Fifteen minutes after chowing down half an oversized mac-and-cheese-stuffed creation from his favorite hometown burger joint, Trae Waynes coolly slides into the driver’s seat of his Lexus SUV, turns the ignition and cranks up the volume. ¶ Rap music blaring, the rearview mirror chatters to the rhythm of the bass. ¶ After selecting the ideal cruising music for this moment, Waynes, he of the long limbs and prototypical NFL cornerback speed and the life-changing eight-figure contract that came with being drafted 11th overall by the Vikings in April, sets down his iPad, puts the vehicle in drive and starts to pull out onto the street.
Over his shoulder and somehow over the music, a back-seat driver chimes in.
“Seat belt, Trae!” his mother, Erin, calmly hollers to her 22-year-old. “Seat belt!”
Trae pumps the brakes, rolls his eyes and yanks the strap down across his chest.
“Told you,” he says to the visitor riding shotgun. “This is what I was talking about.”
His seat belt securely on and his mother appeased, Trae resumes the tour of the city he grew up in, the one with a population of nearly 100,000 that is nestled on the southwestern shore of Lake Michigan between Chicago and Milwaukee, the one that is boring him now that June’s minicamp has wrapped, sending him home for summer vacation.
The SUV, a 1999 model purchased by his parents after his old car spun out on ice and crashed, rolls past Kenosha’s strip malls, a farm supply store, a Family Video, another Pizza Hut. He points out the baseball diamond where he made his Little League debut, the youth center where he got his first swimming lessons, the pitch-and-putt golf course where he took his father, Ron, for Father’s Day.
At each red light, a necklace bearing a cross sways from the rearview mirror as Trae swipes through songs on his iPad and Erin anxiously waits for the ride to come to a complete stop.
Finally, she gets her wish as the SUV pulls into a parking spot at Charles Jaskwhich Stadium.
This is where Trae played his final football games at Bradford High, where he was one of the brightest stars on a state title-contending team. But Trae’s rise to high school stardom, a standout collegiate career at Michigan State and his first-round selection in the NFL began many years earlier, and his maturation had a lot to do with the mother whose ears are now ringing and the father who stands waiting in the parking lot.
Life in Kenosha
Erin and Ron Waynes met at Kansas State and found common ground on the track. She was on scholarship for cross-country. Once a long jumper and sprinter at Cal Poly, he was there training for the 1984 Olympic trials. K-State was just going to be a pit stop for him.
“But then we happened,” she said.
After dating for six years, they married in 1989 and settled in Kenosha, not far from her hometown in Illinois but a long flight from California, where Ron grew up.
The Wayneses raised Trae and his younger brother, Mason, on the outskirts of Kenosha, a quick drive from the sandy beaches lining Lake Michigan, the bright red lighthouse guarding the harbor and the retro trolleys downtown. The neighborhood is a standard residential maze, a quiet community where every house seemingly has a minivan, a manicured lawn and a basketball hoop planted outside of a two-car garage.
The Waynes residence, charcoal-colored with red shutters, is no exception.
Inside the house on this dreary morning in late June, Trae, still sleepy, is sprawled out over the edges of a brown leather love seat listening to music. He wears a red Old Spice T-shirt and black Nike track pants. He is barefoot and his long braids are tied back.
Erin and the family dog, a Weimaraner named Chloe, give the tour of their cozy home.
On the kitchen refrigerator are old family holiday cards and other photos of Trae and Mason, currently a student at Eastern Michigan, where he runs track.
In the front room, some of Trae’s belongings from Michigan State are still boxed up next to the piano where the boys were forced to sit through countless lessons until Erin threw in the towel when Trae reached the 11th grade.
In the basement, outside the makeshift weight room the parents cobbled together for their budding athletes, blown-up action photos snapped by Erin are framed on the walls.
Out in the backyard, where heavy rain is splattering on the patio this morning, is where Ron organized Wiffle ball games and Trae practiced tackling on helpless garbage cans.
While Mason was more of a homebody, Trae was always outside in the neighborhood.
“When Trae would get in trouble, we would make him come in the house,” Erin says after dragging Trae into the front room to sit down for a chat with a pair of visitors.
Sport for every season
Beyond typical childhood shenanigans, such as picking on his little brother from time to time, Trae did not give his parents many headaches. He was a ball of energy when it came to sports and activities, but a quiet, respectful kid who performed well in school.
Trae remains a man of few words, sometimes speaking up only when asked a question or when displaying his dry sense of humor.
When asked about his best friend and old high school teammate, Melvin Gordon, the former Wisconsin star running back who was also drafted in the first round in April by San Diego, Trae concedes that “Melvin is more interactive,” not taking his eyes off his iPad as he says it.
“He’ll give you the shortest answer he possibly can,” his father later noted after Trae uttered roughly a hundred words during an hourlong conversation on the sofa.
Said Shawnelle Gross, an assistant coach at Bradford and mentor to both Trae and Melvin: “When Melvin walks into the room, you know he’s there. He’s the life of the party. And then the party could be over with, and you’ll look over and say, ‘Oh, is Trae here? When did you get here?’ ”
Once the games began, though, it was impossible not to notice Trae.
Coordinated straight out of the womb, according to his father, Trae as a child played pretty much every sport there was to play in Kenosha. But it took the help of a family friend and youth football coach, Scott Wells, to ease his parents’ concerns about Trae’s safety and allow him to make the jump from flag football to full contact.
Today, the two dressers in Trae’s lion-themed childhood bedroom glisten in gold from all the trophies he earned — many from football, but also some from seemingly every other sport, from baseball and basketball to a 2010 schoolyard dodgeball championship medal.
“He was very active,” Erin said. “That’s part of the reason why we got him involved in so many things, to keep him occupied and keep him off the streets and out of trouble. We wanted to surround him with positive people.”
And all the while, the Wayneses were at each of Trae’s practices and Mason’s meets, omnipresent but not overbearing, supporting their boys without applying any pressure and trusting coaches and other male role models to help steer them in the right direction.
“The family is awesome. I think that has made a huge impact on him,” said Dr. David Graziano, a k a “Dr. Dave,” the Kenosha physical therapist who guided Trae through his rehab after a shattered leg ended his senior season at Bradford. “They are so close and so fun and amazing to see. I think that’s played a big part of it.”
‘That’s the guy’
Both Erin and Ron work as guidance counselors, choosing to switch to the Kenosha school system so their summers were free to haul their boys to their practices and drive them on extended cross-country vacations, stopping to camp in national parks and visiting landmarks such as Mount Rushmore.
Ron works at Mahone Middle School, which both Trae and Mason attended. He drove the boys to school, and it was hard for them to escape him even after the morning bell rang.
“He was in my class more than I was,” Trae deadpans.
When Trae’s time at Mahone was up, his folks had reservations about sending him to big, busy Bradford. Meanwhile, a new charter school called Harborside Academy was opening its doors in the fall and it promised to mesh with their goal of expanding their sons’ horizons.
They left the decision up to Trae. But since he was more concerned with playing the new “Call of Duty” video game with Mason that day, a decision was made for him. Harborside, it was.
The school was quirky, to say the least. The 110 students in Harborside’s inaugural class started ninth grade by going on a team-building camping trip during which they were tasked with constructing boats out of cardboard. Both band practice and gym class took place at the same time in the same space, and the music teacher once asked the gym teacher if the kids could bounce the balls any softer.
Trae’s closest friends, including Gordon, were at Bradford, where Trae was still eligible to play sports. But he made the best of it by bonding with both the cool kids and the outsiders at Harborside.
“It didn’t matter how popular a kid was. He was friends with pretty much any kid who went to school here,” Harborside principal Bill Haithcock said as Trae flipped through old yearbooks in his office and reminisced about old classmates.
While Ron and Erin were at first convinced that Trae had a miserable four years at Harborside, Trae tries to dip in to his old high school whenever he is home.
“I can always count on Trae walking around the corner at some point, coming into to spend some time here,” Haithcock said. “And kids will whisper to each other and say, ‘That’s him. That’s the guy.’ ”
Next stop: the NFL
Before becoming the guy the Vikings had to have in the first round of the 2015 draft, Trae blossomed into a promising prospect at Bradford. His first two years he played defensive end, stalking down quarterbacks with his 4.3 speed. He moved to safety and then settled in at cornerback during his senior year.
The Bradford coaches sicced him on the opponent’s top receiver and his aggressive, sometimes reckless flying hits dropped running backs — unless he whiffed. And talk to any of his old coaches and they will share a boilerplate story about one of the times when Trae miraculously appeared out of nowhere to tackle somebody and save a touchdown.
Trae was committed to Michigan State, but that didn’t keep other colleges from calling.
“When he found out how good he really could be and people started talking to him about his future, he never got a big head,” said Garry Acchione, his former position coach at Bradford. “And that was what was great about him.”
Years later, on the verge of his first training camp, Trae stands in the middle of the field at Charles Jaskwhich Stadium, which is located away from Bradford’s campus, and soaks in the scene. He fondly remembers stepping off the team bus to the cheers from the rows of fans that lined up five deep to watch the stacked Red Devils team play. Memories of football and of friendship come rushing back.
“It feels different,” Trae says after taking a quick selfie. “It feels good, though.”
Behind him stands Erin, her ears probably still ringing from the car ride, and Ron, who shields his eyes from the afternoon sun that has chased away the morning rain.
The proud parents can’t help but think about what has led Trae and the family here — the timing of their meeting at Kansas State, their career changes, the tens of thousands of miles on the minivan odometer, the lessons Trae learned at Harborside and the big plays he made at Bradford, then Michigan State.
“Every move that happened, we’ve been blessed,” Ron says. “When you have kids, you just want them to be healthy and good people. You never imagine that you will see your kid rise to the cream of the crop and play pro football. … I step back and look back at everything that happened. It’s been awesome.”