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  • Staff photo by COREY PERRINE^^Nashua North's Kendall Reyes runs the ball downfield while being pursued by Nashua South's Nicholas Tognacci and teammate Ryan Dedonato following Thursday, Nov. 23 at Stellos Stadium. South defeated North 35-12.
  • Staff photo by JOE MARCHILENA

    Nashua's Kendall Reyes stands with his mom Alice Reyes-Hope and stepfather Jim Hope prior to the start of Saturday, Nov. 26, 2011, UConn Senior Day game against Rutgers.
  • Staff photo by JOE MARCHILENA

    UConn's Kendall Reyes, of Nashua, tries to fight off a block by Rutgers' Art Forst.
  • Staff photo by JOE MARCHILENA

    Kendall Reyes encourages Mike Ryan as Ryan bench presses Wednesday during UConn's Pro Day. Reyes, a Nashua High School North graduate, is projected to be drafted in the early rounds of next month's NFL Draft.
  • Staff photo by JOE MARCHILENA

    Scouts, media members, teammates and coaches watch as Kendall Reyes runs a drill during UConn's Pro Day on Wednesday.
  • Staff photo by JOE MARCHILENA

    A scout watches as Kendall Reyes runs a drill Wednesday during UConn's Pro Day.
Sunday, April 22, 2012

With NFL in his future, North’s Kendall Reyes hasn’t forgotten his past

The cleats sit in a row on the floor, like they’re waiting to go on display at a shoe store.

There are five pairs, each looking brand new. But on closer inspection, some wear and tear is noticeable, whether it’s a scuff mark on the side of a bright gold one or a crease in the high top of another.

Who will wear theses cleats next, or when that will be, no one really knows, but they are there, lined up on the floor of the Nashua High School North boys locker room, ready for someone to fill them. There is no shortage of high school kids who want to, but there aren’t many who can fill a size 14 cleat.

At some point, Titans football coach Jason Robie will find someone who can fit into a pair of those behemoths. That player might be able to fill out the cleats, but he’ll have an even harder time filling the figurative shoes of Kendall Reyes, a 2007 North graduate.

The beginning

Sometime this weekend, a National Football League executive is expected to call out Reyes’ name. He’ll stand at the podium on the stage at New York City’s Radio City Music Hall, announce the number of the selection in the NFL draft and which team is doing the selecting, and he’ll follow that up by calling out Kendall Reyes, defensive tackle from the University of Connecticut.

When it will happen – and which team will be doing the picking – will be a mystery until that moment. It could happen as early as Thursday, when the first round of the draft takes place, starting at 8 p.m. It could be sometime Friday, during the second or third rounds, or it might be in the draft’s final rounds Saturday.

A couple of experts have Reyes going late in the first round in their mock drafts, but a second-day selection at a minimum seems to be the consensus.

Before Reyes was a potential draft pick, before he was a two-year captain for the Huskies, before he was a three-sport athlete at North, he was a big, skinny kid who needed some encouragement to try a new sport.

Up until fourth grade, Reyes had only played basketball and never worn football pads until a friend’s mother stepped up.

“One of my childhood friends, Nick L’ecuyer, his mom said to me, ‘Kendall, you are too big not to play football,’ ” Reyes said. “Yoshiko L’ecuyer signed me up for football the next year when I was in fifth grade, and I just went from there.”

It didn’t take long for Reyes to fall in love.

“From the second I started playing, I was a football player from that point on,” Reyes said. “I love playing sports, and I’m competitive, and I’m always going to do something. I played basketball and I ran track, but you could always tell I was a football player playing basketball and I was a football player running track.”

Reyes was a member of the final Pennichuck Junior High School team that included ninth-graders, and even then, he was getting noticed by coaches around the city.

Robie remembers going over to the school to talk to potential players and seeing pictures of Reyes and some of his teammates in the trophy cases.

Those teammates and friends knew there was potential for something big.

They even joked with Reyes about someday making it to the NFL.

“We’d egg him on,” said John Taylor, who met Reyes in seventh grade.

Reyes, Taylor and another friend occasionally had to ride a bike to get to football practice at Pennichuck. The only problem was there was one bike, and it belonged to Reyes.

“We told him if he wanted to get to the NFL, he had to bike us around town,” Taylor said. “There would be three of us on one bike.”

With his house at the bottom of a hill, Reyes would have to bike the trio up the incline.

“My friends were always small,” Reyes said. “Basically, I’m pushing three people on my bike up the hill. I’d always ride them on my bike and they were always like, ‘Come on, Kendall, you’ve got to be better.’ They always pushed me to be better.”

That was because, somehow, they just knew. They could see it in his work ethic off the field and his ability on it. It should be no surprise that Reyes scored the first varsity touchdown in North history in fall 2004 – on a kickoff return.

“We always played together, and he was always one of the best,” said Eric Congdon, who has been friends with Reyes since the early days at North. “You could tell the way other teams played around him because of his ability.”

Lifelong friends

It has been almost eight years since that first team of Titans took the field, and this group of friends is as close now as they were then, if not more so.

“Even in college, we were even tighter than we were in high school,” Reyes said.

No matter what sport one of them was playing, whether it was football, basketball, wrestling or baseball, they all went to support one another.

The only thing that changed when they graduated was that only one of them was still playing.

Taylor, Congdon and several others did everything they could to make the trips to East Hartford to watch Reyes and UConn. At times, Taylor thought they were the loudest fans at Rentschler Field, and he sensed that Reyes could always tell where the group was sitting.

“You could tell he was trying to impress us,” Taylor said. “We wanted him to do well, and when we saw him slacking off, we let him know.”

The group was there this year for UConn’s final home game – and the last home game of Reyes’ career – against Rutgers. In the second quarter, he scooped up a fumble and ran it back for a touchdown, the only touchdown of his college career.

“It was cool that you could always see, after he made a big play, he always knew where we were sitting and looked up,” Congdon said. “He loved that his friends and family were there. I think that motivates him a lot.”

When Reyes comes back to Nashua, the group still gets together.

Taylor and Congdon are still talking, but instead of pushing their friend, they’re talking him up to other people.

“Having someone to always have your back, that always makes you feel good and makes you play better,” Reyes said. “I’m glad that I’ve got the group of friends that support me, and I do the same for them.

“It’s true genuine friendship. We care for each other, and we’ve been there for each other through the good times and the bad times.”

Seeing a group of friends stick together, especially when one of them is on the verge of something so big, fills Robie with pride.

“The thing is with Kendall, if he was going on to become a teacher or a banker or a writer or whatever, those relationships would be the exact same way,” he said. “It’s not about him being a potential NFL draft pick. It’s about him as a human being and how he’s fun to hang out with.

“These kids have careers, and they’re working hard and doing good things with their lives. They’ll be family men down the road, and I hope they keep coming back. He still hangs out with the kids he played with, which is fantastic. I’m proud of him for that. That’s an example of good upbringing.”

Pinch them

Taylor still has a hard time believing this is all real.

“At first, it was one of those things where we said we hope he makes it at UConn,” Taylor said. “And then we hear the NFL talk, and we were kind of blown away. It’s kind of surreal.”

Some of this has been dreamlike for Reyes, too.

After the football season ended in early December, Reyes finished up school and headed to Bradenton, Fla., to work out at IMG Academies, not knowing if he’d attend the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis in February.

That was when Reyes opened the eyes of scouts.

When that was done, it was back to UConn to get ready for the school’s pro day, at which the stellar combine performance meant Reyes only had to participate in defensive line drills.

Since then, life has been a mixture of working out in Nashua and fulfilling media requests, which included a trip to Bristol, Conn., to visit the ESPN campus.

“ESPN is huge,” Reyes said. “I never realized how big it was. I felt like a little kid at Disney World. I had the biggest smile on my face the whole time.”

Maybe there aren’t team mascots and SportsCenter anchors walking around the hallways at all times, like in the commercials, but it isn’t far off.

“It was insane,” Reyes said. “You can walk through the hallways and at one point, you see Snoop Dogg, and then Jerry Rice is over there, and Jalen Rose is rolling through. The place is so big, who knows what else is going on?”

Reyes had a moment to chat with Rice, and the Hall of Fame receiver got a good laugh when he heard that the 6-foot-4, 300-pound Reyes was once a wideout himself.

By the end of this week, things will only get crazier.

“His life is about to become pretty hectic,” Robie said. “I’ve got letters from the Oakland Raiders and from Green Bay. They want to know everything about the kid, and they ask, ‘Did he do track, and what were his times?’ I made copies for myself to keep, to go back and show the kids that this is what teams are interested in.”

Molding a legacy

It will be a significant moment in the history of Nashua football whenever Reyes’ name is called at the draft.

It has been almost 10 years since someone from Nashua played in an NFL game, when Kole Ayi played in a handful for the St. Louis Rams in 2002. No one from the city has been taken in the draft since 1988, when the Cincinnati Bengals chose Herb Wester in the fifth round. But he never played a game in the league.

Greg Landry, who was drafted by the Detroit Lions with the 11th overall pick in 1968, had the most successful career, which spanned 17 seasons in the NFL and USFL.

“I definitely feel like I’m a blessed individual,” Reyes said. “One thing I’ve learned is that being in sports in general, you have tons of influence over people. You may not realize it, but you really do.

“This country, most people watch sports, and everyone is into ESPN. A lot of people look up to you. I want to use my influence in a positive way.”

While at UConn, Reyes was part of a group of players who would head to East Hartford Middle School every Monday to meet with students. And whenever his playing days are done, Reyes hopes he can continue working with youths.

“When football is all said and done, I want to work in the community and make the world a better place,” he said. “Whatever I can do to help out the kids who are struggling or to just give back to the community that brought me up.”

He’ll have plenty of opportunities to do those things, such as donating cleats to his former high school football team.

As for his own cleats, Reyes won’t have to worry about where they’re going to come from in the near future.

“It’s definitely the highest point of my career, but it’s not going to be the highest point,” he said. “This is just the beginning. I’m going to do everything I can to make sure the next phase of my life is a success.”

Joe Marchilena can be reached at 594-6478 or jmarchilena@nashuatelegraph.com.