Viking wide receiver Jake Reed has a degree in criminal justice, but he omits half of that term when he speaks of his postfootball aspirations. He wants to be part of a different sort of justice system—doing kids justice so they don't become criminals.
"I don't want to be a policeman. I don't want to work in a correctional institute, with guys already in their 20's," he says. "I want to get to kids before they get that far."
Last month he and his wife, Vinita, his college sweetheart from Grambling State, opened a day-care center near their home in Rowlett, Texas, outside Dallas. And Reed, who with Cris Carter set an NFL record for catches by a receiving tandem last season (Carter had 122, Reed 85), is combining with Carter on deeper routes: into the elementary schools of Minneapolis-St. Paul. Every Tuesday, Carter and Reed visit classes, advising—no, demanding—that each child develop a big dream and several alternatives.
Reed knows all too well that in the real world of public schools, the message from teachers, coaches and counselors can be the wrong one. "In high school [in Covington, Ga., near Atlanta] I never got into trouble. I did my schoolwork and was about a C student—though I admit I could have done better," he says. As a high school All-America receiver, "I went to see my counselor about going to college. She said, 'I don't think you should think about college. You'd probably be better off going into the service.' "
Though his high school football coach, Harold Johnson, encouraged him to attend college and helped him get into Grambling, Reed says his basketball coach predicted that he would be home after a semester, that he wouldn't amount to anything.
"What makes me happy is knowing all the obstacles I've overcome, the people telling me I couldn't do it, at a time when I was so vulnerable," says Reed. "Kids listen to their coaches and counselors. We have so many people throwing kids off, taking the easy way out instead of saying to them, 'You can make it.' "
During an injury-plagued first three seasons with the Vikings, in which he caught only 11 passes, Reed learned from Carter how far a little encouragement can go. "Cris was the guy who ultimately built me up in my career," he says. "There were a couple of times when I was still questioning myself."
At 6'3", 217 pounds, Reed offers quarterback Warren Moon a powerful alternative to Carter, and he's so valuable to the Vikings that they signed him to a three-year, $5.4 million contract in the off-season. Reed is not afraid to go across the middle. Heading into Monday's game against the Bears, he had 32 receptions this year; 10 had come on third down and resulted in first downs.
Yet Carter and Moon say they still see residual scars of self-doubt in Reed.
"When I came here in 1994," says Moon, "I saw this big, strong, tall, fast, fluid man who had been injured a lot, so nobody really knew how good he could be." But Moon also sensed Reed "didn't have the confidence that he could be a prime-time, go-to receiver on a consistent basis. That's what I had to get across to him."