"He has the ability to change the complexion of a game with one big play," says Stoops, a younger brother of Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops. Consider the biggest play of Reed's senior season, on Nov. 10: With Miami clinging to a 12-7 lead and :40 remaining, unranked Boston College had the ball at the Hurricanes' nine-yard line, first-and-goal. Eagles quarterback Brian St. Pierre attempted a pass to Ryan Read, but the ball ricocheted off Rumph's knee into the hands of 6'5", 252-pound Miami right tackle Matt Walters. As he lumbered down the field, Walters heard an urgent voice shouting, "Give it to me!" Walters looked to see Reed coming up hard on his right, and with BC players about to bring him down, Walters let Reed jerk the ball out of his hands at the Miami 20. Reed sprinted 80 yards to a touchdown, with a handful of Eagles in pursuit. After the game a slightly sheepish Reed admitted that it had been a dangerous play, but over the locker-room din Walters could be heard bellowing, " Ed Reed for president!"
According to his father, Ed Jr. was challenging and motivating teammates as long ago as his peewee league days. The elder Ed, now a shipyard parts fitter who still resides in St. Rose (pop. 6,540) with his wife, Karen, and three of their five boys, remembers when Ed Jr., his second oldest, was an 11-year-old quarterback. "He'd gather the kids together and burst out yelling," the father says. "He loved to win, and he always made sure everyone was with him."
Ed Jr.'s older brother, Wendell, adds, "Ed always seemed a little older, a little wiser than other kids his age. When he got a pair of sneakers, all the kids in his pack went out and bought that same pair of sneakers."
Reed's passion for athletics intensified during his freshman season at Destrehan High in St. Rose, not long after that talk in the car with his father. In four seasons with the Wildcats, Reed lined up at defensive back, kick returner, running back and quarterback, sometimes all in the same game, but it was as a member of the secondary that he was electric. He had 83 tackles and seven interceptions in his senior season and earned all-state honors. Miami, though, was the only football power to offer him a scholarship. ( Curtis Johnson, the Hurricanes' receivers coach, had heard about Reed through a friend, who happened to be one of Reed's uncles.) Reed made an official visit to Coral Gables in the winter of 1997—his first trip outside Louisiana—and signed with Miami hours after stepping on campus.
Reed missed the preseason drills before his freshman year because of a sprained right ankle sustained in a pickup basketball game, and he ended up redshirting. The following season, with Miami still shackled by NCAA scholarship reductions levied in 1995, secondary coach Chuck Pagano gave the hardworking Reed a shot at becoming the first-string strong safety. Reed earned the job, made 90 tackles and tied for the team lead with two interceptions, but in the third game of his sophomore season he had the most humbling experience of his athletic career. With the Hurricanes ahead 23-20 and 1:41 remaining in a home game against under-dog Penn State, Rumph, then a true freshman, let Nittany Lions receiver Chafie Fields get past him for a 79-yard game-winning touchdown reception. Rumph and Reed, who failed to back up Rumph on the play, were benched the next week. It would be the only game in Reed's four years that he didn't start. "I was angry at first that I was being made an example of," Reed says, "but the incident made me work harder."
After making eight interceptions and 80 tackles and being named a consensus All-America as a junior last year, Reed was projected as a potential first-round NFL draft pick but decided that a chance to earn his degree and a shot at the national title was worth more than one year's salary, of perhaps as much as $1.5 million. "Good Lord, my family could have used the money," he says, "but I didn't want to leave without helping Miami win a championship."
Wendell says he's never seen his brother so focused. "He reads his Bible and plays football," says Wendell, who travels from Louisiana to Hurricanes home games whenever he can. Ed Jr.'s commitment has rubbed off on his teammates. For all the grief that the defensive backs give one another, says Stoops, "the key to their chemistry on the field is the devotion they show each other when they're off of it."
When Rumph was sleepwalking through last spring's workouts, Reed and substitute Markese Fitzgerald offered to help babysit the cornerback's infant son, Jalen, so Rumph could catch up on his rest. Whenever Markese's 12-year-old brother, Jae, who has Down's syndrome, hangs out with the team, the defensive backs shower him with attention. Before this year's game against Syracuse, when the first-string defensive backs heard that an ESPN commentator had called the Miami secondary the Fab Four, Lewis expressed their dissatisfaction that the announcer hadn't referred to the Hurricanes' Fab Six, out of respect for the backups. To be sure, the secondary is as deep as it is good. Fitzgerald has contributed two interceptions this season, and the other key backup, Al Marshall, has made 26 tackles and broken up two passes.
"Ed's like a father figure," says tackle Joaquin Gonzalez. "He has the right thing to say in just about any situation." Yet when asked recently to talk about the defensive backs he will leave behind in January, Smooth choked a little on his words.
"I'm incredibly proud of how far we've come together," said Reed. "These guys will always be like family to me."