Willie Snead IV works the Ravens’ locker room as adroitly as he does the harrowing combat zone in the middle of an NFL field.
Like so many of the things he knows about football, he learned this from his father, who played with Emmitt Smith at the University of Florida. Appreciate what each man brings to the team, Willie Snead III told his son, and make sure you add to the picture.
One day, you'll see Snead alight next to fellow wide receiver Michael Crabtree. The next, he might gab with tight end Nick Boyle about their shared love of dogs. His bushy mane of two-toned hair, which falls to his shoulders if he doesn’t tie it back, makes him easy to spot.
This was the Willie Snead who vanished for much of 2017 as a drunk-driving suspension and a hamstring injury soured his third season with the New Orleans Saints, the team that gave him his first significant NFL playing time coming out of Ball State.
Snead is naturally hard on himself, so the wounds of that lost year — some self-inflicted, some an affront to his athletic pride — cut deep.
“It was definitely hard,” he said Wednesday, as he looked ahead to the Ravens’ Sunday matchup with the Saints. “It was definitely a transition as well, because the first two years, I was involved, and I was doing a lot more. But last year, I had a bunch of stuff going on, and it piled on.”
That's why Snead felt such liberation when the Ravens signed him to an offer sheet in April, which the Saints declined to match.
He hungered to rebuild his reputation, and now that he's in a place where the coach and the quarterback gush over his toughness, his joyous spirit has resurfaced.
“We wanted to show that what happened in New Orleans was not characteristic of him,” Snead’s father said. “We all make mistakes, but he wanted to show he could recover from it and be the person and player people had grown to love.”
Willie Snead III also played wide receiver — with more straight-line speed but less acumen than his son, according to his own scouting report.
When his playing career ended in 1992, he worked as an athletic trainer before moving to coaching. His son became one of his earliest pupils.
“When he was five, believe it or not,” Willie III said. “He used to sit beside me and watch the film as I was breaking down our next opponent. He started asking questions and for a homework assignment, I gave him 10 plays to watch and tell me what he saw. Then he started breaking down my games for me, and he’d say, ‘Hey dad, this guy is not very good or this guy is very good.’ He was scouting for me. His football IQ is off the charts.”
The family (Snead is one of three siblings) moved around as Willie III built his coaching career, from Lake Forest, Ill., to Pompano Beach, Fla., to San Diego and then back to Belle Glade, Fla., where Snead began his high school career.
He did not need long to decide what kind of player he wanted to be.
“I always wanted the ball in my hand in those types of situations,” Snead said when asked about his penchant for third-down catches. “Because that’s just the type of player I pride myself on being — a clutch guy, move the chains, just being one of those guys in the locker room that’s just, you can count on me.”
The family moved again when he was in high school, this time to Michigan, where Snead became a run-pass quarterback, leading his father’s offense at Muskegon Heights High. Willie III compared his son’s style with that of Johnny Manziel at Texas A&M. As a senior, he threw for more than 2,000 yards, ran for more than 1,000 and called many of the plays himself.
His future lay back at wide receiver — the family position — but those last two years of high school played into a key bit of advice from his dad.
“Think like a quarterback,” Willie III told him when explaining how to be a high-level pass catcher. “What would you want your receiver to be? That’s how you gain the trust of a quarterback.”
At Ball State, Snead became a full-time starter as a sophomore and a full-on star as a junior, when he caught 106 passes from future Ravens draft pick Keith Wenning. He bypassed his senior year, only to go unselected in the 2014 NFL draft.
The Cleveland Browns cut him at the end of training camp that summer. After a failed tryout with the New York Giants and a stint on the Carolina Panthers practice squad, he finally caught on with the Saints practice squad in December.
That’s what Ravens coach John Harbaugh meant when he said, “This is a guy that’s been doubted his whole career.”
“‘Is he fast enough to separate? Can he make those plays in clutch situations?’” Snead said, ticking off scouts’ concerns about him. “I’ve always taken it to heart, and I’ve worked at it, and I remember all those things that people were saying about me.”
He found his NFL home in New Orleans, where he blossomed into one of the league’s most productive slot receivers, learning the art of underneath pass catching from Saints veteran Marques Colston.
He took his dad’s advice and tried to think along with quarterback Drew Brees, so he could find the spot where Brees would look under duress.
He caught 141 passes on 205 targets over his first two full seasons and seemed headed for a possible contract extension, until the early hours of June 11, 2017, when he crashed his vehicle into a parked car. A subsequent Breathalyzer test measured his blood-alcohol level at .125 percent, above the .08-percent limit in Louisiana. He was less than a mile from home.
Though the mistake was uncharacteristic by all accounts, his father urged him to reflect on it.
“When you have kids and they’re in their 20s, they’re exposed to things and they do stupid things, my thing for him, as a player and as my son, is to learn from your mistakes,” Willie III said. “He was hard on himself. He’s always been that way, even as a kid in Little League. He shoulders a lot of the burden and I think that’s what drives him, even in his personal life. He has the thing of ‘I let you guys down as parents. I let myself down. I let my family down.’ ”
The news of Snead’s arrest didn’t come out until September, when he was suspended for the first three games of the season. He missed two others because of a hamstring injury and never truly blended back into the Saints’ high-powered offense. He caught just eight passes all year and felt like a bystander as the Saints streaked back to the playoffs with an 11-5 record.
You hear a tinge of sadness in the voices of Brees and Saints coach Sean Payton when they talk about the end of Snead’s New Orleans tenure.
“He’s highly intelligent. He has fantastic hands, he’s savvy, and there’s so many things he brings to the table,” Payton said. “He played a lot of good football games for us, and yet it’s kind of the business we’re in — sometimes the difficult part of the business we’re in.”
The Saints’ painful decision to move on allowed the Ravens to fill a long-standing hole in their roster.
Ever since Anquan Boldin brought a rare offensive toughness to the 2012 Super Bowl team, they’ve sought another receiver who’d thrive in what Harbaugh calls the “blood area,” that crowded box in the middle of the field where quarterbacks make quick throws when a blitz is upon them.
That’s Snead’s office, as he demonstrated in Sunday’s victory over the Tennesse Titans, when he began the second half with a ferocious 24-yard grab to convert on third-down and-17. That catch made possible the 12-play touchdown drive that essentially sealed the game.
“He’s on the ground, he makes the catch, he’s getting pushed back to the ground, stepped all over, and he just gets up and gives the first down signal right there in the guy’s face,” Harbaugh said admiringly. “That’s the kind of competitor he is. He’s all ball, all the time.”
After six games with Snead, quarterback Joe Flacco already knows to look for him at such moments.
“Willie, come Sunday, he’s ready to play, man,” he said. “He’s one of the toughest guys I’ve played around — just in the few games I’ve played with him so far.”
Willie Snead III is still his son’s coach and trainer, even his personal chef, in the offseason. But he’s also a concerned dad. And that part of him delights in seeing his boy embraced by a new team and city.
Snead turned 26 on Wednesday, and his mother, Sofia — the original source of his outgoing side — flew to Baltimore to celebrate with him. Willie III, who’s coaching at Christopher Newport University in Virginia, plans to join them on the weekend and be at M&T Bank Stadium for the Saints game.
“We kind of had a game plan going into this year, to prove to the Ravens that they made the right choice in bringing him on board,” he said.
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