ASHBURN, Va. — When you have moved by yourself to a foreign country at age 14 with NBA dreams, learning the language piecemeal after the school you were attending shut down and surviving on day-old donuts for two or three days and $50 a month from your parents, learning a new sport at age 25 doesn’t seem so daunting.
“Without those experiences, I don’t think I have the guts to do what I’m doing,” Reyes said. “There’s nothing harder than what I’ve already been through. I’m never going to be afraid of a challenge.”
Washington signed Reyes to a three-year deal in April after watching him work out at Florida’s pro day. Washington’s coaches acknowledge there’s a lot of work ahead to get him ready for the NFL. But they like his size (6-foot-7, 240 pounds). Reyes had been training at IMG Academy in Florida as part of the NFL’s International Pathway Program. They know he’s a project.
“He’s got a tremendous skill set and he’s got the right type of mindset to want to try and do it,” Washington coach Ron Rivera said.
Other NFL tight ends have switched from basketball to football — Antonio Gates (retired), Jimmy Graham (Chicago Bears) and Mo Alie-Cox (Indianapolis Colts) to name three — but each had played football in their past. Graham played it as a University of Miami grad student. Reyes played it for a week as a high school junior.
He left his home in Santiago, Chile at 14 to play high school basketball in Florida. He played three years of Division I basketball — two at Tulane, but in 32 games there from 2016-17 he averaged 0.8 points per game. He spent one season at Loyola of New Orleans, where he played sparingly. But reaching the doorstep of an NFL roster qualifies as a win. Reyes’s past — traveling a road filled with obstacles — has helped prepare him for the difficult task awaiting him in training camp.
“No one is prepared at 14 to leave home,” he said. “My story ended up being a good one, I was able to figure it out, but there [were] many times it would have been very easy for me to go a different route.”
‘I was trying not to cry’
It wasn’t easy for Reyes’ parents to let him leave. But about 30 years ago his father, Daniel, was 16 when he left his home in Chillan, Chile to play basketball in another city. He, too, had been through a lot, raised by his grandparents with little money. Daniel Reyes was 21 when his son was born on Oct. 19, 1995.
“[His life] made him feel more comfortable,” Sammis said. “‘I survived this, my son can as well.'”
But it meant giving up his video game buddy and their weekend hoop games at the park. It meant giving up holidays as a family.
“It was hard not to have my best friend with me,” Daniel said through his son on a videoconference call with ESPN in June.
But, he said, the hardest part occurred at the airport when Sammis first left for Florida. Daniel said he wanted to project strength for his son; his insides waged an emotional war.
“I was trying not to cry,” Daniel said.
Daniel would tell him about the times when Sammis would fall down while learning to walk. His dad made Sammis get up on his own. Lessons like that persisted as Sammis grew. They strengthened him.
“Things that scare me is one day getting that call that something has happened to my family,” Sammis said. “But I had no fear. I just sat there and I cried. I was sad because I didn’t know the next time I’d see my mom and dad and friends. But I was ready.”
Learning to survive
Sammis wasn’t ready for this: Within three to four months of him attending Westlake Prep in south Florida, it had closed. He had been living with another boy from Chile, but that friend left for a junior college. Soon, the 14-year-old Reyes was the last one living in the school’s apartment complex, with his former coaches checking on him every week or so over a four-to-five month period. Reyes was by himself, relying on the $50 every month from his parents, his own street smarts and, eventually, the generosity of others.
“The rest of the time I had to figure it out,” he said. “I always bought my protein shakes from some store. Then I was trying to figure out the next meal. Other times I was lucky where I made a friend and was invited over to eat. A lot of times I had no breakfast and would have to go train and then do lunch. I’ve got three bucks; what’s for lunch? It was day by day.”
About 8 p.m. every few days he’d go to a donut store near his apartment and buy a dozen or so donuts — ones the owner would have thrown away — for $1 or sometimes a quarter. His favorite: the chocolate glazed.
“Between having a whole bunch of donuts or a can of beans, sometimes you’ve got to go with the donuts. I’d have food for the next two to three days,” Sammis said. “I can’t eat donuts anymore. I can’t even see them.”
It took him about six months to get comfortable speaking English. He would write every word down he heard, spelling it phonetically. Then he’d check the dictionary to see if he could find the word.
“It was survival for me,” he said. “You have to be brave enough to put yourself in situations that force you to learn very quickly.”
His parents had no idea of all the struggles. Because he didn’t have a phone or a computer, they would go months sometimes without talking. They would communicate via Facebook or he would borrow a friend’s phone, buy a $10 phone card from the gas station for a 30-minute conversation. His parents would watch his games via YouTube.
Sammis admitted he has yet to share all of the negative stories with his parents.
“I wanted to tell them, but I could lose that chance of being here so I didn’t want to take that risk,” he said. “My mom would have told my dad to come get me. That would have been it for me. I had to stay quiet; I had to suffer so I could shine later.”
“I would have probably done the same thing,” Daniel said through his son on the video call.
Before the school had closed, Sammis started training with another coach, Roosevelt Gray, as part of an exchange with the Westlake coaches. Gray trained some of their players. The first time Gray saw Sammis he said he thought: This guy is a football player. It’s a sentiment shared by many when they would meet Sammis.
After each daily session, Gray would drive him home, stop at McDonald’s and buy him $5 worth of food.
“I was like, ‘Whoa, five bucks from the dollar menu? That’s amazing!” Sammis said.
“He gobbled up the food,” Gray said. “He devours hamburgers and cheeseburgers and fish sandwiches like you would not believe. It was crazy. I couldn’t afford it … I said it might be better if I go buy him a couple groceries.”
Gray quizzed Sammis on his situation. Then Gray used his local connections to help get him money for meals, groceries and even shoes; sometimes it was $50, other times $100. Eventually, Gray connected Sammis with Steve Rifkind, whose son Alex was the same age as Sammis and played on the same AAU team. Rifkind helped Sammis get into St. Andrews, a boarding school in Boca Raton, Florida.
“I went from the poorest school to one of the richest,” Reyes said. “I have to get acclimated to kids whose parents are all CEOs. Some guys are driving BMWs and Mercedes to school. I’m wearing the same clothes to school every day. It was clear I didn’t belong there.”
After returning home from Chile as a sophomore — he would fly home once a year, often paid for by the Rifkinds, so he could play for the national team — Sammis got delayed at the Miami International Airport by immigration officials, as often happened. This delay lasted 12 hours, he said, because he didn’t have a permanent address while living at the boarding school.
Without a phone, Sammis could not contact his ride. When he was released, Sammis hustled to the train station, hopped the bar with two big suitcases and sprinted to the platform.
Just as the last train for the night pulled away.
Sammis wandered outside, found a Wendy’s where the drive-through was still open and, on foot, ordered two burgers. He walked behind a pharmacy to eat his meal, then laid two towels on the ground and used some of his clothes as a pillow. He fell asleep.
The next day, Sammis said, he walked at least 10 miles to school on the sidewalk, sweating and with no shirt on, carrying two suitcases before being spotted and picked up by someone who worked in the school’s library.
“That one was tough,” he said, laughing.
Two days later, after consulting with Sammis’ parents, Rifkind pulled his son, Alex, and Sammis from the school and enrolled them at North Broward Prep. Sammis, then 6-foot-6 and 230 pounds, moved in with the family and still considers Rifkind a second dad and Alex a brother.
After hearing so many times from coaches in multiple sports as well as Steve Rifkind that he should play football, Sammis gave it a shot. He practiced with the North Broward team during the spring of his junior year.
In one workout, with coaches from Central Florida, Florida Atlantic and Pitt in attendance, Sammis was playing defensive end. North Broward coach Roland Nottage said via email that Sammis made a play as the backside end by pursuing to make a tackle “he was never taught to do … he did things on natural instincts.” Rifkind recalled the college coaches high-fiving one another.
The next day, Sammis told Rifkind he no longer wanted to play football. His dream remained the NBA. Rifkind said it led to a big fight: He told Sammis he could be a first-round pick [in football]. It didn’t matter. Sammis was a standout basketball player for North Broward, averaging 24.5 points and 13.2 rebounds and said he had 25 Division I offers, opting for Hawaii.
Within one year at Hawaii, the coach who recruited him had been fired, Sammis left, sat out a year because of a torn ACL, resurfaced at Palm Beach State for a season and then arrived at Tulane still dreaming of the NBA.
“I couldn’t do anything about it,” Rifkind said.
“I was in love with being a basketball player and wanting to make the NBA,” Sammis said. “I would have been upset if I didn’t try it all the way through… [But] not listening to advice at a young age when it came to sports was a big mistake I made. I would have been three to four years into the [NFL] and knowing the game better.”
Reyes survived because, as almost everyone around him said, he trusted himself after traveling this far in a new country. But it was also difficult because he was stuck between two worlds: His parents had no experience navigating the situations he faced in the United States; those here couldn’t quite relate to his struggles.
“It definitely took a toll on him sometimes,” Alex Rifkind said. “Even when he was moving in with us, his dad was having back problems, his parents were struggling financially and the fact he couldn’t be there was killing him. I know he was homesick. No matter how big and how strong he was, he was still a 16-year-old kid.”
Sammis’ girlfriend, Nicole Kotler, whom he met at North Broward, said, “Him figuring things out as he went along and failing sometimes and also coming out of that failure helped him see, ‘I can do this; I’ve gotten this far, what else can stop me? And if it does I can get over that.’ He always emphasizes that there’s always a different route. … He never liked to rely on others.”
By the time Sammis walked into Justin Kavanaugh’s athletic training facility in Ashburn, Virginia in January 2020, he was ready for another challenge. That day, Kavanaugh was training the Edmunds’ brothers — Trey (Pittsburgh Steelers running back) and Tremaine (Buffalo Bills linebacker) — and Reyes convinced him to do the same for him. Kavanaugh learned a lot about Reyes, seeing him continue makeshift workouts during the pandemic.
“You tell him what to do and he’ll figure out how to get there,” Kavanaugh said. “He doesn’t see obstacles; he understands that it’s a part of life.”
Sammis would work out from 6 a.m. to noon, then deliver food for Door Dash at lunchtime. He’d return to the gym for more work, then deliver dinners at night. For years, he saw his dad, then a security guard at the U.S. Embassy in Chile and now an insurance adjustor, work 24- or 36-hour shifts. Now Sammis is someone who writes down plays on the three white boards in their apartment after Nicole quizzes him.
“Where I’m from, there aren’t many opportunities,” Sammis said. “There’s a lot of drugs, a lot of violence, a lot of things I don’t want to be around. If I had stayed in Chile, maybe I’m around those things a lot more. I came here and played sports. Very different life.”