For his grandfather Henry, there were the pills to organize, everything a heart attack patient needed to make it through the day. For his grandmother Lula, there was the insulin, just the right amount to counter her raging diabetes. Each day, 10-year-old Kavis would make sure all the prepping and caring was done then he’d head off to school.
He was going to be doctor. He was going to aid the afflicted and do all kinds of marvellous work to help people just like his grandparents. That’s how it was going to be, all right. Kavis Reed, M.D. Someone to make the bad stuff go away, even for a little while.
He is reminded of those days and where he is at this moment: in a spotter’s booth on the west side of Commonwealth Stadium overseeing an expanse of green field and empty seats. He has taken the Edmonton Eskimos from last place in the CFL’s West Division in 2010 to within one win of a Grey Cup appearance. He’s made a lot of things good here again.
“You were going to be a doctor. What happened?” comes the question.
Reed grins as he looks out toward the field.
“I became a victim of the virus called football – and coaching.”
At 38, he is young to be a head coach in pro football. Yet everything about Reed speaks to his experience. Shaped by his upbringing, moulded by virtue, committed to doing the right thing, Reed has taken a path he never expected, turning an injury-shortened playing career into one with an even shorter life span, coaching.
Along the way, he has made a point of taking the best from every situation. Sometimes, he’s used a heavy hand to get what he’s wanted; more often it’s been a human touch. His Edmonton players love him. More important, they follow him. They listen to what he says and how he wants them to play. Because of that, the Eskimos are facing the B.C. Lions in Sunday’s West Division final, a turnaround that has Reed being touted for coach-of-the-year honours.
“He can be tough when he needs to,” quarterback Ricky Ray said of Reed. “But he cares about the players. He’s brought a lot of pride back to the organization because he knows what it’s like to put on that uniform.”
Reed is a proud man, not arrogant. He believes in time-honoured values, how people should react and how Eskimo players should behave because he was one, too. He doesn’t like excessive celebrations after touchdowns are scored. (His players stopped them once they faced the death stare from planet Reed.) He doesn’t allow newspapers or sports talk shows to infiltrate the dressing room. (Inside voices only.) He’s had the players and coaches clean their meeting rooms and pick up litter around the practice field because it’s their field and they should have pride in it.
He’s also delivered fire-and-brimstone pre-game speeches and had former Eskimos, from kicker Dave Cutler to coach and GM Hugh Campbell, talk to the players and remind them they’re part of a Grey Cup-winning legacy and that the past matters every bit as much as the present.
“Everyone knew the great affection Kavis has for this franchise,” said current Eskimos general manager Eric Tillman, who worked with Reed in two previous CFL stops. “I would have hired him anywhere. This was the perfect place.”
Reed was going to become a doctor. Being the oldest among three sisters, with a mother who worked and a father who was out of the picture, he was raised by his maternal grandparents in Georgetown, S.C., and ended up looking after them for as long as he could.
A starring athlete, he attended Furman University, a private academic institution, and majored in biology. He was ready to step up his pursuit of a medical degree when he was offered a contract by the Eskimos, who liked his on-field savvy. He reasoned he could go back to school if football bottomed out and it took Reed time to crack Edmonton’s defensive backfield. But once in, he made 20 interceptions over five seasons (1995-99) returning five for touchdowns.
His final game saw him hit from behind by a Hamilton Tiger-Cat. It happened at Commonwealth Stadium. The whiplash herniated the C4 and C5 discs in his neck. His playing days were done at 27. He took a year off working in what he calls “corporate Canada” trying to find a new profession. Married – his wife Darlene is from Saskatchewan; they met while he was playing for Edmonton – and with a young family, Reed ruled out medical school.
Once again, football came calling. He was asked to be an assistant coach with the Toronto Argonauts. He accepted and fully immersed himself in the role, although his head coach, Michael (Pinball) Clemons, got more than he expected.
“At times, we could have run a shelter for young men. Every week, Kavis was, ‘Coach, can we help this guy out?’ He was always helping with [minor]football teams, club teams, Big Brothers and Sisters, asking for extra tickets [to Argo games]” Clemons said. “He’s just so compassionate. That’s why people are drawn to him.”
Reed left Toronto for another job and another until he was chosen the special teams coach for the 2009 Saskatchewan Roughriders. It was there that Reed’s career could have come to a crashing thud. In 2009, Saskatchewan appeared to have won the Grey Cup only to be penalized for having too many men on the field. The infraction gave the Montreal Alouettes a second try at a game-ending, game-winning field goal and this time they made it. Everyone who watched the outcome wanted to know who had committed such a grievous blunder. Only one man stepped forward – Reed.
“Those players are willing to sacrifice life and limb for you. It’s only right to do the same,” he said. “We didn’t have mechanisms in place.”
Tillman, who was with the Riders as GM, went further in explaining what happened.
“I’m not trying to cast stones at anyone but the mistake that was made was we didn’t have a designated counter up top [in the press box counting the Riders on the field then relaying a warning to the coaches on the sidelines]” Tillman said. “Players are running on and running off. We had different packages [for blocking or returning the kick] We don’t have a timeout. A highly respected player made a mistake.
“Those of us that are on the inside knew the real story and prefer to keep it in the family. But we also understand to a man it was not Kavis’s fault.”
Leadership comes in many forms. Reed’s brand comes from the head and the heart. As Edmonton offensive co-ordinator Marcus Crandell noted: “He has a wealth of knowledge and he spreads that knowledge around. He tells. He shows.”
Reed, now quietly working on his MBA, for life after coaching, knows exactly where that came from.
“I’ve got an old spirit. Growing up with grandparents, you listen to their stories and the older you get, you mature a little faster. I’ve always been that way,” he said. Making the bad stuff go away. Even for a little while.