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After surviving shooting, Stedman Bailey chasing NFL return

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MALIBU, Calif. -- Geno Smith closed his eyes and prayed for something positive before taking his next step inside Aventura Hospital and Medical Center outside Miami two and a half years ago. As soon as he edged into that crowded patient room, he saw Stedman Bailey lying prone on a stiff bed, surrounded by a group of loved ones that included Bailey's grandmother and Kayvon Webster, a close friend who played cornerback for the Denver Broncos at the time. An unknown assailant had shot Bailey twice in the head just days earlier, spraying 30 bullets into a rented SUV where four other people, including two children, had been discussing dinner plans. This was the first opportunity for Smith to assess the damage for himself.

Bailey laid motionless. A thick, white bandage covered his skull, and his eyes were swollen and closed, as if someone had just beaten him relentlessly with a baseball bat. There wasn't even the option of Bailey holding a conversation, as a tube inserted into his throat during his seven-hour surgery had damaged his vocal cords. "We would just tell him that if he could hear us, just wiggle a thumb," Webster said.

A multitude of nightmarish thoughts ran through Smith's mind as he stood over Bailey, including the possibility that his longtime pal might never walk again. They had grown up together in Miami, had known each other since junior high school and had become stars at West Virginia, with Bailey setting records as a wide receiver (including single-season marks for receiving yards and touchdown receptions and the career mark for touchdown catches) catching passes from Smith, the all-conference quarterback. When they entered the NFL in 2013 -- Smith was the New York Jets' second-round pick, while Bailey went in the third round to the St. Louis Rams -- they never imagined a day when the gun violence that too often plagued parts of Miami would catch up to them.

Smith kept pondering how such a tragedy could happen when Bailey's eyes slowly opened. As Bailey raised his right hand, Smith moved closer, leaning over to glean what his friend was trying to do. Bailey continued reaching his hand forward until it clutched Smith's right hand. What is he trying to tell me? Smith thought.

The next thing Smith knew, his buddy was playfully tugging at Smith's fingers until Smith instinctively followed that lead.

"He gave me our secret handshake," Smith said. "We've had one for a long time. And when I saw that, despite everything that was going on, it was a big sign. I knew he was going to be OK."

* * * * *

Bailey nearly lost his life on Nov. 24, 2015. What he's mostly thought about since that day is how he can save his career. In early April, as he walked his five-month-old German shepherd, King, across a narrow beach in Point Mugu State Park, Bailey talked constantly about returning to the NFL. He started going to that spot in Malibu months ago, after he missed church one Sunday morning and a friend suggested that beach as another option for reflection. It's been a sacred sanctuary ever since, a private space where Bailey can meditate while keeping his eyes on the prize he's coveted ever since he landed in that Miami hospital room.

At 27 years old, Bailey's mindset couldn't be any clearer: Somebody stole his dream from him, and he's determined to get it back. Even when doctors cringed at the notion, he told himself he was going to play football again, and that's exactly what he plans on doing.

"It's important to play (again) because it's something that I worked my whole life for, to make it to the big leagues," Bailey said. "I got a chance to taste it, to play for three years, and then a very unfortunate incident happened. But, just based off the odds that I've been able to overcome over these last couple years, it's been nothing short of a miracle. If it's healthy for me to go out there and play, then I'm definitely all in for it."

The "if" that Bailey mentioned is a huge one. It's the only question he knows he can't control in this process, the one that might lead to a team doctor deciding he's already played his last football game. Even though Bailey didn't suffer any brain damage in that shooting, head trauma has been a controversial topic in the NFL for nearly two decades. For Bailey to have a chance at returning to the league, somebody with a medical degree must believe he's not placing himself in harm's way.

Bailey already feels confident that he's taken every possible precaution -- he had a titanium plate inserted into his skull last October to protect his brain -- and he's never shown any issues related to head trauma. Dr. Jeffrey Kutcher, a Michigan-based neurologist who works as a consultant with the NFL Players Association, added that people too often misconstrue the fact that concussions involve the brain and not the skull.

"One of the most important aspects of this case is that the bullet didn't touch his brain," said Kutcher, who has not met Bailey. "Everything being equal, his brain came out OK, so there shouldn't be any additional risk of him playing football now than he had before the shooting. As long as the structure of his skull is intact, he should be fine."

Bailey also has pushed himself into spectacular shape. After losing nearly 30 pounds following the shooting, he's back to carrying 190 pounds on his 5-foot-10 frame, just four pounds shy of his playing weight in his last season with the Rams. Bailey works out relentlessly with former Rams teammates these days, and he participated in two college pro days in March (at Marshall and West Virginia). Essentially, there isn't anything he won't do to earn another opportunity in the league.

That combination of passion and potential has impressed plenty of people. After watching Bailey run sharp routes and display strong hands at West Virginia's pro day, Mountaineers head coach Dana Holgorsen said, "He looks like the same old Stedman to me. We called him 'Steady B' because that's what he was -- steady. He still runs those smooth routes. He still has those same great hands. I would think somebody would give him a shot because he looks the same way he always has."

Added an AFC scout in attendance: "You wanted to see if he could still do the key stuff -- running the routes, catching the ball, (maintaining) his stamina, all the things you have to know before guys get to camp and start hitting. But he looked good to me. He didn't blow the 40 out of the water (this scout clocked Bailey at 4.62 seconds), but he ran well. I told our people that he had a good workout. He definitely did enough to stir up a conversation with some teams. After that, it's all about how people feel about the risk."

The other thing that caught the scout's eye at West Virginia's pro day was Bailey's behavior. One minute, he was off to the side, telling a running back how to tighten his routes coming out of the backfield. The next, Bailey was teaching a receiver how to catch the ball in a manner that prevented defenders from reaching in and knocking it out. He even made a point of continually boosting the confidence of the young Division II quarterback throwing him passes.

Bailey didn't hide his enthusiasm for being back in a place that enabled him to reach the pinnacle -- to this point -- of his football dreams.

"I'm a religious person, so I will ask God why would something like that happen to me?" Bailey said. "I'm not a gangbanger. You just have to understand that certain things happen in life that are out of our control. But the way you respond to it pretty much determines what kind of person you are. So I've just always been determined to just fight through all the adversity. I'm moving on and just looking forward to what's to come."

* * * * *

The people who know Bailey say it's not surprising that he's not bitter about what happened, or that he's so intent on returning to the NFL. A positive attitude and a single-minded nature are what earned him a spot in pro football in the first place. Growing up in Miramar, Florida, a suburb of Miami, he learned the value of being tough at an early age. He also never relented when things weren't going his way.

When the marquee in-state programs didn't want him -- Miami, Florida State and Florida all ignored him coming out of Miramar High -- Bailey set his sights on West Virginia. He even convinced Smith to come along with him, even though the four-star QB recruit was seriously thinking about attending Alabama. One day after high school practice, the team's coach told Smith and Bailey that a local radio station wanted to interview them to see about their college choices. When Smith followed Bailey to the microphone, the host informed him that Bailey had said both players were committing to the Mountaineers. It says something about Bailey's persuasiveness that Smith actually decided to attend West Virginia.

"I think Stedman really wanted me to go with him," Smith said.

What Bailey understood was that his chances for prosperity would improve greatly if he had his quarterback along for the ride. He wound up amassing 210 career receptions, 3,218 yards and 41 scores, then declared for the 2013 NFL Draft after his 25-touchdown junior season.

Bailey spent his first few years in the NFL trying to find a rhythm on some mediocre teams. In those three seasons, he totaled 59 receptions for 843 yards and scored four total touchdowns. Like a lot of Rams players in those days, he struggled to generate big numbers in the conservative offense favored by then-head coach Jeff Fisher. Bailey also was suspended twice -- he missed the first two games of the 2014 season for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing substances, while a positive test for marijuana resulted in a four-game suspension in 2015. Still, Bailey felt optimistic about his future in the league.

"He was on track to being a good, reliable wide receiver in the NFL, similar to what he was at West Virginia," said Rams general manager Les Snead. "He was one of those guys who you call quarterback-friendly. He ran good routes. He had strong hands. Quarterbacks liked throwing the ball to him because he was usually going to be open."

Added former Rams and West Virginia teammate Tavon Austin: "He was making some plays. He had his slip-ups and he got humbled for that, but he was making his mark."

Bailey actually was serving his marijuana-related suspension when he was in Miami preparing for Thanksgiving. After renting a Chevy Tahoe that would be used for the drive to Atlanta to see his mother, he found himself sitting in front of a house in Miami Gardens where his friend, Terrance Gourdine, was inside changing clothes. Bailey sat in the passenger seat of the vehicle. His cousin, Antwan Reeves, was in the back with Reeves' 10-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter. The rear hatch of the vehicle was open.

Bailey was posting pictures on Snapchat when an unidentified vehicle pulled behind them at around 8:45 p.m. Gunfire filled the air seconds later, with 30 rounds ripping through the back of the SUV. Reeves instinctively jumped to cover his children, as he felt shots piercing his shoulder, lower back and legs. One bullet caught Bailey on the back of his skull, behind his right ear, and exited just above his right eyebrow. Bailey doesn't know where the other bullet struck, but the first shot left him slumped across the front seat of the Tahoe.

"I got out of the car and opened the door, and he was just lying there unconscious," Reeves said. "I hit him in the chest to wake him up. This shows you how strong he is -- even though he'd been shot, he still wanted to look in the mirror and see his face."

Said Bailey: "I was hit twice and my cousin was hit 11 times. We both remained coherent through the whole time, which I can't say nothing but God had to be there with us. I didn't feel any pain, so I was really shocked when my cousin told me that I had been shot in the head. I'm sitting in the front seat not feeling anything. I'm just looking around, kind of dazed, but I remember being able to talk to my cousin and my two little cousins. They're panicking, going crazy, and I'm just trying to keep them calm and thinking, Let's do whatever we've got to do to make it to the hospital."

Gourdine raced to the car after hearing the gunfire and drove through every red light, pushing the SUV up to 100 mph, in order to reach nearby Jackson North Medical Center in roughly 10 minutes. Since there was no trauma unit at the facility, the group was transported to Aventura, which was about 10 minutes away, for treatment. Bailey was so clear-headed that he actually walked into the emergency room lobby, with blood covering his face, to fill out paperwork. Medical staff stretched Reeves across a gurney while his son -- neither child sustained an injury -- called his mother to explain what was happening.

"I remember seeing a bunch of the people (in the hospital) moving around very frantically, and that also helped me to realize that I was in a real situation," Bailey said. "This was not a drill. I really had been shot, and these people had to do whatever they could to keep me alive."

Reeves was in the most danger when he and Bailey arrived at Aventura, so he immediately went into surgery. Surgeons operated on Bailey the next day. Part of the procedure required doctors to slice bone fragments from the back of his skull in order to have enough material to mend the damage above his right eyebrow, which, as he said, "pretty much looked like a cracked or shattered egg." When Bailey saw photos of the operation later, he winced at the sight of his head cut open, with his brain exposed to the world.

As hard as it is to believe, even in those early days, Bailey was thinking about how he might still play football.

"A couple of days after (the surgery), I was telling the doctors, I had to get back to St. Louis, because we got a game coming up," Bailey said. "That's just the kind of person that I am. It's something that I never imagined myself going through. However, just the fact that I was able to open my eyes, look around and see my family, that was big."

Bailey ultimately spent a month in that hospital, where security was so tight that Reeves said, "It was like Fort Knox in there; they even put our rooms under different names." After finally starting rehabilitation, Bailey went in with a simple mindset: He would take things one step at a time, but he wouldn't lose sight of the ultimate goal. Within two weeks, Bailey was walking. He was jogging after a month.

"If he had any down days, then they came when he was in the hospital, because I never saw them," Reeves said. "Once he got out, he was full-speed ahead. He always said that if he could walk, then he could run. And if he could run, then he could play again."

Still, Bailey did understand what he was up against with this goal of returning to the gridiron. When he started running routes with friends in nearby practice fields around Miami, he kept it fairly secretive. One day, he sat down to lunch with Reeves and informed his cousin of his plans. Reeves' response: "Are you crazy?"

Said Bailey: "I didn't really make it known to many people, including family, that I wanted to get back out there," Bailey said. "(That's) just because I know that if certain people get in your head to just say, 'Oh no, I don't think so,' it could have changed my whole mindset about actually trying to pursue playing again. So, I just kept it in the back of my mind, like, I know I'll be able to play again, and I just continued to work."

The hardest part for Bailey was the waiting. When he first discussed playing again with his neurologist, the doctor nearly gasped at the idea. He encouraged Bailey to wait at least a year, just to see how his skull healed. Bailey could sense that he was pushing a bit too hard early in the process, as well -- he struggled with his agility and stamina in some of those early workouts.

Bailey eventually accepted that he had to do something to bide his time during 2016. He worked with the Rams' assistant coaches during the offseason -- the team had put him on the reserve/non-football injury list during his recovery -- and, as Snead said, "our plan was to give him a bridge to go from being an NFL player to being in the real world." Bailey later returned to West Virginia in August to continue pursuing his bachelor's degree (he still needs to take two courses to finish) in multidisciplinary studies and work as a student assistant on Holgorsen's staff. Bailey found comfort in returning to a familiar place filled with so much support from former coaches. The players appreciated his insights -- he worked mostly with the receivers -- and marveled at how he didn't display any bitterness about the way his life had been turned upside down.

Bailey was even more optimistic the following fall. In October 2017, Dr. Arthur Desrosiers III -- a South Florida-based plastic surgeon who assisted in his emergency operation -- approached him with an idea that could help Bailey return to the field. The proposal involved inserting a titanium implant into Bailey's skull to help protect his head from more damage. The doctor ultimately made an incision across the top of Bailey's skull, from ear to ear, to create an opening for the plate. Desrosiers was so confident of the procedure that he jokingly told Bailey that the patient could probably survive another bullet to the head.

"He said it would be great for my everyday living, just to put a protective barrier over where I have some damage in my head," Bailey said. "I was kind of skeptical about having the procedure done, but still, in the back of my mind, I'm trying to play ball. He kind of hinted at that, saying, 'First and foremost, it'll be protective for your everyday living. And if you still wanted to play football, you should be able to go ahead and go out there.' When he said that, I really got excited."

* * * * *

That surgery was the miracle Bailey had been hoping to find. As much as he'd been working out before that point, he admitted that he "was still thinking about his Plan Bs for life." After that procedure, Bailey began to focus more on real opportunities to find his way in front of NFL decision makers. He knew he needed to showcase his talents for the entire league instead of hoping the Rams simply would give him his job back after the franchise moved to Los Angeles in 2016.

Bailey's first public workout came at Marshall after their head coach, John "Doc" Holliday, invited Bailey to the school's pro day to catch passes from Thundering Herd quarterback Chase Litton (Holliday recruited Bailey to West Virginia before leaving for Marshall). Bailey delivered an eye-catching performance -- he reportedly ran the 40 in 4.43 seconds -- and then prepared for his already-scheduled workout at West Virginia. His agent, Brian Fettner, pondered the possibility of trying to find Bailey a spot at Louisville's pro day, especially since Cardinals quarterback Lamar Jackson was a top prospect who would attract plenty of coaches and general managers. However, that pro day fell on the same morning as West Virginia's, and it only made sense for Bailey to return to a place where he'd always known success.

Now all Bailey can do is continue training while waiting for the phone to ring. A couple of weeks after the West Virginia pro day, he posted a message on Instagram saying that his agent had been hearing from some teams. Bailey's friends also have noticed that he's been a different guy since the shooting. He's more reflective, more appreciative of his blessings and more aware of how different his life could be if that bullet had entered his skull two centimeters to the left.

"He's more focused than he was when he first came into the league," Reeves said. "He doesn't take anything for granted. The first opportunity he had (to be in the NFL), he probably didn't go as hard as he could've. This time, he's not leaving anything on the table."

Added Smith: "I see growth in him. Being a quarterback, I've always been in a leadership role, and I've always been able to give him some insights on things. But now I look at him and see the changes. He's engaged. He has a kid (5-year-old Stedman Jr.). And he's not bitter about what happened to him. That situation that happened to him wasn't his fault. He was just in the wrong place at the wrong time."

Bailey said there's no benefit in him holding onto hostility about the shooting: "I really just try to not even focus on that, but more so focus on getting myself together." He added that the FBI still has the case open. Reeves believes they found themselves in the middle of a turf battle.

"That shooting happened over by the Miami Dolphins' stadium," said Reeves, who was a corrections officer at the time and now works as a police officer in Atlanta. "There's been a gang war going on down there for years."

None of these things were on Bailey's mind as he strolled across the beach in Malibu. He wore a black T-shirt with the words "Positive Energee" stamped in gold lettering on the front -- that is the name of the apparel company he started -- and chuckled when his dog shimmied out of his collar before barking at a group of nearby visitors. King was growing so quickly that Bailey recently bought a bigger collar to accommodate him. Bailey figured he'd be running back to the pet store in the next day or two. This is how Bailey mostly fills his days now -- with workouts, down time with his family and trips to the ocean.

"The hardest part has been just trying to be patient," Bailey said. "I know how the league works. I know that it's a business, and that if you get away from it too long, you just become one of those guys that's forgotten. Two years have already gone by, so I've missed out on a bunch. But I just always told myself to keep going and see what can happen."

Bailey recognizes that his chances are slim because of that absence. When asked about the odds of Bailey returning to the league, one NFC general manager said it was "highly doubtful." Another NFC personnel director added that "it's an awesome story and something he should be proud of regardless of the outcome from here on out. All it takes is one team, but it's an uphill battle when you've been out for a long time and been through what he's been through."

Snead -- who ultimately waived Bailey in April 2017 -- didn't want to gauge Bailey's chances, but he already thinks the receiver has accomplished plenty. "When that video of him at the pro day emerged on the internet, I remembered seeing him in that emergency room after he was shot," Snead said. "Just take football out of it. To go from that day to being able to run routes and catch balls at a pro day is something. No matter how this ends, it's going to be a happy ending."

Bailey has clung to that type of optimism throughout this process. He also hasn't forgotten what it felt like to get his first chance to play in the league. That was back in 2013, when his family held a draft-day party at his grandmother's home. As elated as Bailey was to receive that call from the Rams, he was equally thrilled to celebrate the realization of a dream with his friends.

The lingering memory of that day was of Bailey and his relatives rejoicing as they bounced between their home and Webster's (the South Florida defensive back went in the third round to Denver). Bailey also relished the news that the Jets had taken Smith in the second round. Bailey had flown to New York City at Smith's expense, to attend the opening night of the draft with his pal, who had been projected as a first-rounder. They watched that Thursday night go by without one team selecting the star quarterback. A day later, they all had new homes in the NFL, along with the belief that they were strong enough to see their dreams through to the end.

Stedman Bailey hasn't lost that same mix of determination and faith. The fact that he survived that shooting only tells him there's so much to still do -- that, in the end, he really will be OK.

"When I was a little kid, I remember telling my mom, 'One day, I'm going to buy you a house and this is how I'm going to do it,' " Bailey said. "I knew the odds are slim for guys being able to make it to the league. But I never paid attention to those numbers. I just feel like I owe it to myself to give it everything I've got now. The doctor told me what he told me, so if a team brings me in and they say, 'Let's see our physicians,' I might just run in there. Because I know I'm definitely ready to roll."

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