By: Will Burchfield
@burchie_kid

Rod Carey never stopped coaching Kenny Golladay.

He coached him at Northern Illinois in 2015 and 2016, when the receiver had consecutive 1,000-yard seasons, and he coached him through his first batch of adversity in the NFL earlier this year, when Golladay missed five games with a hamstring injury.

As Golladay’s absence extended from September into November, Carey sent him some tough love that helped the rookie get back on the field.

“We were texting back and forth,” Carey said on Wednesday at a press conference in Allen Park ahead of his team’s appearance in the Quick Lane Bowl at Ford Field. “It was probably encouragement and also coaching encouragement, if you get my drift right there: ‘Get back on the field. Let’s go.'”

Golladay had a sizzling NFL debut in the season opener, and fans were clamoring for his return when he went down in Week 3. But as the games passed by and Golladay remained on the sidelines, that excitement turned to frustration. A hamstring injury can seem minor, ordinary. A six-week absence can seem excessive.

Truth is, Golladay was doing all he could to get back on the field. Carey knows he would have played if he could.

“It wasn’t a situation where I was like, ‘Hey, what are you doing?’ It was, ‘Hey, you’re in the NFL,'” said Carey, highlighting the opportunity on hand. “He knew it, and he was struggling with it, too. It was just encouragement of, ‘Hey, get right and get back on that field.’ Kenny’s always real receptive to those things.”

Golladay and Carey had a close relationship at Northern Illinois. Carey had taken Golladay in as a transfer from North Dakota and he’d later play an instrumental role in his draft process. They hung out often in Carey’s office, talking about everything from football to life.

“I’d go to him about whatever,” Golladay said.

So whenever Carey reached out earlier this year, urging Golladay to stay on task, the youngster listened.

“Just telling me to continue to work (the way) he knows I know how. I got those texts from him a lot,” Golladay said. “It was great hearing back from an old coach, someone who knows how much work I put in to be in the situation I am now.”

Golladay returned to the field in Week 9, and hasn’t missed much of a beat. He has eight catches for 221 yards in the Lions’ last four games and leads all rookies this season in receptions (4) of at least 40 yards. That’s despite missing a large chunk of the season.

The Lions’ third-round pick is emerging as a legitimate deep threat in the NFL, and Carey isn’t surprised.

“No, not given his ability. I’m happy for him at the same time. I know it took a lot of work. He’s one of those kids that’s just a blue-collar Chicago kid, and it fits in really well with Detroit and the blue-collar attitude that is up here with Coach (Jim) Caldwell and the team,” said Carey. “He’s a worker.”

Golladay and Carey got together on Wednesday, and Golladay said he still keeps up with a number of his former teammates. Of course, they’re just as eager to keep up with him.

Asked if he ever shows his players any of Golladay’s highlights, such as his diving touchdown catch in Week 1, Carey laughed and said, “I don’t have to show them, they show me. They come up to me, ‘Did you see what Kenny did!’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, I saw.'”

But don’t think Golladay has gotten comfortable. And don’t think he’s forgotten about the time he missed. Rookies tend to slow down at this point in the season, but Golladay’s ready to step on the gas.

“I actually talked to my receiver coach about that, RP (Robert Prince),” said Golladay. “I’m still hungry, man. I missed five games. I feel like I still have a lot to prove.”

Prince and Carey would likely agree: Golladay has all the tools he needs.

“I’ve never coached in the NFL, but I know what he did for us,” said Carey. “I think when you have that combo of size and speed — and you have to get let lucky and stay healthy — he can have a great career.”

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