Warning: This story contains graphic details some readers may find disturbing.
THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. — His finger traces the path of the bullet that should've killed him on site. Right here, he points. Right here, one bullet struck him near his right temple, traveled through his head and exited just above the eyebrow.
His skull shattered. Shards of bone fell into his lap, blood gushed, and a car screeched away. The shooters used hollow-point bullets, he explains, bullets designed to expand and destroy and kill on impact.
Thirty hit the SUV in all. Eleven struck his cousin. Two struck Stedman Bailey in the head.
"A barrage," Bailey says, "of bullets."
That night, Nov. 24, 2015, the then-St. Louis Rams receiver was going to eat dinner with his cousin Antwan Reeves, Antwan's 10-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter, and one of Bailey's best friends, Terrance Gourdine. They were in an SUV they'd rented to drive the nine hours from Miami Gardens to Atlanta the next day, to spend Thanksgiving at Bailey's mother's house, waiting in front of Gourdine's house while he changed for dinner.
The back hatch of the SUV was left open, an unknown vehicle pulled up from behind, and around 8:45 p.m., the gunfire commenced.
"Like a war zone," Bailey recalls. "Call of Duty, but you're really there."
Bailey, in the passenger seat, took those two bullets. Reeves, in the back, felt one bullet rip through his chest, another strike his lower back and another zip through his arm, then lost feeling in his legs and regained enough feeling to leap atop his kids in the back seat and absorb more bullets in the shoulder. Once the assailants sped away, Reeves handed a cellphone to his son and told him to call Mom, to tell her that he and Bailey were shot.
But his son was staring at Bailey. At the literal holes in Bailey's head.
The 10-year-old screamed.
"Sted's dead! Sted's dead!"
Sted, miraculously, is not dead.
He's here, at Lazy Dog Restaurant and Bar, re-enacting the scene in that SUV one moment and ordering a sweet-and-spicy shrimp bowl the next. Three days prior, by phone, Bailey said he didn't want to talk about the shooting. Yet two minutes into meeting up, he relives everything in chilling detail, only pausing when a waitress interrupts.
"I heard the shots," he continues, "But I felt no pain at all."
Reeves staggered out of the SUV, saw Bailey was out cold—maybe he was dead?—and instinctively balled up a fist to punch him in the chest.
Bailey woke up.
"Cuz!" Reeves remembers saying. "You were shot in the head. Don't move. We're going to get you to the hospital."
Bailey was confused. To see for himself, he reached for the sun visor. Reeves slapped it back up before Bailey could catch a glimpse of the grisly reflection. Even in the state he himself was in, there was no way Reeves was letting Bailey see this. More bone, more cartilage, more blood from Sted's head splintered and scattered onto his lap, and Bailey realized, right then, "something was real." Gourdine reappeared in a panic, and Reeves ordered him to ignore all lights, all cops, to get them to the nearest hospital, which further spiked Bailey's fear. Gourdine, he says, was a terrible driver.
As the SUV reached speeds of nearly 100 mph—a cruel "roller coaster," Bailey calls it—Bailey prayed to make it to Jackson North Medical Center alive.
They did. There was no trauma unit. They were transported to a hospital in Aventura, Florida. They survived.
No, Bailey did not technically lose his life that night, but life as an NFL wide receiver with everything in front of him—money, fame, legacy—seemed to end as he knew it. Suddenly, he couldn't speak. Bailey communicated with friends and family by writing everything down. He couldn't eat. Bailey lost 30 pounds in all. His head swelled into the shape of a blimp. Imagine dropping an egg from eye level, his doctor told him. That was your skull. They needed to cut part of his skull in the back to patch the front. The photos from surgery were horrifying.
In one, Bailey saw a flap of his head open "like a garage," exposing his entire brain. In another, one eyeball hung out of its socket by what seemed like about three feet on a stringy substance.
But the worst moment, by far, was when a doctor asked Bailey what his goals in physical therapy were and the Rams receiver wrote on a piece of paper that he wanted to play football again.
Stedman, we don't know if you'll walk again.
But here he is, two-and-a-half years later, attempting the impossible. Bailey perches his legs up on the booth and clasps his hands. What that doctor didn't know, what a neurologist who helped him with a second surgery didn't know, what any NFL team, coach, player or fan who thinks he's borderline insane for even considering playing football again doesn't know, is what serves as Bailey's daily oxygen.
"I have a divine purpose to be here," Bailey says. "You don't just survive those shots and walk around normal.
"I feel like we as people all have specific plans on Earth."
One centimeter to the left, and he's dead. Or brain-dead. Or affected cognitively…to some degree, at least. But mentally, he stayed sharp. He never stopped cracking jokes (albeit on a notepad) with Geno Smith, Kayvon Webster and others in that hospital room. The only reason Bailey couldn't speak was that the tube shoved down his throat to help him breathe during surgery damaged his vocal cords. He soon walked and soon talked, because the fragments of the bullet shell touched his brain but never pierced it.
This essentially was one massive concussion.
Last October, Bailey had a custom titanium plate inserted into his head, and the comeback became real. All those shooters did was make Bailey believe his sole existence is to inspire you. Inspire millions.
"I'm ready to show the world," he says, "that I can't be stopped."
The volume of his voice rises above the electric guitar on the speaker system.
"You've seen dudes come back from ACLs, Achilles, broken bones," Bailey says. "I want to be the one to show people that no matter what you go through, you don't have to let other people define who you are as a person, what you can do as a person—and I can show the world anything is possible.
"I know when I step on the field, there's a 100 percent chance I win Comeback Player of the Year. And then I'll get up on the stage and just blow you away with all that I've been through."
He can't wait to hold that microphone. He knows a lot of inspiring tales have led to that podium…but a dude shot in the head? Unprecedented.
Bailey's personal doctor has cleared him to play, and now he just needs an NFL team to do the same. His fiancee isn't worried. His son isn't worried. Mom isn't worried. Bailey absolutely is not worried.
He sits up straight, leans forward.
He knows exactly why he's still breathing.
"We honestly feel," he says, "like I'm the chosen one to do this."
Beanie on, hood up, the scar is hidden. It's impossible for anyone at the Sports Academy to tell that this is someone who took two bullets to the head.
That's the way Stedman Bailey likes it.
He wants to blend in with the crowd, so there's zero small talk and zero peeking at the March Madness games on TVs above. For two hours straight, the man is a blur. Bailey churns the battle ropes. Bench-presses. Shoulder-shrugs. Turns facedown on an incline bench to crank out one-arm rows with a 60-pound dumbbell.
Drops to a plank for pushups, and one trainer drops massive metal chains onto his back. Bailey coolly cranks out rep after rep after rep and doesn't say a word as the ringing of chains synchronizes with rap blaring over the speakers. He doesn't cheat, either, nearly kissing the floor.
On to more weights. To snaring footballs whistling out of a JUGS machine at 100 mph. To a heated one-on-one game against NFL linebacker Akeem Ayers in which he drills one stepback J, takes him to the rack for a 6-2 lead and tells Ayers' three-year-old son, "Pop's getting dug up!" Oh, Ayers promptly scores six straight points to win and ruthlessly taunts his friend, but Bailey gets a little revenge in the paint during three-on-three.
"You got two of my toes!" yells Ayers, limping out of bounds.
"Well," Bailey says, "in those soft-ass LeBron shoes…"
Here, Bailey is on a warpath to the NFL. Here, he gives himself a 90 percent chance of signing with a team—"or better."
Here, it's easy to believe.
The titanium plate is what made this belief possible. When a plastic surgeon first broached the idea of an implant, he thought implants were only for boob jobs. The surgeon explained that this would be custom-fit for his head and that this was "a game-changer" if Bailey harbored hopes of playing again. The neurologist who assisted wasn't as optimistic an NFL return was possible, but Bailey was willing to try, so on Oct. 20, the doctors re-opened his scar for a six-hour surgery. Very quickly, he again was hurling around 80-pound dumbbells on the bench press like loaves of bread, working religiously with two-time Olympian Nabie Fofanah ("The Speed Doctor") and running a blistering 4.43 in the 40 at Marshall's pro day.
That time would've tied for sixth among 37 wide receivers at this year's NFL combine.
It was a reminder for scouts on site of the baller Bailey was—the one who exploded for 1,622 yards and 25 scores on 114 receptions his final season at West Virginia, was drafted in the third round in 2013 and totaled 843 yards in two-and-a-half years on bad Rams teams.
Yet when Bailey chatted with scouts, they spoke to him like he was an "experiment."
Voices softened into a kindergarten teacher-like tone. Eyes widened. They treated him like a moral victory. Part of Bailey understands. Everyone who meets him expects him to be, you know, off.
What he went through, you're constantly looking for how it affected him. He stalls on the sidewalk outside a restaurant to talk and talk and talk, and you ask yourself, Why? Is he waiting for someone to pick him up? His vision had to be affected by his eyeball popping out, right?
Nope. He can drive. He was simply being friendly. His vision is 20/20.
That's why, mid-one-on-one game, Bailey walks over to say, "See? Just living a normal life." He wants to be treated like any other NFL free agent. Sadly, that's impossible. Even if he morphs himself into the strongest, fastest pound-for-pound player in the NFL, it won't change the reality that no other player in the NFL is playing with a plate in his head.
His hopes spiked recently while texting Rams special teams coordinator John "Bones" Fassel about a return, and he's sure to flex his biceps for all Rams personnel who drop into this gym.
Teams still may not give a damn that his plate is literally stronger than a human skull or if he ran a 4.2 and caught 100 of 100 passes in a tryout.
He needs a miracle.
But Bailey also knows that he is a miracle.
Sitting on an aluminum bench after this workout, it hits him: Blending in won't cut it. There's a divine reason he's here.
So he doesn't agonize over any conversation with a scout or any time in the 40. No, what Bailey took most from his appearance at the Marshall pro day was the fact that Larry Aaron had died. At 19. He stares ahead in a trance, explaining that for weeks he was trying to get in touch with the Marshall defensive lineman. Like Bailey, Aaron was the victim of a shooting that didn't seem to make any sense. At a New Year's Eve party, while shielding his girlfriend, Aaron was hit by a stray bullet. Unlike Bailey, Aaron was left paralyzed from the waist down and then died on Feb. 22
The two never connected. Bailey learned on campus that Aaron had died.
This hit close to home.
"It's like, 'Damn,'" Bailey says. "I think he only took one bullet and here he is. He passed away. Anything could have went differently for me that night."
There's a reason everyone in that SUV survived. Bailey still thinks back to Nov. 24, 2015, and cries tears of joy because even after arriving at Jackson North, things could've gone south.
Reeves was so convinced he was going to die, he left his two kids with a security guard he recognized from 20 years ago and says he started praying to God to forgive him for any sins.
Medics said he only had seven minutes to live and that getting to Aventura's trauma unit via helicopter would take 15 minutes. Which is precisely when someone—to this day, Reeves has no clue who—said he could get Reeves to Aventura in five minutes.
Reeves was bleeding so much that one medic slipped and fell on his blood while loading him into the ambulance.
"Either I was going to die right there in the lobby," Reeves says, "or he was going to save me. … Do you think angels walk the earth? They do. Listen. Trust me."
Reeves got his blood transfusion in time, spent a day in a coma and survived with one bullet still lodged in his spine.
Meanwhile, in a different ambulance, Bailey nearly dozed off for a nap. If medics hadn't shouted, "Stay awake! Stay awake!" he's not so sure he'd be here, either. Further, Bailey has no clue what transpired between that ambulance ride and surgery the next morning.
"Where the f--k was I?" Bailey says. "Was I just in the room or something? Dead?"
Adds Reeves: "Listen, I saw a hole in his head. I could look through his head. It was like something that wasn't real. It was like Hollywood."
There's also a reason he was in Miami to begin with. Bailey was serving a suspension for smoking marijuana and couldn't be around his team in St. Louis. So he was home. So he was shot. Bailey should connect these cruel dots and hold a bitter grudge against the league for punishing players for an act now legal in several states. Or for the rule banning suspended players from the facility. Instead, Bailey repeats on five different occasions that he needed to mature. Needed a wake-up call.
There's a reason he never felt pain. Even in the days, weeks, months after the shooting, Bailey never suffered a blip of PTSD. Unlike Reeves, who kept a gun under his pillow at night and brought it with him to the gas station, to the front porch, to buy a bag of chips, everywhere. And unlike Reeves' kids, who underwent therapy, who were scared every time they stopped at a red light.
There's a reason the shooters picked him. Reeves and Bailey both believe this was gang-related—maybe part of an initiation. The local detective on the case did not return calls from Bleacher Report, but Reeves says a federal investigation is ongoing and that he's heard about a high possibility of "mistaken identity."
There must, Bailey repeats with authority, be a reason for all of this.
So he trains on. One marking on his body—unlike the scar beneath that beanie—is displayed for all to see. Bailey holds out his left forearm to show his third tattoo of Jesus Christ. He got this one yesterday before dinner in Long Beach. Jesus is outstretched on the cross, bleeding—and see where it's unfinished near Bailey's wrist? When this tat is done, Jesus' arm will blend into Bailey's arm. They'll be one and the same.
"Just turn my test," he says, "into a testimony to inspire others."
Does he seek vengeance on his enemies? "Hell yeah," there are days Bailey wants a piece of the people who tried to kill him. But whenever those impulses surface, he can take a look at this crucifix and remember why he's here.
This is where he finds peace and allows himself to dream.
Nearly 3,000 miles away from the shooting.
In Malibu, off the Pacific Coast Highway, near Point Mugu State Park, is a small beach hardly anyone knows about. At least once a week, Bailey and his four-month-old German shepherd, "King," walk to the tip of this beach, to the rocks, and find a safe place to sit, and Bailey stares off at the ocean. Gospel music in his earbuds, he can think, he can cry, he can meditate and be, Bailey says with a laugh, as "weird" as he wants. A close friend who's based in a military camp about 20 minutes away told Bailey about this spot. This is where he's able to reflect on the miracle past and envision the miracle future.
"It's so peaceful," he says. "It's beautiful."
This day, waves crash with thunderous force underneath a sky split into an eerie canvas of what appears to be two completely different worlds. To the left is a blue sky. Tranquil, gorgeous. To the right is a dark sky. Apocalyptic, haunting. As Bailey walks King—King twirling around on his leash in a restless 360—he thinks aloud of the friends he's lost. He never was in the streets himself, but Bailey admits some of his friends were "around certain stuff," so those friends needed to be eliminated from his life. Friends who aren't living the way he's living now or don't believe he can complete this comeback.
"I don't mess with people like that," Bailey says. "I keep people around who are positive."
And then the night of Nov. 24, 2015 briefly flashes in the form of a nightmare. He recalls a few people in the streets telling him that maybe this was no accident, that maybe he was set up. It visibly bothers him that nobody spoke up to police, too. He gets it: Snitching carries consequences, but someone close to Bailey could've steered detectives in the right direction. Bailey feels himself starting to fade…and fade…into that darkness until one sight near the water instantly snaps him out of it.
A harbor seal pup has washed ashore. Nearby, a marine biologist is keeping an eye on the baby as it waits for its mother to return with food. Bailey, a Planet Earth buff, is fascinated and asks the biologist a string of questions before gliding on toward the rocks, back in the right state of mind.
Yes, he could have exacted revenge. He could've applied pressure on people he knows in the streets. Bailey says he wasn't in gangs. But he assures he has the "street cred" to get answers because he's respected. And make no mistake: Bailey feels those urges. Part of him needs to know who tried to kill him. Who wouldn't want revenge on someone who tried to kill them? The anger alone should have Bailey buying a one-way ticket to Miami. But he lets it go. He didn't want to end up in jail himself. Not with a fiancee. Not with a son.
"Whoever those dudes were," he says, "they'll get theirs."
He stares off into that sky—toward the light—and finally rips off that beanie. The scar is revealed, and it stretches from ear to ear. Turns out, Bailey doesn't hide from this at all. He embraces it. He even shaved his head so the scar would be more pronounced. A giant wave nearly douses Bailey, and he doesn't flinch. No, his adrenaline is pumping now.
He hopes the shooters are reading this story, and he hopes they tune in on Sundays this fall.
"Revenge is killing them with success," Bailey says. "You all thought you had me? I'm coming back stronger. So, hey, thank you.
"Here I am."
The dream Bailey imagines this day is his first touchdown back. He'll rip off his helmet, find the nearest camera and point to that scar.
He'll stare his shooters in the face, sure, but he'll also be your inspiration.
"I'm taking my helmet off so everybody can see," Bailey says. "Helmet. Off."
With those words, the rain picks up. It's pouring now. Bailey repeats he cannot be stopped and says he'll write a book one day. Maybe call it Man of Steel. The doctor who cleared him for football even joked that the plate is so strong, Bailey could take another bullet. To which Bailey laughed back: "No! No! No! We don't wanna do that!" And again, he cannot fathom how he took two bullets to the head and never felt a thing.
When people ask, "What did that feel like?" he never has an answer.
He only knows this: There's no reason to let any negativity clog this mind when the mind, he says, "is a powerful thing." So in the parking lot, before driving away, he turns the conversation to a more positive topic, breaking down his marriage proposal ("Smooth, real smooth") in riveting play-by-play. Then he pictures one more scene, one more dream.
He's in an NFL locker room. He's giving the pregame speech. He's making every player in the room want to run through a damn wall.
"The attitude I have," Bailey says, "I would think teams would want me around other guys and help motivate them. I can look at guys now and say: 'Listen, man. The s--t's not hard. I've been shot before. Let's go out here and go get it.' Motivation to where people say: 'You know what, he's f--king right. What can't I do?'"
Until that call comes, however, he only has this.
A beach. An ocean. And dreams.
Dreams that are not yet reality.
Twelve hours later, Bailey stands alone near two weighted sleds at the Sports Academy. There are six 45-pound plates on each one.
He scans the room and yells to no one in particular:
"Get on one of these sleds with me! I need motivation!"
Bailey succeeds in making eye contact with Todd Gurley, shouts, "I was born ready!" and Gurley barks back, "Born ready?" With that, Bailey muscles this sled 20 yards downfield, turns it around, drives it back and proceeds to compete against himself all morning, from clearing hurdles off of two feet to one-legged bounds that accelerate into a sprint to one-legged deadlifts as Nipsey Hussle’s "Last Time That I Checc'd" blares. He bobs his head to the lyrics—Last time that I checked, it was five chains on my neck/It was no smut on my rep—and again does battle with Ayers and Gurley on the basketball court.
Gurley, the reigning NFL Offensive Player of the Year, has a tangible reason to be here. He'll anchor a potential Super Bowl contender. Bailey can only train and train and pray he gets a chance to play the most ruthless sport on Earth with a plate in his head. Millions may be inspired, he's told, but millions will also think he's nuts for even trying this.
For the first—and only—time all week, Bailey gets…testy.
"There's going to be doubters. There's going to be haters. That comes with life," Bailey says. "I'd just tell them: 'Man, you have these doubts. Say what you want. Look at what I've been through. What has stopped me yet?'"
He lets those words hang in the air.
"Crickets. I'm going to keep going, no matter what. No human can tell me, 'You can't do this.'"
Moments later, he calls over NFL safety Maurice Alexander to rehearse his touchdown celebration. Alexander thinks he should crouch low and cross his arms. No, no, that's not it. Bailey pops to his feet and says it needs to be more elaborate than that. He'll arch his back, like so, and strut in a straight line before ripping his helmet off for the camera. "For like five minutes!" he says. "The feeling is going to be phenomenal. They'll be saying, 'Oh, this guy really lost his mind!'"
Bailey rattles off other players who'll be up for Comeback Player of the Year. Odell Beckham Jr. broke his ankle, and J.J. Watt broke his leg, but we've seen players bounce back from all that before.
"Shot in the head?" he says. "Nobody would be living to sit here and talk to you. … I want to make history."
He loves football, sure, but this is bigger than some blind allegiance to the sport. Bailey believes that if he signs with a team, if he scores that touchdown, if he looks into that camera, if he grabs that mic, he will change how millions of people approach every ounce of adversity in their lives. Life "can be a bitch," he says. But what excuses will anyone be able to spew about anything once they've seen a dude on a football field who was shot twice in the head? He says he'll make you maximize "your 24 hours" in a way unimagined. You're down? You're out? Keep Going.
"I want to motivate people around the world," Bailey says. "There's a reason I'm alive.
"This is a movement."
Bailey then pops back to his feet and cannot stop moving while dropping more revelations, one after the other.
The hundreds of messages from strangers on Instagram. He reads them all.
The death of his grandmother. That hurt.
The fact that his dad's been in prison his whole life for "making millions" as a big-time drug dealer. Bailey didn't even meet his father until he was 18 but says there's now a chance the judge who delivered the sentence will re-open the case. Sted needs to be his shining light. It'll be tough for Dad to re-assimilate.
"But your son being the chosen one..." he says, letting his voice trail off.
"Your youngest son can show you how it's done the right way. The positive way."
He keeps repeating the two words: Keep Going. He sees millions repeating them one day—at a "Just Do It" clip—hopefully while sporting the clothing line Bailey has been wearing all week, "Positive Energee," which he created after the shooting.
Bailey rubs his hands together, gives the Sports Academy a panoramic view and vows to build a facility exactly like this back in his drug- and gang- and crime-infested Miami neighborhood. He'll go right back to the scene of the crime, where he was shot, and save lives because so many kids there remind Bailey of himself.
He can't let them catch two bullets in the head.
If they do, they won't be as lucky as he is.
He keeps circling, keeps thinking, keeps nodding his head, and now there's no doubt. This movement is too powerful to fail.
Sted isn't dead, no.
He's just beginning.