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Change of (flight) plans leads Greg Reaves from Air Force to prosperity at USF

The former Bulls walk-on will make his 36th consecutive start on senior day against No. 18 Memphis
USF defensive end Greg Reaves (4) celebrates a stop during the second half of the Bulls' 27-23 victory against BYU in October. [OCTAVIO JONES  |  Times]
USF defensive end Greg Reaves (4) celebrates a stop during the second half of the Bulls' 27-23 victory against BYU in October. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]
Published Nov. 22, 2019

TAMPA ― Like many adjusting to the demands of military life, Greg Reaves would lose sleep over his bed.

Keeping it made to U.S. Air Force Academy Preparatory School standards can render that effect. For a spell, the lanky Floridian and his roommate would grab spare blankets and sleep on the floor so as not to dishevel the pristine tidiness of the sheets and tucked corners.

“I remember, it’s like 18 inches from the headboard, 6 inches wide, hospital corner on the end,” said Reaves, whose day at the academy typically began with a 4:30 a.m. workout. “Everything tucked, no wrinkles. Everything really just had to look good.”

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Reaves plugged away in that demanding existence ― even flourished in it ― for about a year, distinguishing himself on the prep school’s football team and earning an appointment to the Air Force Academy. For the youngest of Wanda and Greg Reaves’ three kids, a noble career of service beckoned.

But so did his lifelong desire.

“My goal and my dream was to get an opportunity to play in the NFL and the next level,” Reaves said.

So to the chagrin of some, including his dad, Reaves bypassed the Air Force and accepted an invitation to walk on at USF, where he believed he’d have a better chance at fulfilling his goal. While supporting his son’s decision, the elder Reaves’ message was clear:

This time, you’ve made your own bed.

“I was very disappointed that he didn’t go back (to the Air Force Academy), I’ll be honest,” his father said.

On Saturday, Wanda and Greg will stand beside their son during USF’s senior day festivities, beaming and possibly bawling. Reaves’ leap of faith has evolved into a career catapult of sorts.

USF's Greg Reaves (41) breaks up a pass thrown to Tulsa's D'Angelo Brewer (4) during the fourth quarter of a 2017 game in Tampa. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]

The quintessential overachiever, he has earned a scholarship, a starting job, an undergraduate degree and universal admiration in the locker room during his five seasons as a Bull.

“That’s one guy who you never have to question his effort, who’s always around the ball, who’s trying to run out there, running on the field and off the field,” said fellow defensive end Kirk Livingstone, Reaves’ close friend and classmate. “That’s kind of what he’s built here.”

Meantime, that NFL dream still has a steady pulse.

“I’m so proud of him,” his father said. “Sometimes I’m like, ‘Man, how did I help produce this?’”

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Reaves, 23, makes his 36th consecutive start for the Bulls (4-6, 2-4 American Athletic Conference) Saturday against No. 18 Memphis (9-1, 5-1). He eclipsed the 200-tackle mark for his career last weekend against Cincinnati, and enters the final stretch of his college career with 28.5 tackles for loss.

A member of the 2017-18 AAC all-academic team, he carries a 3.8 grad-school grade-point average in entrepreneurship and applied technologies.

“He’s a kid that we all knew, as a coaching staff, would (succeed),” said former Manatee High assistant Chris Conboy, who helped connect Reaves with the Air Force’s prep academy.

“We would talk about it like, ‘That’s a kid who’s gonna be a success no matter where he goes,’ because of the foundation that his parents had given him, and his intellect, and then most importantly his work ethic was as good as anybody we’ve ever had.”

At that point, the intangibles and intellect weren’t accompanied by size. Reaves was a 6-foot-1, 174-pound backup free safety as a Manatee junior, starting only after FIU signee Willie Smith went down with an injury and showing promise in run support.

“And that led us to believe that as he got bigger, we could move him to (middle) linebacker the next year because were losing our linebackers,” Conboy recalled.

Reaves showed up the following preseason at 6-2, 196. Embracing his new position, he recorded a team-high 87 tackles, led all Hurricanes linebackers with six quarterback hurries, and was named the Bradenton Herald’s All-Area Defensive Player of the Year.

USF's Greg Reaves (41) celebrates the sack on Cincinnati quarterback Ross Trail (12) during the second half at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa on Oct. 14, 2017. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]

Despite that breakthrough, college options were minimal. Reaves signed with I-AA Albany (N.Y.) before landing the opportunity with the Air Force’s prep academy. By then, Manatee alumnus Willie Taggart had taken over at USF, and legendary Hurricanes coach Joe Kinnan had joined the Bulls staff as a consultant.

While home from the prep school on summer break, Reaves took a visit to USF, where then-linebackers coach Raymond Woodie and then-coordinator Tom Allen assured him he had a good shot to earn a scholarship. The day he was supposed to return to the Air Force Academy, Reaves attended a USF orientation, still uncertain of which option he would choose.

Concerned that the Air Force’s post-graduate active-duty requirements could hinder his NFL chances, he remained in Tampa.

“So I just took my chance, I just stepped out on faith,” he said. "It was rough around the house for a while. (The elder Reaves) was upset even on to my freshman year, and I didn’t get to earn a scholarship that year.”

But he did earn USF’s Scout Team Award for defense in 2015, and got action in eight games as a redshirt freshman walk-on in 2016, Taggart’s final season. When Charlie Strong came aboard, Reaves’ first impression was indelible.

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“We gave him the opportunity, and he came in as humble as he could be, and he worked his way (up),” Bulls defensive coordinator Brian Jean-Mary said. “And you know how hard that is in college football nowadays, without any injuries, to kind of jump over three or four guys. He did that, and it didn’t take a long time, probably the first week of spring practice, where we saw his talent and his work ethic kinda jump off the screen.”

That summer, just prior to the 2017 season, Strong awarded Reaves a scholarship.

His career had taken flight after all.

“When you talk about (Reaves), you’re talking about just playing with confidence and just playing hard all the time and going hard all the time,” Strong said. “That’s what he did and that’s why I offered him a scholarship.”

Saturday, the onetime walk-on will suit up, slip on his gloves (which he wears only for games and not practices), pray at the 41-yard line (he wore No. 41 most of his career), hug his folks and siblings, and try to put some more ferocity on film for NFL scouts.

If Greg Bernard Reaves Jr. is sleeping now, don’t wake him up.

“It’s been incredible,” said Reaves, among 17 seniors who will be honored Saturday. “I just have to thank God for the opportunity, so I thank Him every day, man. I know I shouldn’t be here because there’s more talented people. It’s hard to put into words.”

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

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