By Gabriel Katz
Vincent Rey could not have asked for a bigger and better year. On and off the field, the once undrafted free agent who accepted an invitation to the Cincinnati Bengals’ practice squad had the season he’d been working towards since he entered the league. He filled his previously short resume with tackles, sacks, interceptions, and even a touchdown. And as the season came to a close, he learned that he’d been chosen as his team’s nominee for the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year award.
“It’s pretty awesome when people say that you should get an award and I’m really thankful for that,” says Rey. “[The award recognizes] what you do on the field but most importantly what you do off the field and how you’re giving back to your community, and I’m honored to receive that.”
Success might have come practically all at once in the form of box scores, TV highlights and publicity for the middle linebacker who just finished his fourth year in the NFL, but Rey isn’t one to pound his chest or pat himself on the back. His hustle reeks of humility. He hits grown men as hard on the field as engages young people off the field. Rey isn’t the first player to put others before himself, but there’s no doubt that be brings a fresh perspective to the tired scene of narcissistic arrogance that plagues professional sports.
“My whole goal is that I always want to be a leader in everything I do,” says Rey. “My number one goal being in the NFL is I want to be a leader and lead the team to wins.” He sits in his family home in Rockaway, NY, against walls laden with school pictures and family portraits. His football season ended earlier than he would’ve hoped, and though the championship game played out just an hour away from his house yet he was not in it.
“They say ‘there’s always next year,’ but I don’t like that statement. It’s all about believing though – if you don’t believe, it’s over before you even start.”
The words come out as if he’s even trying to convince himself, but perhaps he is. Motivation has kind of become Rey’s thing since he arrived in Cincinnati. Words like these are what got him elected by his teammates as special teams captain, an honor he appreciates as much if not more so than his personal statistics.
“I think I’m a passionate guy on and off the field. On the field I’m passionate about getting a win by any means and getting to the ball, and hitting people with the ball as hard as I can so I can get it.” A fairly matter-of-fact formula from a man charged with helping to direct his side of the football, not just on special teams but when he subs in on defense. “Off the field I’m passionate about other people having opportunities, especially in education. I’m passionate about encouraging people.”
He’s currently a leader both on his team and in the community, but just a few years ago Rey was new to the city and the league. Enter NFL veteran and at the time Bengals linebacker Dhani Jones, to whom Rey credits a good chunk of his all-around wisdom.
It was Jones who instructed Rey on professionalism and to practice every week as if he would be playing, something that was truly key when opportunity knocked this season. Jones was also involved in the Cincinnati community, so Rey’s learning didn’t stop at practice. He followed Jones to events, which made branching out on his own that much easier.
‘I’m passionate about encouraging people,” Rey says. “I’ve been encouraged in my life, so much I feel like it’s my responsibility to pay it forward and do the same, to tell people there’s always a helping hand out there no matter what environment you’re at, you just have to find the people that are willing to help you.”
‘I also have a heart for education, and that’s kind of when I started getting involved in the community, right when I got (to Cincinnati), and over time it’s kind of blossomed.”
At practice, Rey was devoting every bit of his physical energy to his attempt at making an impact on the Bengals roster. In his off-time, he could’ve chosen between rest and relaxation, or getting to work outside of football. Determined to make the most of his time in his new hometown, Rey began to seek out ways to make a difference in Cincinnati.
The fulltime job of NFL player only allows usually one day a week – Tuesday – to take the day off. For Rey, days off would become regular weekly visits to various schools throughout the area, speaking words of encouragement to whoever would listen through his partnership with the MORE Initiative. [MEN ORGANIZED, RESPECTFUL, EDUCATED]
“A lot of the questions were just, ‘How much weight can you lift?’ Questions like that. But some of the questions were some real questions about college and doing as well as they can in high school, about outside influences in their community and how to deal with them; I was really glad that I was able to be involved.”
Just as learning never stops in the NFL’s metaphorical classroom, Rey didn’t confine himself to just working in the many Cincinnati schools he visited. He helped to build a park with the local United Way, one that he still appreciates every time he drives by – not just of his own creation, but of the hard work that goes into building something.
Building things, working as a team – both of these are rather familiar concepts for Rey. He’s raked leaves for the Lighthouse Community School’s Garden Project, a venture that, like Rey, is focused on improving its surroundings.
But keeping Rey from learning is even harder than keeping him away from a moving football. One of his favorite projects is Envision Children, an organization for which Rey is a board member and regular volunteer. Among many other missions this year, he hosted a Jeopardy event one Saturday at a local school for students, parents, teachers, and even a few of his teammates that came along. But he didn’t host the event like some athletes host a fundraiser or host a party. Rey was literally the event’s Alex Trebek. It’s debatable who enjoyed this more, Rey or everyone who was there to meet him.
“To me what it’s all about is helping younger kids that aren’t doing too well in school and just being a helping hand,” Rey explains about his focus on education and his work with Envision Children. “Whether it’s tutoring, whether it’s sessions during the summer to help them out, I just try and go out there and give my time.”
The motivation for Rey’s heart for service stems from many different places, such as his upbringing, lessons he took away from his own academic career and of course having to work so hard to earn his spot on the team.
One of the reasons that Rey is so self-persuaded to get in touch with students is because he never was able to speak with a professional athlete growing up.
“It encourages me to keep going out there, even thought I may just want to sit at home and to do nothing,” he says of this motivation. “A lot of people need to be encouraged, myself for one, so [my goal is to] just to go out there and tell somebody to work hard and pursue.”
After his first start on the Bengals’ defense this year, Rey’s own pursuit finally began to yield some serious results. And if regular old Vinny was going to get consumed with reaching this plateau, now would’ve been the time. Instead, he used this outcome as even more motivation, and an even more evidence of how humility always wins out.
“I try to encourage everyone to be humble and learn from your superiors and learn from others,” Rey explains. “Because once you don’t feel like you can learn anything else, then no one else can teach you and then it’s over.”
Some tangible success wasn’t the end for Rey, nor was it the end of his “normal” persona.
“I don’t think it’s brought any pressure on me, I don’t have anything to hide,” he rationalizes. “I try to be the same person wherever I go. It’s been cool to get the exposure, and to be able to be on the field, I embrace it. I like being in front of people and speaking to people, I’m a pretty good encourager and I love being encouraged.”
He laughs at himself when revisiting his interview on the NFL Network’s NFL Today, when his feature interview was done in a plain hooded sweatshirt with one of the strings hanging all the way out from around his neck. He figures he was probably chewing on it and didn’t even notice until he got a text from his younger brother playfully mocking his attire. Rey thinks it properly conveyed his “blue collar” attitude.
Blue collar, regular, average. These are plain, nondescript adjectives that are used both to downplay and to flatter. They tell the story of Rey, who has achieved a success that truly came from his wildest dreams. While his performance and passion may be anything but ordinary, the goal of any athlete is to make the toughest plays appear effortless and the hard work look like it developed overnight. Those who know Rey know how much goes into his training, but the point of his persona is to fit in with anyone, hence he relate to them, hence they learn how much they can indeed learn from him. So here comes ho-hum Vinny Rey; into a classroom with a book, into a garden with a rake, or at the movies, where he happens to run into many of the kids he’s worked with.
When asked about the NFL Man of the Year award, his memory is jogged that he should probably have someone pick the trophy up from his locker, where it still sits. This of course is not a reflection on the honor’s importance, but rather a reemphasis that rewards and awards are just steps in a greater journey. Appreciation is one thing that Rey has plenty of.
“I’ll tell you one thing,” Rey does admit about his new notoriety and recognition. “You never get used to seeing yourself on a billboard. It’s pretty weird, but I’m just so grateful to be playing in a league like this, the same place where I’ve been wanting to play for almost 20 years. I’m just trying to show my gratitude by how I carry myself on and off the field, how I compete, and how I give back to others.”
He shies away from the idea of having his own foundation, explaining that although he has a good idea of what he’d like to focus on, “there’s so many good nonprofits and foundations out right now that I can just step in there and just lend a helping hand to.”
But as inevitable as it may be for the man who loves to help others to start a charity of his own, it is equally evident that one day Rey won’t be able to play the game he’s always wanted to, the game he finally got his chance to thrive at this year.
“I don’t want to see an end to my NFL career, I just want to keep playing and playing but we both know that it comes to an end rather quickly,” Rey considers. “But I’m continuing to invest into myself, and when the end comes I’ll be ready to make a smooth transition into something I’m passionate about and something that’s helpful to myself and to others.”
At the moment that something is education, and Rey says his interests include being a coach, an athletic director, or the principal of a school. The likelihood is that as soon as he can pull himself away from his playbook, the weight room and the playing field, he won’t have trouble finding something that gives him an equal – yet very, very different – kind of satisfaction.
“One of my favorite things is for me to learn something, and it’s like ‘Man, I just learned something, let me tell someone else about it!” The passion in Rey’s voice makes you want to throw on a helmet and pads on this cold winter night, or at the very least it makes you want to hear the rest of what he has to say. His infatuation with teaching and helping is so infectious it’s almost unsafe. “That’s how I always feel, whether it’s learning in school, learning in football, learning while going to church on Sundays… anytime I’m learning something I want to tell others about what I’ve learned.”
Wherever his career takes him, Rey will have a lot to learn. And even more to teach.