LARAMIE – To say the past nine months of Rico Gafford’s life have wholly changed him would be the understatement of all understatements.

Gafford, the former University of Wyoming defensive back turned Las Vegas Raiders wide receiver, spent the better part of his first two years in the NFL on the team’s practice squad. He was called up to the Raiders’ active roster for the second time in his career in late November 2019 and proceeded to make his mark.

On Dec. 8, 2019, Raiders quarterback Derek Carr dropped back to pass against the Tennessee Titans. He wound up and threw a 49-yard bomb down the right sideline to a wide-open Gafford, who caught the pass in stride and walked into the end zone untouched, not a single defender within 15 yards of No. 10 in silver and black.

Gafford sprinted toward the stands and jumped into the “Black Hole” at the Oakland Coliseum, where he was embraced by fans and teammates. His first career catch couldn’t have been more spectacular.

The play itself only took about six seconds from start to finish – when you run a 4.27 40-yard dash like Gafford, plays down the field don’t take a particularly long time to develop – but he will remember that moment for the rest of his life.

“That catch, it changed my life,” Gafford told WyoSports. “It made me more confident as a football player, as a wide receiver. It changed a lot for me.”

Since that day, Gafford has had numerous firsts: just over a week ago, he made his first appearance on the team’s opening day 53-man roster. During the COVID-19 shutdown, Gafford opened a bar and restaurant in his home town of Des Moines, Iowa, appropriately named Rico’s. He also moved from Northern California to Las Vegas, as the Raiders prepare to play their first season in Sin City.

Gafford went from playing at Iowa Western College for two seasons to playing cornerback at UW. He went undrafted by NFL clubs, was signed by the Tennessee Titans and subsequently waived, and then caught on with the Raiders’ practice squad.

Then he changed positions.

To say Gafford’s journey has been a wild ride doesn’t do it justice. But now that he’s made it to the NFL, he wants to give back. His winding road has served as an unlikely inspiration for his restaurant back home, a place where inquiring minds can learn how Gafford turned an unlikely dream into reality.

“I’m an outgoing guy. I love people,” Gafford said. “A lot of people want to know how I made it, how I made it to the NFL. … I like to give a lot back to my city.”

Gafford found himself with a lot of momentum heading into the offseason. Having made a dent in the NFL, he wanted to do the same in Iowa. He knew he wanted to invest in some sort of business, with the likely venture being real estate.

Gafford’s father and his father’s business partner started talking to Rico about potentially opening a restaurant. The timing wasn’t necessarily great due to the COVID-19 pandemic closing businesses down, but the pause afforded Gafford the time he needed to personally put his imprint on Rico’s. The three would co-own the establishment.

Gafford purchased the building in March. The restaurant was up and running by mid-June, and if the joint was going to have his name on it, Gafford was going to make it his own and put in the work required to make the business thrive.

Once Rico’s opened, Gafford was in there talking to patrons and sharing his stories, which was one of the goals when the spot was conceptualized. But he wanted to get his hands dirty, too. He washed dishes, cleaned floors and learned how to cook from his chefs. Bartenders taught him how to make drinks.

Rico’s was not just going to be his in name.

The restaurant looks like a lot of sports bars around America: wall-to-wall televisions, beer taps, tacos and wings. But the walls of Rico’s are adorned with photographs and moments from a football career that has seen ups and downs. The memorabilia tells a story that is uniquely Gafford’s.

Des Moines has been good to Gafford and his family. The least he could do was create a space where fans could meet the pride and joy of the neighborhood.

“My name is literally on the front door. I’m part owner. It’s something that I took to heart,” Gafford said.

The menu at Rico’s includes its namesakes’ favorites, some of which he hasn’t had the chance to try yet. Among his favorites are the catfish, which reminds him of dinners at home as a child, and the appropriately named Gafford Burger: two patties, cheese, bacon and jalapenos.

If you’re going to slap your brand on a business, it might as well serve your favorites.

“The city has shown a lot of love (since Rico’s opened),” he said. “I wanted it to be a place where people could come in and meet me personally.”

While he embarks on his third NFL season, Gafford’s two other co-owners are looking after Rico’s, filling him in on business and new additions to an ever-growing menu. Quite literally, Gafford has enough on his plate at the moment in preparing for one of the most bizarre NFL seasons in recent memory.

The Raiders open at the Carolina Panthers today following an offseason that saw no preseason games, fewer minicamps, and fewer face-to-face meetings among players and coaches.

Yes, it was the pandemic that allowed Gafford to open his restaurant. But he’d be lying if he said he wasn’t excited to get back on the field in a live game. You can only go against your teammates so many times before it gets stale.

“We’ve waited a long time for this,” he said. “We’re ready to take all of our anger and effort out on another team.”

In his first two NFL campaigns, Gafford was on the wrong end of the 53-man roster math. It’s not a fun process, and is among the most heart-wrenching moments of every “Hard Knocks” season. First, you get a phone call telling you to report to a coach’s office. You’re then told that you’re being released, that your hard work wasn’t quite enough this time around.

That was Gafford’s reality in 2018 and 2019. But in 2020, that ominous phone call never came. And when the Raiders posted the opening day roster on social media, Gafford couldn’t help but smile.

Sure, he knows he’s competing for playing time with established players like Nelson Agholor and Hunter Renfrow, and with 2020 first-round pick Henry Ruggs III. But making the opening 53-man roster is a feat of its own that Gafford isn’t taking for granted. It’s a step toward what he thinks can be a bright NFL future.

“Going into this offseason, I had a different chip on my shoulder,” he said. “I can play in this league.”

This has been a tough year for everyone. But for Gafford, it has brought moments of positivity, both on and off the football field. And he’s more than ready to embrace whatever obstacle is thrown in his path going forward.

Still, Gafford can’t help but think back to that touchdown reception last December and the countless text messages, tweets and Instagram posts that followed. It has been the springboard for what he can’t help but think is a season and career now filled with infinite promise.

Gafford has two career catches in his brief NFL career. Who’s to say he won’t make a few more memories similar to that first grab in the coming years?

“Sitting on the bench, thinking about what happened, having so many people come up to me and congratulate me … that’s when it all set in,” Gafford said. “I made it.”

Michael Katz covers the University of Wyoming for WyoSports. He can be reached at mkatz@wyosports.net or 307-755-3325. Follow him on Twitter at @michaellkatz.

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