Lions linebacker Reggie Ragland already has one championship under his belt. Now he’s on a mission to win another one — this time for Detroit
By Jeremy Reisman
Success seems to follow Reggie Ragland wherever he goes. From winning a basketball state title at Bob Jones High School in Madison, Alabama, to collecting a pair of National Championships with the University of Alabama’s Crimson Tide to lifting the Lombardi Trophy with the Kansas City Chiefs back in February, Ragland has seen more success by age 26 than most will see in a lifetime.
Now he hopes to continue that winning streak in Detroit, which hasn’t seen a championship NFL team in over 60 years. Ragland, who signed a one-year deal with the Lions this offseason, knows what a championship team looks like, and he genuinely believes Detroit may have one this year. (As of press time, the team was two losing games into the season.)
“I see all the traits,” he says, ticking them off: a franchise quarterback, playmakers on offense and a defense full of potential. And by adding Ragland and other key players like former Patriots linebacker Jamie Collins Sr., the Lions now have several players with Super Bowl rings. “People may think I’m crazy as hell, but I don’t give a damn.”
The youngest of seven children, Ragland had to fight for attention in a family full of athletes. That’s where he developed his sense of humor and a competitive nature. Chris White, one of his five brothers (technically half-brothers, though they don’t see it that way) was named Alabama’s Mr. Basketball — aka the best high school player in the state — in 2001. “They were picking on me so much,” recalls Ragland. “I was like, ‘Man, I can’t wait until I get bigger. I’m going to dunk on all of y’all.’ ”
He didn’t have to wait long. By age 12 he was already towering over his classmates at 6-foot-3. A year later he was starting for the high school varsity basketball team as an eighth grader. But when his growth spurt suddenly stopped before high school, Ragland decided to pass on his promising futures in basketball and baseball (“I was hitting 400-foot home runs by the time I was 11”) to put everything into football. His talented siblings had never made it at the next level. He used that as motivation to be the first.
“If I get the opportunity to play professional ball,” Ragland remembers telling himself, “I want to do it in honor of [Chris] and my dad and for everyone who couldn’t make it in my family.”
Given his rare combination of size and speed, it didn’t take long for Ragland to get noticed by college scouts. Alabama coaching legend Nick Saban quickly brought him to Tuscaloosa. Due to Alabama’s stacked roster, Ragland didn’t get much playing time in his first two seasons. However, it took just eight games into his junior year for draft experts to take notice. “I had people calling me telling me I had a chance to be projected as a first-round pick,” says Ragland. “And I [hadn’t] played football in two years, damn near since high school.”
But Ragland wanted to become the first person in his family to graduate from a major university. He decided to stay for his senior season and get his consumers science degree. While that may have cost him a round in the NFL Draft, it was worth it for him. “I’ve always wanted to be an entrepreneur,” he says. “At the end of the day, I’m still learning business, I’m still learning how the consumer works and thinks, and I’m still putting myself in the right position to be successful outside of football.”
Success within football, however, proved difficult at the NFL level. Ragland accomplished his dreams when drafted by the Buffalo Bills in the second round of the 2016 draft, only to tear his ACL prior to the start of his rookie season. The following year, a new coaching staff traded him away before he even played a single snap for the Bills.
“It was probably the worst time in my life,” he says. “I had these high hopes of coming in and being a big-time player in the NFL, and I tear my ACL. Then getting a new coaching staff who didn’t really want you, telling you that they want to keep you, but then within a week to two weeks later, they come in and trade you.”
Even though Ragland landed in a favorable spot with the Chiefs — months after they drafted quarterback Patrick Mahomes — he started the season on the bench. Although he worked his way back into the lineup and eventually won a Super Bowl, he didn’t receive a new contract with the Chiefs at the end of the season. “You just don’t feel good when a team gives up on you,” he says.
The hardships continued into the offseason. Ragland’s family was one of many directly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Ragland lost his uncle to the virus this summer, and he couldn’t even attend his funeral. Visits to his aging mother were heavily restricted, too. “I kept my distance from her, I told her I love her, but I still haven’t hugged my momma in months,” he says.
But Ragland turned his focus to football. With gyms closed around the country, he relied on outdoor workouts to get ready for the upcoming season — even as many doubted the viability of a season this year. “We still got [the workouts] in, because there’s no excuse,” he says. “You’ve got to get the work in.”
Coming to Detroit was an easy decision for Ragland. With only a handful of other teams expressing interest, after the Lions came calling (twice), Ragland was all in. An opportunity to play with Lions head coach Matt Patricia — someone he’s admired for years — was too good to pass up. “Being around coach Patricia is awesome,” says Ragland. “Who wouldn’t want to play for a guy who loves bigger linebackers that can move?”
That feeling appears to be mutual among the Lions coaching staff. Early in training camp, Ragland made a huge impression when he intercepted a pass from quarterback Matthew Stafford and took it back for a touchdown. It was just one of many plays Ragland made this summer that caught the attention of his new defensive coordinator Cory Undlin.
“Very, very impressed,” Undlin says of Ragland. “I think this is what we all expected from him when we got him, and [we’re] very pleased with where he’s at and his role and how he’s going to help us this year.”
Ragland hasn’t had much time to explore Detroit — the first major city he’s ever lived in — but he, too, is already impressed. Seeing all three sports stadiums within walking distance of each other, he senses just how important sports are to Detroit. “I was just excited to come here and give this city what it wants,” he says. “And that’s a championship.”