Golson Embracing 'Fresh Start' With Oakland Raiders
May 17, 2018
By Brian Scott Rippee, OleMissSports.com
Rain splattered down on an August morning in Boston during the summer of 2011 as an 18-year-old Senquez Golson hopped out of an airplane and into a car with then-Boston Red Sox skipper Terry Francona. The car was bound for Fenway Park as it carried the club’s manager, eighth-round draft pick and Golson’s mother. Golson remembers everything about this day in which the direction of his life would ultimately be decided, whether he knew it then or not.
He was toured around the confines of one of baseball’s most historic venues. Golson was welcomed by a large sign up his entry that welcomed and congratulated him on joining the Red Sox. He ran across the outfield, signed the Green Monster in left field and was then ushered into a conference room in the front office. The introduction was over. It was time to get down to business. Theo Epstein, who is now responsible for breaking the two longest World Series droughts in the history of baseball, strolled into the room with two other Red Sox executives as Golson sat down with his mother.
Golson was in the middle of fall camp at Ole Miss as football season approached, where he’d elected to sign to go play both football and baseball. He’d told teams before the MLB Draft that summer he planned to go to school, part of the reason why he slipped into the eighth round, but Boston wanted to make one last run at him. Perhaps flashing a dollar amount in front of him would change his thinking.
“I knew what I wanted,” Golson said.
The Red Sox weren’t so sure. The executives laid three or four contacts across the table and began pouring through them. Golson doesn’t remember how long he sat in this room but estimates it was eight or nine hours. They began pressing for him to sign as the bonus rose north of $1 million. At one point, they asked his mom to leave the room to talk to him alone.
Picture this for a moment, if you will: An 18-year-old Golson sitting in a room with one of the most powerful men in baseball and two other executives coaxing him this was his chance in life and it was happening now.
“You’ll never get an opportunity like this again, with this kind of money,” one of the executives said.
That’s a phrase that’s stuck inside Golson’s head through the years. He never wavered.
“I can get what they are offering me, or I can go to school play football, baseball and get an education,” Golson said. “It’s a three-for-one deal. It was a no brainer. It isn’t like I was done with baseball after that. In some ways, I can’t tell you I’m done with baseball now.”
As the signing deadline rapidly approached that night, Golson turned down $1.35 million dollars and returned to his hotel room that night with his sights set on going to college. Whether he knew it or not in that moment, Golson was headed down a path where the sport he loved first would fade into the backdrop, a path filled with triumphs matched with adversity. A path that would see him regain all of the money he turned down and then some as a second-round draft pick, but also one that’s led him to becoming a 24-year-old, fourth-year free agent who’s still never played a snap in the National Football League.
“Everyone around me wanted me to go. I had some people mad at me about that,” Golson said. “I dont’ know if I would have turned it down if I hadn’t been going to Ole Miss. Something about Ole Miss, it felt like the place I needed to be.”
He’s a native of Pascagoula, Mississippi, where he quickly became known as a superstar on the diamond across the Gulf Coast and beyond. He excelled in football, too. But there was no question that took a back seat to what he could do with a bat and a glove.
“We always thought it’d be baseball in terms of him making it all the way to the pros,” his mother, Tarsha, said. “We played a lot of travel ball growing up and would always have people tell us he’s going to go somewhere. If you saw him play you’d understand. We’d have people come up to us at different places and tell us they were going to have to remember that guy.”
For a kid who coined the line “If you don’t want to go to Ole Miss, don’t take a visit,” it wasn’t always so simple. Oxford didn’t come into the picture until later on in the recruiting process. If you’d asked him during that time, he’d have told you he was going to Florida State.
“We had gone to different schools visiting and we had decided we were going to go to Florida State. We hadn’t really thought about Ole Miss,” Tarsha said.
A close friend convinced them to make the drive up to take a visit.
“When we went to other schools it was more all about business, but when we went to Ole Miss, it was different,” Tarsha recalled. “We met the coaches, the team, the facilities. It was welcoming to the point where it wasn’t like the other schools. We knew as soon as we got home we had a decision to make. Like he says, if you don’t want to go, don’t take a visit.
“We went up for a visit, and the rest is history.”
Golson played in all 12 games of his freshman season, starting four of them. Things were going well, but imbalance became an issue. Juggling two sports along with a load of schoolwork is a lot to ask of a teenager. It became mentally and physically exhausting.
“There were plenty of days where I didn’t really have much time to get something to eat,” Golson said. “How do you become a top-tier athlete in both sports and make good grades? I struggled so hard with it early on.”
After a year of baseball in 2012, he was faced with one of the tougher decisions of his life, though he was no stranger to those at this point. He elected to drop baseball because he was on scholarship for football and centered his focus on that. Time proved it to be a fruitful one, but he still has some lingering regret.
“If I could go back I would have never stopped playing,” Golson said. “But it was too much as a freshman. I think if I had kept playing I would have learned to manage it over time and it would have gotten better. It would’ve become a routine.”
Nevertheless, he became a superstar defensive back for the Rebels. Golson tallied 136 tackles and 16 interceptions over the course of his football career. He watched the program transition from the lowest it had been in a half-century in 2011 to ascending to the forefront of the college football landscape. He was a lynchpin on the best defense in college football in 2014. He’s responsible for one of the most iconic plays in the history of Ole Miss football, going up and leaping for a football over Alabama’s 6-foot-6 tight end, O.J. Howard as the final seconds melted off the clock, corralling the ball, scraping his left foot on the ground and thwarting a game-winning drive. It was initially ruled incomplete, but replay showed otherwise.
“I knew it,” Golson said. “I didn’t see it but I felt my foot go down. All I needed is one. I started looking at the sideline and was like ‘You better throw that flag. I caught it.’”
It preserved one of the biggest wins in the history of the program and incited a celebration of seismic proportions.
“It was crazy,” Golson said. “People are taking pictures and bringing pieces of the goalposts to class. Ole Miss deserved that.”
In the spring of 2015, he was drafted in the second round by the Pittsburgh Steelers with the 56th overall pick. His family gathered at Moes’ BBQ in Mobile, Alabama, and were overcome with emotion. Relief was the overwhelmingly dominant one.
“You’ll never get an opportunity like this again, this kind of money,” that Red Sox executive said that day. It still rings in Golsan’s mind sometimes.
It had paid off. He signed a four-year deal worth $4 millions and $2 million guaranteed. Things had come full circle, or so they thought.
“‘You might not have chosen football, but football might have chosen you,’ I told him,” Tarsha recalled. “We kind of knew something like this would happen.”
Golson still says he can’t honestly say he loves football more than baseball, but rather that it happened this way. What motivates him each day is a complex blend of what has happened to him to this point and the adversity he’d be hit with after. He thought he’d proven to everyone he’d made the right choice. As it turns out, it’s not that simple.
Life in the NFL hasn’t been kind to Golson thus far, and it’s got nothing to do with talent. NFL.com Draft guru Mike Mayock called Golson one of the best pure zone corners he has ever seen. His draft bio still reads “Golson has Pro Bowl potential.” It’s his body that’s unfortunately failed him to this point.
He sits here now as a 24-year-old trying to come to terms with the hand he’s been dealt and where he wants to go, or maybe thinks he can go. He speaks like he’s ten years older than he is because of what he’s endured and the life experiences crammed into the last six years.
Golson missed his entire rookie season after tearing his labrum in offseason workouts before training camp. He rehabbed and came back in 2016 more motivated than ever. He went into training camp hoping to make his mark on the Steelers’ defense. On Aug. 1, 2016, Golson made a cut defending a route and his foot went numb. He played a couple more plays before taking his shoe off and seeing a bone in his foot sticking up towards him. It was a Lisfranc injury. He was carted off the field and slammed his helmet down in frustration. It had happened again.
“That’s the worst thing I have ever been through in my life,” Golson said. “I had to learn how to walk and run correctly again.”
A kid who’d never left the field in college and never had an offseason until his junior year, was now idle for the second year in a row. It wore on him. Doubts about the path he’d gone down flooded in and questions as to how he could prove this was the right thing began to surface.
He missed the entire season, again, and returned to Oxford to rehab it with strength coach Joey Guarascio, who just recently left Ole Miss to take a job with Colorado State in January. He had eight to 10 weeks in which his foot never touched the ground. He had to learn how to re-walk again. A second surgery took out the two screws planted in his foot due to excess swelling. It was a slow, tedious process.
“It’s just as much mental as it is physical building that confidence back up in what you injured, building your confidence back up in your ability to explode and cut,” Guarascio said.
Golson rehabbed it in time to be healthy for 2017 training camp. He was no longer in the guaranteed money threshold of his contract and knew this was likely his last shot with the Steelers. On July 30, he suffered a minor hamstring injury, but one that would be catastrophic given the time and location. It caused him to miss the bulk of the preseason and the writing on the wall began to surface. Golson was cut by the club in September as he’d hit rock bottom. He was an injured free agent with no real direction.
“How can you blame them? I am a realistic person. I am no longer under guaranteed money. How can you blame them? What am I supposed to do? I can’t be mad. It isn’t their fault,” Golson said.
He’d reached a point when a lot of athletes would have hung it up, possibly recognizing this isn’t meant to be. Guarascio hadn’t heard from him in a couple of weeks. He was working out in the Ole Miss practice facility one day when he heard a knock on the glass. It was Golson. Quitting wasn’t an option. He really didn’t know what else to do.
“I asked him flat out: ‘Do you want to make another run at this?,’” Guarascio recalled. “He told me he wanted to prove to everyone he can play in the NFL. I told him I would give him everything I got. If he gives me everything he has, then we will get rolling.”
So here he was again, back in Oxford, a place where he’d had so much success and a place that helped shaped the course of his life, yet scarred by the brutal reality of being labeled as injury prone in the NFL. It was the toughest few months of his life mentally because the future wasn’t certain. There was no longer a light at the end of the tunnel. He was working out blindly hoping an opportunity would come. Guarascio and Golson worked out five days a week and sometimes additionally on the weekend.
“He didn’t miss a work out,” Guarascio said. “He always came for more. I had a couch in my office and I am not kidding, he’d spend ten hours in the facility a day.”
Guarascio kept him focused on the day-to-day process, as tough as that can be. Golson would bring his four-year-old son to Guarascio’s house - who also has a kid he same age - and do additional workouts in his spare time.
“Like every average American, I had mornings when I was like ‘I don’t even know why I am doing this,’” Golson said. “You just have to change that mindset.”
Golson worked and worked. He got a call in early November from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for a workout. He made the practice squad, but was cut at the end of the year. Though it doesn’t seem like it on the surface, it was quite the confidence boost.
“He thought man, if I am at 70 percent and I can go in and compete at the highest level with guys like Mike Evans, when I am 100 percent, not only I am going to make a team, I am going to dominate,” Guarascio said. “That’s what he said to me. I still to this day have never seen a corner like him. His ball skills and his awareness are second to none. It could be scary if he keeps his body right and gets healthy. He could do big things.”
Guarascio and Golson split ways when Guarascio got a job at Colorado State. But their work together paid off a couple months later. Golson got the chance he’d been waiting on for so long. His fresh start came by way of a phone call from the Oakland Raiders. They wanted a workout. It led to a contract. He’ll head into training camp this summer looking to make the team.
“It was a blessing and a relief,” Golson said. “I had been working out blindly for a while without knowing what was going to happen.”
He sent a text to his mom, a photo of him in Raiders gear, letting her know what had come.
"With everything he has gone through, we were so glad and so relieved,” Tarsha said.
Golson views his signing as a fresh start with John Gruden and a new coaching staff coming in. He’s got a clean bill of health and a lifetime of trials and tribulations in the rearview. Golson makes it clear he has no regrets about any of the choices he’s made, from sitting a room with Red Sox executives to a guy hoping to make an NFL roster.
He just wants to prove to himself and others he can play in the National Football League. He wants assurance everything he’s endured was worth it. That is what motivates Senquez Golson each day, a mix of his past and thoughts of his future brings the present into focus. After all, he;s learnerd there is not much else he can control.
“I look at the world so much differently now,” Golson said. “You realize as you get older, it takes you a while to get going. It isn’t about the results at the end of the week, it is about the results at the end of the day. It is me versus my mind.”
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