Making it to the NFL, let alone staying in the NFL, is a challenge that only a small percentage of football players overcome, and for Oakland Raiders wide receiver Rico Gafford, he's been waiting for an opportunity to get his foot in the door.
The former Wyoming Cowboy wasn't selected in the 2018 NFL Draft, but was quickly picked up and signed by the Tennessee Titans in May of that year. After participating in OTAs, Minicamp, and Training Camp, the Titans waived the athletic wide receiver prior the start of the season.
Not knowing what would come next, Gafford waited for five days before the Silver and Black signed him to the practice squad.
Originally signed as a wide receiver, the Raiders experimented with Gafford's speed by trying to convert him to a cornerback. When you're an unproven player in the NFL being asked to transition from the position you know best can take a psychological toll, but Gafford remained positive.
"It's hard mentally, honestly," Gafford said postgame. "Mentally it's very much harder than what cornerbacks have to do out there. You have to think about a lot in a matter of seconds. I love [wide receiver], I love corner as well, but the things I can do at receiver make me a better player. So, I'm glad that I made the transition back to receiver."
When playing cornerback didn't work out, the team moved him back to his natural position, but he still couldn't manage to leave an impression on the coaching staff. Following the end of training camp, Gafford was cut once again; however, the Raiders re-signed him to the practice squad.
Since then, Gafford has been biding his time waiting for his chance to crack the 53-man roster and ahead of the Raiders' Week 14 matchup against his former team he finally got the call. With fellow wide receiver Trevor Davis gone, and Hunter Renfrow dealing with a rib injury, the stage was set for Gafford to play his second career game.
All week, Gafford was scripted into the game plan, and on third and two with 10:43 left in the second quarter, the 23-year-old got the call.
Facing cornerback Logan Ryan, Gafford lined up in a three-wide set, and lost his defender during the route, leaving him wide open with nothing but green grass in front of him. Derek Carr made the throw and Gafford did the rest.
"[We] game planned it all week for me to run that play, but obviously we didn't expect them to leave me wide open and I just had to make the catch in the end zone," he said. "I'm excited about it, and it's my first one ever, first catch ever, and against the team I used to play for, so it feels a different way, but I would've much rather had the win."
After waltzing into the end zone, Gafford couldn't wrap his mind around what just happened. It was the first reception of his career and it just so happened to be a 49-yard touchdown.
"I couldn't really believe it honestly," he said with a smile. "The ball sat in the air for a very long time, so when I crossed the end zone it was just crazy from there. I didn't have anything else to think about other than to run to the Black Hole, so that's all I did and my team met me there. Just to go through something like this, becoming a guy that was once a cornerback and becoming a receiver is just amazing. I know other guys out there that are in the same shoes as me, so I know what they're feeling right now."
Teammate Zay Jones hasn't known Gafford a long time, but since joining the team in early October Jones has learned a lot about Gafford's journey to this point.
"It's hard enough to make it to this league and it's even harder to stay in this league," Jones said. "I think it says a lot about his character though that he's stuck around and being able to step in when his number has been called. Credit to [Mike] Mayock and Gruden for seeing the talent level in him, trusting him. It's all about your preparation and staying ready, and Rico stayed ready. Like I said, just very happy for him."
Gafford has battled through the mental hurdles of questioning whether he was cut out for life in the NFL, but Sunday afternoon he proved to himself that he's capable of performing when the team needed him most. The journey is far from over for Gafford; however, this could be the boost of positivity he needs to keep pushing on. Despite the Raiders taking a loss, you can't help but feel happy for a guy like Rico Gafford.