Four years ago in Alameda, California, Lester Cotton Sr. approached his new quarterback to ask him a serious question.
At the time, Cotton was fresh off two National Championships at Alabama, and was one highest touted offensive line recruits for the university to land. Yet after 28 career starts for the Crimson Tide, he went undrafted in 2019. Despite his status as an UDFA fighting for recognition and a roster spot, that didn't stop him from asking Derek Carr for some advice.
"He says, 'What do I need to do to be your starting guard.' That's what he asked me," Derek Carr told local media Saturday. "And I was like, 'What a question.' I said, 'Man, keep working your butt off.' At the time, you can look back and see who we had there, and it was going to be hard for him."
It certainly has been hard for Cotton in the process. Since his initial conversation with Carr, he's been cut and re-signed by the Raiders several times. The guard internalized a lot of things within his life and football career, sitting at home with his wife and children in the midst of global pandemic during the 2020 season.
"When I got released in 2020, I think, my second year, it was a big wake-up call," Cotton said. "I spent 10 months out and I had to really look myself in the mirror and say, 'If this is what I'm going to do, I have to lock in and be 110 percent.' That's what I've been doing every day."
"My wife, she was my real backbone," Cotton said as he reflected on who helped him the most through his career. "She was the one who was there in the dog days when I was just saying I wanted to put 'em up. She pushed me. She told me I had to get up, she told me I had to go because you don't want to have any regrets. I give all the thanks to her."
Things began to turn for the better in Cotton's career last season. He re-signed with the team at the beginning of the 2021 offseason and earned a spot on the practice squad. Throughout the duration of the season, he was elevated to the active roster a few times – seeing action in three games including the season finale against the Los Angeles Chargers that secured the Raiders a playoff berth.
According to Cotton, playing in that game gave him a "fiery edge" he's carried into this offseason. It also gave him the confidence that he could play at a high level in the NFL, beyond his practice squad background to that point. The corner Cotton has seemed to turn has been in full display during Training Camp. He's seen meaningful snaps with his fellow offensive linemen and also secured the team's offseason Sampson Award for the efforts he made in the weight room – crediting the vast improvements he's made to his diet the past year as well as the encouragement of the strength training staff.
"It's like winning a Super Bowl to me," Cotton said of the award. "Like everybody knows, I went through a lot of tough times. It was real rough for me in the beginning. I had to grow out of it and mature some. Coach A.J. [Neibel], Coach Deuce [Gruden], all those guys in there, they all pulled me together and covered me with their wings and kept me going forward."
Someone with a clear picture of the work Cotton has put forth is Kenyan Drake, who was previously teammates with Cotton for a season at Alabama. The running back expressed how proud he is of Cotton and his maturation since their first meeting in Tuscaloosa.
"Lester is one of my guys," said Drake. "He was a young guy when I was in Alabama. One of those guys that kind of has a lot of pressure on him because he was a highly recruited guy but didn't necessarily get the playing time initially, early. Now vice versa in the league, I think he was undrafted. He's been with the Raiders for a little bit. He was telling me when he dropped me off at my crib the other day how he got cut and then came back and kind of felt like it was a second chance. And I love a redemption story, especially knowing him personally. Seeing the way that he's continued to mature."
Four years after one of their first conversations in Alameda, Carr flipped the script on Cotton and stopped him on the way to the parking lot after practice to share some words with the guard.
"I said, 'Lester, I'm so proud of you. Because through the cuts, through the re-signs, through this and that, new schemes, you have done nothing but put your head down and you've been in there with A.J. Neibel, you've worked your butt off and now you are getting reps and all these things,'" Carr recounted. "And I said, 'You look good man. You're doing some good things.' And so, I don't where he's at with everything as Carmen [Bricillo] would know or Josh [McDaniels] would know. But I can tell you just how proud of him I am. Hopefully, that says what I'm trying to say what I see about him, how much he's come from when I first saw him."
As for Cotton, that advice he received from Carr his rookie year still resonates with him today – as he's still in the process of working to cement a spot on the Raiders' offensive line.
"I was like, man, I don't want to be in that revolving door [of offensive linemen]. I want to be right here beside him, right in front of him, protecting him because he's family," Cotton said. "He's like a brother to me. He gave me good advice and I've been running with it ever since."
View the best photos from Raiders 2022 Training Camp practice at Intermountain Healthcare Performance Center.