The arrival of Kwamie Lassiter II in Cincinnati this week for Bengals rookie camp marked his first visit to Paul Brown Stadium, but for the former Kansas wide receiver and so many of those in his orbit, there is a heavy feel of déjà vu.
“Like history repeating itself,” is how he puts it.
And it’s a feeling he hopes continues well into the fall and beyond, as a lineage of legacy. Lassiter II’s father — and namesake — also played at Kansas, where he starred as a safety. And Kwamie Lassiter Sr. also entered the league as an undrafted college free agent before turning the opportunity into a 10-year NFL career and a spot in the NFL record book as the fourth player of the Super Bowl era to intercept four passes in a game.
The only thing that would thrill Lassiter II more than following in his father’s footsteps would be to walk alongside him instead. But Lassiter Sr. won’t be there to talk his son through his first training camp, or any other trials life might drop at his feet.
Lassiter Sr. passed away suddenly on Jan. 6, 2019, after suffering a heart attack while exercising. Lassiter II and his younger brother Kwinton, who plays cornerback for the Jayhawks, were just about to go to the gym and meet their dad for a workout when they got the call.
“I feel like that was a sign,” Lassiter II said. “We weren’t supposed to be there to see that. It’s not something you ever want to go through, but it comes with life.”
Lassiter Sr. was just 49. Kwamie was two weeks shy of his 21st birthday, the first of many milestones without his dad.
Shortly after the funeral, Lassiter II returned to campus to meet new head coach Les Miles and his assistants. And an instant bond sealed between the grieving player and his new position coach, Emmett Jones.
“I was aware of what had happened to his father, but it wasn’t something I set out to do, to try to fill that void,” said Jones, who left Kansas in December to return to Texas Tech as receivers coach.
“It just kind of came naturally,” Jones added. “That’s the inner-city head coach in me, where you just dive deep into your players’ lives. I wanted to make sure he was at ease with me, and I wanted to check his temperature and make sure he was OK with everything. And the bond just grew and grew and grew and before you knew it, it was like stepfather to son, big brother to little brother, uncle to nephew.”
It wasn’t long before Lassiter II felt like his father was speaking to him through Jones. Even though Lassiter II was one of the best players on the team, Jones pushed him endlessly, demanding more with each meeting, practice and game.
“Some days he thought I was his worst enemy,” Jones said.
“He keeps it so real, and that’s just how my dad was,” Lassiter II said. “Like, it could hurt your feelings, but it’s the truth. And that’s what I needed in my life. I’ve got a lot of love for him. He’s more than a coach. He’s a mentor. I look up to him and the person he is and how he carries himself.”
Lassiter II’s production grew every year he worked with Jones, as he set career highs in catches and receiving yards in 2019, 2020 and again in 2021, with 59 receptions for 653 yards and three touchdowns.
He had the second 100-yard game of his career against a 7-0 Oklahoma team, hauling in seven catches for 101 yards. A few weeks later, Lassiter II had eight receptions for 101 yards against West Virginia in a near-upset of TCU.
What the 5-foot-10, 185-pounder lacks in size, he makes up for with speed. Lassiter II ran a 4.5 40-yard dash at his pro day. His 20-yard split of 2.51 ranked 9.8 out of 10 on Kent Lee Platte’s Relative Athletic Score site.
But the key to making the Bengals roster may have more to do with catching punts than passers. Lassiter II walks into a wide-open competition for the job after the team moved on from Darius Phillips following his two-fumble game against the 49ers in December.
That opportunity was the biggest reason Lassiter II elected to sign with the Bengals after going undrafted. That, and the connection to Bengals special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons, who also played at Kansas and was a teammate of the elder Lassiter.
“This one really hits me right in the face,” Simmons said, noting this will be the first time he’s ever coached the son of a former teammate.
Lassiter Sr. was still playing in the NFL when Simmons began his coaching career, and they faced each other in 2001 and 2002 when Lassiter was with the Cardinals and Simmons was the assistant special teams coordinator for the Panthers. So Simmons was well aware of Lassiter II long before the Bengals started doing work on this year’s draft-eligible players.
“I still watch a lot of Kansas games, and when a name like ‘Lassiter’ comes up, it piques an interest in me,” Simmons said. “There’s a lineage there of being able to play in this league and be able to overcome odds and obstacles. I know the DNA he has. I had a ton of respect for his dad.”
And an unfortunate link to the loss. The 49-year-old Simmons lost his father last July just as training camp started. Gary Simmons was 71, and cancer robbed him of seeing his son coach in his first Super Bowl. So Simmons understands the conflicting emotions Lassiter II is sure to deal with over the next few months as he chases his dream.
“I know what that kid’s been through over the last two years in losing his dad,” Simmons said. “It was such a terrible thing. It’s a tough deal, all the adversity he’s had to fight through with that. So I know this kid is gonna have toughness because I know what his dad was all about.”
The Bengals expected to find receiver depth in the draft and, ideally, someone with return experience. But in trading up in the second and fifth rounds, they dealt away two picks, at least one of which likely would have gone toward that objective.
Lassiter had 30 punt returns during his five seasons at Kansas, with 2021 being his most productive year with a 13.5-yard average.
“I knew when I started this whole draft process that special teams was the way I was going to get on the field,” Lassiter II said. “I love returning punts. It’s just another opportunity with the ball in your hands. It’s really exciting to know that job is open. I’m ready to get up there and show them what I can do.”
One of the players Lassiter II will be battling for the punt return job is his former Kansas teammate, Pooka Williams. Former teammate Hakeem Adeniji also is on the roster.
At Kansas, a lack of NFL talent and victories have gone hand in hand for the last few decades, which is something Williams brought up when Lassiter reached out to him about coming to Cincinnati.
“They said I was gonna like it (in Cincinnati),” Lassiter II said. “Let’s put it like this, at Kansas, we didn’t win a lot. So they’re having fun, I’ll say that.”
While Williams and Adeniji were giving Lassiter II the lowdown on what to expect in Cincinnati, Jones offered up what the Bengals can expect from their newest receiver.
“He understands manipulation, how to control a defensive back when it comes to route-running,” Jones said. “He can make every route look the same from the initial stem. He can get the DB to open up any way he wants to. He’s really sharp when it comes to that. I don’t see any problem with him getting off the line, getting open, getting in and out of his routes. He’s a strong perimeter blocker, too.
“They may have stolen one by plucking him in the free agency pool,” Jones continued. “Once they get him out there, they’re gonna see exactly the traits that make him special.”
Adding to the fit is what Lassiter II brings off the field. Head coach Zac Taylor and the rest of the Bengals staff have been preaching culture and character since they arrived, focusing on players who truly love football and everything about the process.
“He’s gonna model everything that organization is about, everything they’re trying to demonstrate from a philosophy standpoint and identity standpoint,” Jones said. “He’s a true student of the game. You can tell he has that DNA from his pops.
“He’s going to be the first one in line when it’s time for drills. He’s going to sit in the front of the meeting room. He’s gonna pick up the new concepts faster than anybody else. Anything new, any adjustment, he’s going to pick it up the first time he sees it.”
From that front-row seat in the meeting room, Lassiter II spent months getting familiar with his future team’s route concepts, as Jones often would put on Bengals film for his young receivers.
Jones got familiar with Ja’Marr Chase while trying to recruit him at Texas Tech during the Kliff Kingsbury era, and he said the Bengals offense is the go-to teaching tape.
“Anybody that reminds me of some of the stuff we did at Texas Tech with Kliff, I tend to follow those guys,” Jones said. “If I study a team and those same concepts are always popping up, that’s something I’m going to add to my arsenal.”
Lassiter II will get a chance to meet the receivers he watched so often on film next week when the Bengals move into the next phase of OTAs with on-field work. But first, he’ll get a chance to ease into NFL life at the truncated, one-day rookie camp.
He’ll be focused on learning the offense and improving his punt-catching technique, but he’ll also take some time to think about his dad. And even though Lassiter Sr. can’t deliver the words, Lassiter II knows how proud he would be to see him in an NFL jersey.
“I never played football to make my dad proud,” Lassiter II said. “Honestly, I play football for myself. I have a true love for the game. I could play piano or something else, and he’d be just as proud.”
But while other options existed, it always felt preordained that it would be football. And the Bengals could be the beneficiaries.
“I believe in fate. I believe in destiny,” Jones said. “I’m a true believer of everything in life happens for a reason and your plan is pretty much written for you the day you touch down on this Earth. The man upstairs has everything in store for you. You just need to walk the path that he created for you, and Kwamie is doing that. He’s going to walk that same path as his dad.”
(Top photo of Kwamie Lassiter II: Jaylynn Nash / USA Today)