ROCHESTER, N.Y. – During his lunch break at Walmart, he would seldom eat lunch.
Jajuan Harley ducked into a bathroom, took off his blue shirt with his name tag, changed into workout clothes, and then headed outside to run a steep cement hill until it was time to return to work.
Or he would head to the parking lot of Supercenter Store #1077 on Apalachee Parkway in Tallahassee, Fla., and run around the parking lot, weaving through the rows of shopping cart holders.
Or he would sneak into the fitness section and do some dumbbell curls. Anything to chase a football dream that once seemed so assured.
Five years ago, Harley was a prized recruit, a four-star safety from Tallahassee who ran a 4.3 in the 40-yard dash and bench pressed 400 pounds. On Jan. 1 of this year, only a few miles from the Florida State campus where he was supposed to become a household name, Harley walked away from his $7.73 per hour salary at Walmart to train full time for one more chance at big-time football. He emailed every single NFL team, hoping for a response. Now, a few months later, he's the longest of long shots at Buffalo Bills training camp.
He arrived here with 71 cents in his bank account.
"I'm real stingy about money," Harley said. "I barely buy anything. I go to the cafeteria and I collect food."
Part of the reason for the job and the stinginess is his dad, Jack, who has some respiratory issues and needs an oxygen tank. Harley has always wanted to support him and his mother, Cynthia, who works at a Florida State library. His two dreams, to play and to help others, have always been intertwined. As a high school sophomore, when his school was temporarily without a head coach, Harley led drills by himself.
"For everyone who wanted to work, he controlled everything," said longtime friend Devin Graham, who played with Harley at Rickards High in Tallahassee. "He hosted conditioning after school, and weightlifting."
Harley was a prized prospect, with measurables and highlights to match. He had his choice of Division I schools and went to Florida State in 2009. But he never grew into the star he was expected to be. Harley transferred when FSU made a coaching change, and the new staff wanted him to move to linebacker from safety. Harley played one season at Middle Tennessee State and then chose to leave for the pros. He ran a 4.44 in the 40-yard dash at his pro day in 2013, but there wasn't much film on him, and he wasn't drafted.
"That crushed him," said Jack.
Harley got a shot with Seattle, at the Seahawks' rookie camp. He didn't get signed. He got a look from Denver. Nothing. And at that point he started thinking this wasn't to be. He considered joining the military. He took a job as a sales associate with Walmart, in the toy department. He worked all hours, including overnights, but the toughest shift was Saturday from 9 a.m. to noon: "All the kids would come in," he said, "and just throw the toys on the ground."
Harley's parents would come and visit him at the store, but it was difficult. It didn't seem that long ago that Jajuan was 18 months old, in the backyard with a football, hearing his dad say, "You're going to be the next Charlie Ward."
"It hurt him," said Jack. "It hurt me. It felt like giving up, even though he wasn't. He wanted to make his own money. You see your son working at Walmart, you're like, man."
Harley couldn't give up on the game. He was fast enough, passionate enough. He wasn't too old – only 23. So on Jan. 1 of this year, after the stints running the cement hill and doing loops around shopping carts, Harley decided to commit to football one more time.
It would not be easy.
"Money started running low," he said. "I made sure I had protein and gas money. I couldn't get a haircut at times. It was pretty rough."
At one point, he said, "I went broke."
From his parents' house, he wrote letters and emails to every single NFL team. He even agreed to a deal with the expansion Bemidji Axemen of the Indoor Football League.
But late last January, only a few weeks after he left his toy department job, he got a call from Buffalo.
"I thought it was a joke," he said. "They called me in the middle of a workout. I busted out into tears right there."
After a summer of training and hoping his 1990 Acura didn't break down, Harley is here, with perhaps his last, best chance at catching on in the NFL. He carries the other defensive backs' shoulder pads from practice, and stores his Walmart ID in his locker as a reminder of how this year started.
"It was a tough situation because he was so worried he wouldn't make it to where he wanted to be to support his family," said Graham, his high school friend. "I told him, 'You can't quit. This is what you want in life.' He always was a football player and that's how he lived."
That's how he lives now, at least for a few more days in camp. He's back with former Seminoles teammate EJ Manuel, and a career that spiraled out of his grasp is now, tenuously, still alive.
"If I was drafted," Harley said, "I don't think I would have embraced the moment like I do now."
He woke up on New Year's Day and decided his resolution would be to reach for his wayward dream. Seven months later, he's closer than ever to living it.
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