Ridley runs long, hard route to Falcons

Falcons first-round pick Calvin Ridley is all smiles and orthodontics during his introductory press conference at the Falcons training facility Friday. (HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

There was a moment, between the time the Falcons called his name and when the tears began to pool, that Calvin Ridley just seemed to go blank.

All around him at the draft party at the south Florida park where he had spent a good chunk of his fractured childhood, family and friends danced and whooped. Ridley alone was quiet, an island in the storm. He slumped back in his chair, stunned, really, hit smack between the eyes with the 2-by-4 of some profound realization.

All those boyhood boasts – or were they oaths? – he made about one day providing some anchorage for himself and his kin had become possible. With the 26th pick of the 2018 NFL Draft, the Atlanta Falcons choose Alabama wide receiver Calvin Ridley. He was making good on his dream.

Then the tears came. The cocktail of happiness over being a first-rounder and disappointment over not going earlier in the night was a salty one. Even this part of his story came with complications.

“(The tears were) a lot of mixture of everything,” Ridley said the next day, at his new training facility in Flowery Branch.

“My family being there. My mom, my girl, my brothers. I fell back.

“I was angry, too. I kept saying to myself, I’m going to prove everybody wrong (he believed he would be taken long before the Falcons picked). That made me angry a little bit. I got a chip on my shoulder right now. I’m gonna go out there and I’m gonna get the job done.

“Anger and happiness – yeah, that was it.”

Included in that scene near Fort Lauderdale was a cross section of the community that had co-authored Ridley’s biography.

His mother, Kassna Daniels, of course. She once ran track in high school, and saw that same natural speed in her first-born son. “He started running at seven months old and he hasn’t stopped running yet,” she said.

His brothers, three of them, all younger, had to be there. “Me and my brothers have a tight circle,” Calvin said.

It was quite the story in last season’s College Football Playoff Championship game when Alabama wide receiver Calvin Ridley was thrown onto the same field with Georgia wide receiver Riley Ridley. The brothers both had a big night, Calvin hauling in a late fourth-quarter touchdown to tie the score, sophomore Riley putting up his most productive game as a Bulldog – six catches, 82 yards. And when the Crimson Tide won in overtime, as one side reveled and the other reeled, the brothers met on the field and gave each other the jerseys off their backs.

Also at the draft party were some of the coaches and friends who provided support for Ridley when he needed it most. There was even someone from SOS Children’s Villages, the foster agency that took in the Ridley boys for a couple of years as their mother confronted personal issues. Maybe one day the family will wish to talk in depth about those. But not this day.

Rather than go to Texas for the NFL’s draft extravaganza, Ridley wanted to bring together all these people at a place where some other kid with a big dream might notice. “Showing,” he said, “that with hard work and dedication you can make it out of nothing.”

On Friday morning, just hours after the draft’s first round was finished, Ridley’s over-heated phone rang again. This one, he answered. It was his father, Colin Ridley, who Calvin and his brothers haven’t seen for 16 years. Not since Colin Ridley was deported to his South American home country of Guyana.

It was, Colin recalled, the second time the two of them have spoken since his father was sent away.

“He thanked me and said he was proud of me,” Calvin said, seeming pleased with the exchange.

There was, though, no thoughts of a reunion any time soon. “He can’t come over here, and I’m not going to go that far right now,” Calvin said.

One thing about Ridley, wherever he goes while telling his back story, there is no noticeable bitterness in his tone. In fact, there seems a strong sense of pride at having come out the other side of his childhood fairly whole. “The obstacles that I went through in my life – I think if I didn’t go through those I wouldn’t be here today,” he said. “Those things made me a man, made me the player that I am.”

The Falcons call themselves a “Brotherhood,” trying to lend an air of family to the rather ruthless pursuit of the best possible roster. For someone who has been through as much personal chaos as Ridley – even attending three different high schools, ineligible for much of his senior season because at just over 19 by then, he was too old to qualify – a brotherhood has to sound pretty appealing.

Even if the Falcons call came later than he would have like, this just may be a perfect landing place for Ridley. That goes far beyond the fact that he is so comfortable playing indoor games in Atlanta (Alabama was 5-0 here during his time with the Tide).

To all in the family, Calvin working just 42 miles away from his brother Riley at UGA is almost providential. It was Calvin who insisted his brother play somewhere besides Alabama, and Kirby Smart credits big brother for Riley being in Athens.

“I wanted him to make a name for himself,” Calvin said. “I wanted him to go somewhere he was real comfortable, where he didn’t have to worry about his brother, or his brother getting more balls than him. It would be easier for him to go over there and make something for himself.”

“(Riley’s) been saying it all morning – my brother is 45 minutes away from me now. He’s very, very happy,” their mother reported Friday.

He also has comfort of working alongside another former Alabama receiver of some repute, Julio Jones. They’ve already formed a bond during the occasional offseason workout back in Tuscaloosa. “I can’t wait to get back around him and start listening to him again. It’s going to be amazing,” Ridley said.

That Ridley – although constructed more compactly than such Alabama predecessors as Jones and Amari Cooper – was a similarly speedy and precise receiver seems beyond dispute. How potentially productive must he be, after all, to convince ol’ defense-first Dan Quinn to use his precious top pick on an offensive player for the first time?

“Really good,” Quinn laughed. “You better be exceptional.”

Observed Louisiana-Lafayette coach Billy Napier, who was Ridley’s first receivers coach at Alabama: “He’ll transition to the NFL really well, I think he’s going to be very productive. He’s going to get his share of one-on-one matchups (with the presence of Jones and Mohamed Sanu), and he can play both at the slot and wide-out positions great.

“The thing he does so well,” Napier said, “is track the ball. He has the uncanny ability to be where the ball comes down.”

Leaving Alabama as second all-time in career receptions (224) and touchdowns (19) and third in yards (2,781), Ridley sees himself further blossoming in the pro game with a quarterback just a year removed from the MVP award, Matt Ryan.

Just as the passing game was often not an emphasis at Alabama, neither was the act of self-expression. Nick Saban doesn’t exactly run a hemp-wearing commune over there.

Ridley says he wants to expand his personality as well as his game. He’ll want to bring Falcons fans into the widening circle of those who might dance and whoop during his big moments. There’s always room for more.

“A lot of people don’t know me,” he said. “They talk about me but they don’t know me. I’m really a good person. I don’t talk about other people. I just come to work. I’m a good dude.

“I want (fans) to know that I’m going to work hard. I thank the coaching and everyone in this building for giving me this opportunity and they got a good player. I want the fans to get to know me. And I’m going to have fun with them.”

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