Erin Waynes, unfortunately, had the best vantage point in the house for the play that could have derailed her son’s football career.
Her son Trae, a standout cornerback at Bradford High School in Kenosha, Wis., sprinted down the field toward her, threatening to take this kickoff return to the end zone. Doubling as the team photographer, she snapped a few shots from the sideline of Trae and his good friend and teammate, Melvin Gordon, running side by side.
She pulled the camera down in time to see the tackle that caused Trae’s gruesome injury.
Standing there helpless as her son, a few games into his senior year of high school, lay on the field for what felt like an eternity, Erin couldn’t help but fear that this might be it for her son’s football career.
“First of all, you’re concerned about your son,” she said. “But then the next thought is, ‘Oh my God. His dreams are done.’ He didn’t get up. … You’re hoping for the best and expecting the worst. It ended up being the worst.”
Trae Waynes eventually got up. Doctors put his shattered leg back together and the coaches at Michigan State kept their promises. He never lost his drive. And five years after it looked as if his dreams of a college career — forget the NFL at that point — might be shattered, the Vikings selected Waynes with their first-round draft pick Thursday night.
“I never gave up and I stuck with competing to do something that I love to do,” Waynes said. “I just kept pushing forward and stayed positive.”
Young and fast
Erin Waynes and her husband, Ron, were reluctant to allow their young son to make the jump from flag football to tackle football, but they eventually caved. A family friend, who was the coach, convinced them to let Trae play pee-wee football.
He was one of the best of the bunch then, so the Waynes, Erin said, ultimately concluded, “How could you not let him go to the next level?” As Trae climbed the youth ranks into high school, the conversation kept recurring with the same conclusion being made.
Trae was good at baseball, too, and blazed on the track. That latter was to be expected, considering both of his parents were runners at the collegiate level.
But for some reason, the quiet young man loved contact — perhaps a little too much at times.
“I got ejected for two games [while playing high school baseball] because I ran over the catcher, just out of frustration,” Waynes said. “So obviously I had to stick with football.”
After his junior year, he reportedly ran the 40-yard dash in 4.2 seconds at a Michigan State camp. The Spartans later offered a scholarship and he committed, wanting to stay close to home. He then headed into his final year at Bradford with at a new position — cornerback.
The converted safety was thriving on the outside before his season ended in an instant.
“Honestly, I didn’t even know my leg was broke,” Waynes said. “My mom [said] I tried getting up but once I realized I couldn’t get up, that’s when I knew something was serious.”
Sticking with Sparty
The diagnosis was a mouthful. A busted fibula, a broken ankle and three torn ligaments. Doctors pieced his leg back together with a metal plate and several screws.
Waynes said he never was worried about the injury preventing him from playing at Michigan State. But the day after his injury, his mother was stopped on the street in Kenosha by some folks who heard rumors that the Spartans had pulled his scholarship offer.
When Erin got home, she exhaled when told that Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio already had called Trae to make it clear that he still was a Spartan in their eyes.
“He said, ‘You don’t need to worry about anything. We’re going to stand by you and we want you more than ever,’ ” Erin said. “That really helped, I think, to motivate him to work really hard and overcome this.”
Waynes set an ambitious goal — to be good to go for the start of outdoor track in the spring. He would take third in the 100-meter dash in the state championships.
Soon the two-star recruit would start climbing his way up Michigan State’s depth chart.
Waynes did not suit up for the Spartans his first year on campus. As a redshirt freshman, he was only a reserve and a special-teams contributor, but he was growing into a quality collegiate cornerback while learning from position coach Harlon Barnett about how to unleash “that dog [in me] on that other guy out on the field.”
There were times in high school where Trae’s hard hits made his parents look at each other and say, “Whoa.” But their calm, quiet son became a different person on the field at Michigan State.
“Coach Barnett, his thing was, ‘When you’re on the field, you be somebody that your mom won’t even recognize,’ ” Erin said.
Waynes would start 27 games for the Spartans in his final two seasons in East Lansing. He intercepted six passes and broke up 13 others. He also recorded 96 tackles.
As a senior, he was a semifinalist for the Jim Thorpe Award, which honors the top defensive back in the country. Both coaches and media named him first-team All-Big Ten.
In February, Waynes ran the 40-yard dash in 4.31 seconds, best among defensive backs at the NFL scouting combine, and was soon being hyped at the draft’s best cornerback.
Ready for the ‘guru’
After working Waynes out at Michigan State and hosting him for a “top-30 visit” at Winter Park, coach Mike Zimmer and General Manager Rick Spielman ranked him as one of the top defensive players in this draft. They liked him so much that Spielman, in order to secure Waynes’ services, actually resisted doing yet another first-round trade to get more draft picks.
The Vikings envision the 6-foot, 186-pounder being able to use his strength and length to harass wide receivers off the line of scrimmage. And his speed will enable them to do different things with him in Zimmer’s defensive scheme.
“Trae has a little bit of grabby up the field, which we’ll have to correct,” Zimmer said. “He does a good job in press [coverage], but there’s some things that I see on tape that I want to address with him. But he’s got the great size and the length, and he’s done a great job. Michigan State does a great job in teaching these corners anyway. They’ve done it for a long time.”
After being introduced to the Twin Cities media Friday afternoon at Winter Park, Waynes said he couldn’t wait to get to work with Zimmer, whom he has called a defensive backs “guru.”
He was relieved Thursday night when he heard his named called at No. 11 overall — four picks before his buddy Gordon, the Wisconsin running back who was selected by San Diego. The wait was over, and he finally knew where his new home would be.
Waynes, who is shy but confident, made it seem as if he knew all along that he would one day stand on a podium in a sleek suit, jersey in hand, as an NFL draft pick.
But five years earlier, his leg broken and his career interrupted as he couldn’t lift himself off the field at Kenosha Bradford, the scene Friday at the least would have seemed a little improbable.
“What started out as a horrible situation ended up turning into really great things,” his mother said.