EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Trae Waynes smiled as he slightly shook his head and shrugged.
His dream became a reality less than 24 hours prior. His football life advanced to the highest level, and he'll have the opportunity to play home — and divisional road — games in the Midwest.
The Wisconsin native, who played collegiately for Michigan State, had been in Chicago the night before for the opening of the 2015 NFL Draft. Waynes learned Minnesota was in his future when General Manager Rick Spielman phoned while the Vikings were "on the clock."
"I can't get out of (the Midwest)," Waynes said with a laugh the day after he was selected 11th overall. "It's great, though, just being able to stay close to home. It makes it a lot easier for family and friends to come see me play."
Waynes returned to the team's headquarters and made it official a week later, joining his nine draft mates in signing their first pro contracts Thursday night. He and classmates will hit the field today, along with undrafted and tryout players, to start a three-day rookie minicamp.
Anticipation builds toward life-changing moments like this, but Waynes' patience and ability to focus on short- and long-term goals were critical in reaching them rep by rep, play by play, game by game and season by season.
Waynes arrived in East Lansing a three-sport star (all-state football, all-conference baseball and a state track champ) and redshirted in 2011. Special teams provided a path to playing time in 2012, and he continued to earn more opportunities. He started all 14 games in 2013, earned the team award for most improved defensive player, helped Michigan State beat Ohio State for the Big Ten title and had an interception against Stanford in the Spartans' Rose Bowl victory.
The progression continued in 2014 when Waynes was selected first-team All-Big Ten by coaches and media and was a semifinalist for the Jim Thorpe Award, helping Michigan State defeat Baylor in the Cotton Bowl Classic.
Former Vikings defensive back Harlon Barnett was Waynes' position coach each season until Barnett was promoted to assistant head coach and co-defensive coordinator before the most recent bowl game. Barnett said Michigan State coaches thought Waynes had upside in their first evaluation of him at a camp before his senior year of high school. A season-ending leg injury that fall didn't derail a determined Waynes, and the Spartans honored their commitment to him.
"He had a great camp, ran a fast time then and took coaching well, so I felt like then, we felt like, 'This guy is going to be a good player for us,' " Barnett said. "Fast forward to the 2012 season, which was his redshirt freshman year, and he gets into the bowl game at the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, and it seemed like he just took off from there. He never looked back after that game. He just kept getting better and better and better and sustaining and being consistent in his performance."
Outside praise of Waynes' abilities followed. His decision to enter the NFL Draft with a year of eligibility remaining wasn't a rush job, but it was affected — and substantiated — by his elite speed. At February's NFL Combine (again in the Midwest), Waynes ran the 40-yard dash in 4.31 seconds, posting the fastest time among his position group and the second-fastest time at this year's event.
Having the gift of speed and knowing how to play with it don't always go stride for stride, but Barnett said Waynes has learned his speed allows him to play with patience.
"His best strengths are obviously his speed, as people talk about, his patience. Because of his speed, he can be patient at the line of scrimmage and play with great technique," Barnett said. "I could continue on to go on to his toughness, mental as well as physical. "He's a good cover guy as well as a good tackler, so he's what I call a complete corner. He's not just what people call a cover corner, he's a complete corner because he can tackle as well as cover."
How did Waynes learn the connection between his speed and playing patiently?
"Practice. That is the best way I could put it," Waynes said. "I'm constantly working at it in practice. We did it every single day. I wasn't patient at all when I first got there. It was something I just learned over time."
Waynes became the third first-team All-Big Ten cornerback during Michigan State Head Coach Mark Dantonio's tenure (Johnny Adams, 2011-12; Darqueze Dennard, 2012-13). Adams was not drafted, but Dennard was selected 24th overall by Cincinnati in 2014, and Waynes said Dennard "helped keep me calm and collected" during the pre-draft process.
"I basically just believed in what they were teaching because they've had a lot of success in the past and a lot of great corners have come out," Waynes said. "I knew once I learned the system and bought into what they were teaching me, I'd have success."
Covering others is supposed to be one of Waynes' specialties.
The week of the draft, however, he received extensive coverage from media and NFL.com that started when he arrived April 28 in Chicago.
The coverage expanded May 1 to include a Vikings Entertainment Network crew to "Meet the Pick" when Waynes made his way to Minnesota. He started with a visit to the Vikings New Stadium Preview Center in downtown Minneapolis and glimpsed into the future before arriving in Eden Prairie.
Waynes took the opportunity to thank Vikings officials in person for selecting him, receive jersey No. 26 and take part in his first press conference as a Viking, followed by one-on-ones with television stations and NFL Network.
"First, I would like to thank (Vikings GM) Rick Spielman, Coach (Mike Zimmer) and the Wilf family for giving me this opportunity," Waynes said in his opening statement, "and like Coach just said, I'm ready to get back to work and get over all of this media stuff."
The day was similar to stepping into a reality show and performing a press junket before a major movie premiere. A broad smile accompanied the sharp suit, fashionable dress shirt and purple and gold special edition Vikings draft hat as Waynes made the rounds.
Waynes' mother, Erin, accompanied her son from Chicago to Minnesota and described the whirlwind as "amazing, overwhelming."
"It's hard to put into words at this point," Erin Waynes said. "My head is still spinning, and I think his is too because we're working on very little sleep right now. … It's a great experience and it's amazing, but I'm still trying to take it all in and understand it."
Catch him if you can
To say speed runs in the Waynes family would be an understatement. Erin and her husband Ron Waynes both ran track, and Trae's brother, Mason, runs middle distances for Eastern Michigan. Erin, who has become an enthusiastic photographer of her sons over the years, went directly from Minnesota to Ohio last weekend for a meet in which Mason ran. She made sure to save some of her camera battery for the track meet, which didn't have quite the media hubbub.
Erin classifies herself as an "amateur" photographer but she has years of experience, and a portfolio of two first-round picks. Trae has been friends with former Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon for years, and the high school teammates were drafted four spots apart (San Diego tabbed Gordon at 15th overall after trading up two spots).
"It's what I've been doing forever, and not just Trae, but Trae and his friends, Trae and his sports teammates," Erin Waynes said. "I'm not just taking pictures of Trae, I'm taking pictures of everybody just to capture the moments and to keep the memories so we can go back and look at them. It really paid off because so many times during this experience, a ton of people have been contacting me, 'We need pictures for this, we need pictures for that, and we had them because it's what I do. It's really important to me, and he puts up a fuss about it, but I think when the day is over, I think he likes it. I think he appreciates it."
Trae said Erin "stays with that camera, doesn't go anywhere without it, but I'm used to it, though."
"It's definitely a love-hate thing," the son said, again with a smile, directed at his mother, before adding: "I'm just really glad my parents were able to go through some of the things I've gone through because not everybody gets to experience everything we do. The fact we were there every step of the way and they got to experience it was really good."
As Trae's speed increased, so did the need for a faster camera.
"They started getting involved in activities, and I was taking pictures of them playing pee wee football or whatever they did. Each level they went higher, my camera had to get more expensive," Erin said. "They got faster, he got faster, and then of course, you have night games and can't have a point and shoot for a night game, so I had to keep moving up the line with my camera so I could still capture all of these moments."
Lessons from a "DB guru"?
Waynes said he is looking forward to playing for Zimmer, who has built top-tier defenses over the years often fueled by successful cornerback play. The Vikings improved from 31st to 7th in passing yards allowed per game in Zimmer's first season at the helm, and 2013 first-round pick Xavier Rhodes developed dramatically last season.
Zimmer worked out Waynes at Michigan State's Pro Day, giving the tutor and pupil a preview of how they might work together.
"Coach Zim' is a DB guru, and he told me that him coaching me at my pro day was nothing, and he was coaching me pretty hard," Waynes said. "I'm really excited to see what type of player he can turn me into, and hopefully I can make an impact on this defense."
Waynes and the Vikings can see plenty of challenges within the division. Five of the top 10 leaders in receiving yards in the NFC in 2014 are returning to the Norse this season, and the Bears drafted Kevin White, who clocked a time of 4.35 at the NFL Combine, from the 7th overall spot.
It's safe to say Zimmer, Defensive Coordinator George Edwards, defensive backs coach Jerry Gray and assistant DBs coach Jonathan Gannon are looking forward to working with the 6-foot-1 Waynes to counteract the offensive threats.
"It's hard to find really good corners in the draft nowadays," Zimmer said. "It seems like everybody with great athletic ability is playing offense, they're playing wide receivers, and the way the ball is being spread around in college. For us to get a guy that has size, which is important to me, outstanding speed, 4.31 in the 40, excellent ball skills, great competitor, big heart – those things are all really important. We're extremely excited to get him here."
There's no such thing as complete assurance that a selection is the correct one. It takes time for a player to be fully evaluated and measured against opponents and the performances of others at the position.
Spielman, Zimmer, the personnel department and coaching staff combed through more than a thousand prospects this year looking for tough, smart, passionate players who love the game of football who also have displayed high character.
The Vikings evaluation of Waynes led them to believe in all of those components, and a text message Spielman received last Friday morning provided an early affirmation of Waynes' character. A friend of Spielman's brother-in-law had a photo of Waynes holding his child during a pre-draft hospital visit before the child had cleft palate surgery.
Spielman didn't know the child's father but received a message accompanying the photo about how classy a person Waynes is.
"I know what he can do on the football field, I know what kind of family he comes from and right now, I know what kind of person he is," Spielman told reporters before he and Zimmer introduced Waynes. "That's what we want when we are drafting a Minnesota Viking player."
Erin said Trae has "exceeded all of our expectations," has a kind heart and is great with children.
"He is a great brother, friend, son and even more importantly, a great person," she said. "It's hard for me to wrap my head around, that he's like a role model. To me, he's Trae and he's just a normal kid and he will always be Trae, but apparently he is a role model and people look up to him.