum carried him across the plane of the goal line. With that, the Jets were finished.

The cleanup guy had become a closer.

“I just can’t believe it, but at the same time I can believe it, because he put in the work,” Brazell said.

“He worked his ass off the whole time, and there were times when people didn’t see what Cyril was doing, but he was working, chasing his dream. It’s such a beautiful thing to see the hard work pay off.”

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls

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