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Humble but motivated Chris Garrett driven by family
Rookie outside linebacker Chris Garrett’s journey to the Rams has been forged by his faith and wanting to provide his family.
By Stu Jackson Jul 09, 2021
Photographs By Brevin Townsell and Jeff Lewis / LA Rams, Andy Clayton-King / AP, Justin Oakman Photography

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. – The fire that burned inside "a small school kid who basically destroyed that league" needed only a silent moment in front of a mirror to be lit.

Outside linebacker Chris Garrett wasn't the type of player who used rah-rah methods such as music to pump himself up, according to his younger brother Darios Crawley-Reid, a running back who played alongside Chris at Division II Concordia St. Paul for one season.

All Garrett had to do was quietly look into his reflection and remind himself of the difficult moments he endured and those who motivate him.

"I was standing in the mirror with him one time, next to him, kind of doing the same thing, just focusing up, and the glare over his eyes that changed in that instant, from just, 'Alright, coaches got done talking,' to 'We're about to go on the field,' when it changed, it was the craziest thing I've ever seen," Crawley-Reid said. From thinking about, 'Oh, we got to go play football,' to, 'Hey, I'm about to go play football. I'm about to go for a five-sack game.'"

For Chris, his journey to the Rams has been molded by never being satisfied, wanting to learn from his past so he can create a better present and future.

The earliest stages of those hardships began when Garrett was a child.

His parents got divorced when he was six years old, and from there, "things got really chaotic" for him and his five siblings, Garrett said. Living in shelters, even cars for a bit. In and out of their grandparents' places, from living with their grandmother on their dad's side to living with their grandmother on their mom's side. Going between their mom's place and their dad's.

"So it was pretty crazy," Garrett told in May. "Even living with teachers at times."

Difficult as those times were, Chris and his siblings were not completely alone.

Their maternal grandmother, Ambretta Reid, and maternal grandfather, Kenneth George Reid Jr., continued to be involved in their lives as they had been since birth. During the divorce proceedings, Ambretta said she studied and learned how to write her own paralegal briefs, then successfully won grandparent visitation rights for her and her husband.

The couple – who were also counselors to at-risk children and worked with the Milwaukee Rescue Mission – supported their grandchildren in various ways like picking them up from school, cooking large meals, bringing them to church, and working to ensure they channeled the aggression felt from their upbringing into a productive outlet so that it wouldn't become destructive when they became adults and later parents.

At the same time, Ambretta said she and her husband were careful about not pushing their grandchildren into activities they didn't want to do because of their upbringing.

"We didn't want to break through that barrier that way," she said. "Because they were hurting, and all of them are different."

When it came to Garrett, though, they eventually had no choice.

Garrett developed a close bond with Ambretta, so much so that he was at first reluctant to play football because he preferred spending time with her.

One particular day, Kenneth told Ambretta it was time for Garrett to get off the couch, so Ambretta had Garrett help her take and unload recovery food and water to the park where his brothers' football team – which Kenneth was a coach for – was practicing.

Ambretta had a broom stick she would tap after her grandchildren, which meant grandma was being serious and if they did not come to her, they would be in trouble. She hid it in the car so Garrett couldn't see it on the way to the park, and when he came back for the last recovery item – a case of water – there stood Ambretta with the stick.

"What did I do? What did I do?" Garrett said.

"It's time for you to get on that field and play football, buddy," Ambretta said.

"Grandma, I don't want to do that," Garrett said. "That's not my sport."

"It don't have to be, but it's going to become yours," Ambretta said.

Ambretta then asked Garrett to put the case of water down and come to her. Garrett didn't obey, so she kept tapping the stick on the grass.

Garrett turned around, put down the case and took off running so fast that he caught the coach's attention.

"When they saw Chris running, they were like, 'Who is that?'' Ambretta said. "And my husband was like, 'That's the grandkid that we've been trying to come get on the football team.'"

So began Garrett's football career.

"He never stopped running since he was 10 years old," Ambretta said.

Garrett lived with his mother for most of his life, but eventually moved in with Ambretta around age 13 after the environment became unsuitable. Ambretta brought Garrett in even though she was dealing with health problems.

Kenneth was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer in 2009, passing away on January 12, 2010. After his death, Ambretta said she underwent surgeries to improve her quality of life and step up and be there for her grandchildren so that they would not become troubled teenagers.

"She was really my rock throughout all of it," Garrett said. "Always bringing Christ into everything. And that's really been how I've made it to this point."

It was an important foundation to have, because Kenneth's death turned Garrett into a father figure for his siblings at a young age.

"We didn't really have a father-figure in our life that was there for us like our grandfather was, so Chris had to take over that role throughout high school and into college," said Crawley-Reid, who also noted he talked to Garrett when he needed anything. "I couldn't ask for a better brother, than what Chris is to me."

Along with those responsibilities, Garrett also had to juggle being a student-athlete and later the recruiting process.

Garrett was a late-bloomer. Neal Crawley, whose family took in Crawley-Reid when Crawley-Reid was 14 years old and Garrett 16, said the 6-foot-4 Garrett was "probably more tall-and-skinny than tall-and-muscular" at the time.

Naturally, Crawley spent more time with Crawley-Reid than Garrett. Although Garrett would tell Crawley each time their paths crossed that he was fine and expressed confidence he could take care of his grandmother, Crawley said he understood but was there if Garrett needed anything.

Sure enough, Garrett would need Crawley. Neal remembers the University of Wisconsin calling Chris "right away" to schedule a Junior Day visit, and to Crawley's surprise, Garrett asked if he would go with him, along with Darios and Ambretta, to Madison.

When they got there and sat down with the coaches, Neal said the coaches raved about Chris' film, even projecting Garrett as a starter in 2-3 years.

There was just one catch: Wisconsin's academic standards. Garrett's grades weren't "terrible," according to Crawley, but he had a long way to go. They worked with his school counselors to close the gap, but Garrett's grades still weren't good enough, and Wisconsin fell off.

"We weren't quite sure what was going to happen," Crawley said.

Garrett said his expectation going into the recruiting process was to get a Division I scholarship offer. He felt like his numbers were good enough – his 100 tackles and nine sacks as a senior led to Little Ten Conference Defensive Player of the Year recognition – but Western Illinois and Northern Illinois saw him as a walk-on, a route he couldn't afford to take because of his family's financial situation. Utah talked to him, but did not offer him a walk-on opportunity.

A three-letter winner, team captain, All-State honorable mention performer, All-Region selection and two-time All-Little Ten Conference pick will get discovered eventually, though.

Two weeks after Wisconsin fell through, Chris received a call from Concordia St. Paul (CSP) tight ends coach Reed Johnson, asking if he could come up to campus.

Back in the car Crawley and Chris went, visiting campus then talking and praying about it. CSP head coach Shannon Currier's genuineness and sincerity won them over, so it didn't take long for Chris to tell Crawley he thought CSP was the place for him.

"And I said, 'Well, you can tell him right now,'" Crawley said. "Because I'm also convinced that it's not just the school that makes all the decision, but it seems like the coaches are really great here and they have your best interests in mind. So he said yes to them."

Currier said that as a Christian school, he felt that may have made a connection with Chris, a man of faith. It also helped that CSP also gave him a full scholarship – a rarity at the Division II level.

"As a head coach, I went in there and I said, 'I'm going to pay for everything,' which, in Division II, we don't do much, because at the most in our league, there's 36 scholarships," Currier told in a phone interview last month. "We're operating with about 20, so you just don't commit that much money to one player. But I just saw the abilities that he had and the explosiveness and his length. So I guess we were right in this case."

The path was officially set for what would become one of the most decorated football careers in Division II and program history. However, similar to his high school career, reaching the next level required another leap of faith from Chris.

At CSP, Garrett set the NCAA Division II record for career forced fumbles with 15, finished third in NCAA Division II history with 1.30 sacks per game, set the CSP career record and finished 13th in Division II history & second in Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference (NSIC) history with 36.5 sacks. He also finished 14th in Division II football career history with 1.73 tackles for loss per game.

That production overlapped with D2CCA, Associated Press, and Don Hansen All-America First Team recognition, AFCA All-America Second Team honors in 2019, as well as All-America First Team by the AFCA and Associated Press, All-America Second Team by D2CCA, Third Team All-America honors from Don Hansen's Football Gazette and honorable mention by in 2018.

On and off the field, Garrett developed into the best leader Currier said he’s ever had in two decades of coaching, a comment prompted by the behavior Garrett modeled while with the program.

Currier said people automatically respected Garrett because of the way he lived, with a relentless work ethic, selfless attitude and likeability, as well as conversations about faith (Garrett was a Fellowship of Christian Athletes leader for the program).

"I've had so many people on the team that would text me or talk to me in my meetings with them and just tell me how much Chris Garrett inspired them," Currier said. "It could be from the weight room, or it could be from a conversation about about faith in the dorm room."

He also came to CSP to make a difference.

"I know a part of it was finances, but I also know he wanted to come to this program, because he had told me a variety of times throughout the time he was here, to change this place and this program and be part of that change and lead the change," Currier said. "When he's in the locker room, there's no doubt that he'll never be negative if something's not going his way. He's a positive person."

The chance to build on that production in a fourth season, however, went by the wayside after COVID-19 concerns canceled the 2020 fall sports season.

Chris said he never entertained the idea of transferring out of CSP to a Division I school to try to play last fall. However, the conversation with Ambretta and his now-wife Mikayla about whether to declare for the draft or use the extra year of eligibility granted by the NCAA was a difficult one – even if he later determined coming out was the right call.

"(Having the season cancelled) was tough," Chris said. "I was expecting to go and play, I was just going to go back to school and play that extra year. But just from the feedback I was getting, it almost seemed best to come out. And then also, I'm just wanting to constantly keep developing my game, and I knew that taking this risk and coming out now probably would be the best opportunity for me to get better, quicker, and to make those strides that I know I need to make."

Garrett also had an idea of where he stood in the eyes of league evaluators thanks to Kelly Kleine – now the highest-ranking woman in scouting in NFL history as executive director of football operations for the Denver Broncos.

Prior to that ascension in May, Kleine spent nine years in the Minnesota Vikings' scouting department and helped organized a Zoom call in early August 2020 to help NFL scouts learn more about Garrett. Every team was represented on the call, which included Garrett, the CSP's strength coach and the main 4-5 CSP coaches who worked closest with him – "40-some people" in total, according to Currier, with "a bunch" of scouts following up for more information.

Eventually, Garrett made his mind up about pursuing his NFL dream and declaring later in the fall.

While continuing to navigate the pre-draft process, Garrett also got an assist from his now brother-in-law Sean Smith, whose wife is sisters with Garrett's wife.

The two of them had formed a connection from working together on a tree crew for a couple summers in college, Garrett being a family friend of Smith's wife and being raised by divorced parents. So when Garrett decided to declare, Sean stepped in as his "pseudo-agent" to help him with the early stages of the process, serving as a sounding board while Chris vetted potential reps.

Smith said Garrett wanted to move back to Milwaukee after declaring for the draft, so he and his wife and their two young daughters opened up their home to him, giving Chris a place to stay for a couple months before he moved into a place of his own. Sean's home was about 15-20 minutes from NX Level, the facility where Garrett would train prior to the draft and where current Cardinals defensive lineman J.J. Watt trains.

Competing in the Hula Bowl in early February offered additional exposure. Garrett also made a Twitter page to share highlights. When his Pro Day performance at the University of Minnesota didn't go his way, Garrett did another at Concordia St. Paul with the Vikings scouts and increased his broad jump from 9 feet to 9 feet 6 inches, his 40-yard dash time from 4.83 seconds to 4.72.

Collectively, the work Garrett put in was enough to earn a surprise phone call from Rams general manager Les Snead in the seventh round of the NFL Draft after expecting to be picked up as a priority free agent.

"It's kind of like how I address everything," Garrett said. "I do what I can to put myself in the best position. And after that, whatever happens, happens. It's not in my control. I always prepare myself for the best and the worst. Obviously it's not the worst thing to be a priority free agent, it's still a pretty cool thing."

"When he made the decision to not take his senior year and just go into the draft, I think he really just made it and went all in," Mikayla told in a phone interview last month. "Seeing him work towards this goal has been amazing, because honestly, he's one of the hardest workers I know, and when he sets his mind to something, he does it. So that's just been really, honestly fun to watch, because I just love seeing him achieve this goal. Obviously the work is not done and anything can happen, but just for him to even make it this far has been really cool to see for him because I just know how bad he wanted this."

Chris kept getting calls all throughout Day 3 of the draft – he told the St. Paul Pioneer-Press more than 20 NFL teams reached out about signing him as an undrafted free agent – so when Snead called, he thought it was just another club wanting to discuss that.

"I couldn't believe they wanted to draft me," Chris said. "It was unbelievable."

Wherever his journey goes from here, Garrett's ultimate goal is to provide his wife and son with the stability he lacked at times during his childhood, but later found through his grandmother.

"I think a big part of his motivation just comes from his childhood, but also the fact that, more than anything, he always told me what he wanted was to be a dad, to be a husband, to have a family and be able to provide for them," Mikayla said. "Also just achieving such a big goal, that's a huge motivation right there. And, of course, giving back to his grandma and helping his family in whatever ways he can."

When visiting Concordia St. Paul, Crawley and Garrett sat down to have lunch with one of the team's coordinators. They prayed together prior to their meal, then the coordinator had a question for Chris.

"One of the things I ask all the guys I talk to in the recruiting process is what's your why," the coordinator said.

"My why," Garrett told him right away, "Is that someday I can have my own family, with a mom and a dad that live in the same house and stay together.

"That's my why."

The coordinator sat back in his chair, stunned.

"I have never, in my life, had a recruit say something like that to me," the coordinator told Garrett. "I am so impressed."

The fire that burned inside Chris before that CSP game in 2019 is still there as a positive force, motivating him to be not just the best football player he can be, but husband, father, brother, son and grandson as well.

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