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From JBLM to the NFL

A military life and the road less traveled

How growing up in military family helped NFL player realize his dream

Published: 02:05PM October 31st, 2013
A military life and the road less traveled

Photo by ©James D. Smith/Dallas Cowboys

“Growing up in the military teaches you a lot of things from being strong, courageous and perseverance,” says Dallas Cowboys defensive end Caesar Rayford.

When Calvin Rayford enters the Superdome in Louisiana Nov. 10, the lifelong New Orleans Saints fan will proudly wear his Dallas blue.

The retired sergeant major is the father of National Football League rookie, Caesar Rayford, defensive end for the Dallas Cowboys.

Calvin will stand out in his blue and white No. 95 jersey surrounded by his Louisiana family dressed in black and gold when the Saints host the Cowboys.

“Looking back at making sergeant major, that’s a great accomplishment, but when you have a child that can say he made it to the NFL, that doesn’t happen every day,” Calvin said. “We’re excited.”

Caesar was raised in a dual-military family with his father and step-mother, Donna Rayford, a retired sergeant first class. Caesar was born in North Carolina and moved several times before the Rayfords moved to then-Fort Lewis in 1996.

For two years the family lived on base where Calvin coached Caesar in basketball and soccer at the base’s youth center. Back then the Rayfords thought their tall, lanky teen with large feet had a future in basketball.

“I was a clumsy, couldn’t chew gum and walk kid,” Caesar said. “My dad was always struggling with me because I was uncoordinated.”

The family eventually settled in Spanaway where Caesar was a three-sport athlete at Bethel High School. Donna learned of their new home state by driving him to his many sports events.

Caesar decided he wanted to play football in college during his senior year of high school. That same year Calvin deployed to Korea.

With her husband gone, and college football recruiters showing interest in Caesar, Donna studied up on a game she didn’t know anything about.

“When the coaches came to the house I would know what I was talking about and what questions to ask,” Donna said. “That’s when I had to start learning the game.”

Calvin was overseas for the majority of Caesar’s career at the University of Washington where he played 35 games. He returned home in 2008 and retired from the Army after 29 1/2 years to see his son play his senior year. Calvin and Donna attended every home and away game that season.

“I wasn’t going to miss his last year of college football for nothing,” Calvin said. “He did a lot of great things his senior year.”

Caesar wasn’t drafted out of college and nothing came of a mini-camp he had with the Seattle Seahawks. Determined to keep playing football, he packed his bags and headed north to play in the Canadian Football League for two years.

Caesar made his way to the Arena Football League and played for the Spokane Shock before he joined the Utah Blaze in 2010. When his arena season started this year Caesar was six years out of college, and didn’t know if he would ever have his chance at the NFL.

“I still had aspirations to make it to the next level,” Caesar said. “I definitely hit some road blocks, but that’s one thing my dad taught me, is being strong and persevering, and keep on going no matter how long the road is or how difficult it can be.”

During his three years with Utah Caesar continued to improve and continued to add weight to his 6-foot-7 frame. After a stellar arena season this year the 27-year-old NFL hopeful received a call from the Indianapolis Colts. Rayford was nine games into his arena season when the Colts brought him in for a workout and coach asked him if he was ready to work.

“Definitely, coach,” Caesar said and signed his first NFL contract in May.

Caesar’s lifelong dream came true and he quickly proved he was where he belonged. During the Colts’ preseason Caesar led the league with five sacks.

“A guy like me, I came out of nowhere,” Caesar said. “And even though it was preseason it was still a big accomplishment. I went out there and played like every play was my last play.”

Before the regular season started the Dallas Cowboys sent a conditional pick in 2015 to the Colts in exchange for Caesar. Now the 6-7, 267-pound defensive end lines up on the D-line for Dallas.

Caesar’s parents have already traveled to several of his games, and Donna was at AT&T Stadium in Dallas to see Caesar suit up for his first game with the Cowboys.

Both Calvin and Donna are proud of their son who never gave up, and even when he reached the top, he’s still the same Caesar who just wants to play football.

“Growing up in the military teaches you a lot of things from being strong, courageous and perseverance,” Caesar said. “I think growing up in that strong military family has pushed me to get to where I’m at now.”