FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — Greg Dortch wears a pair of gray rubber bracelets on his right wrist. They remind him of what it took to make it this far — a spot on the New York Jets’ training camp roster — and they inspire him to keep beating the odds.
Dortch is a 5-foot-7 wide receiver who survived a life-threatening football injury and went on to score 19 touchdowns in 20 games at Wake Forest. That alone explains a lot about Dortch’s toughness, determination and skill. The seven-word story on his wrist says the rest.
“PROVE THEM WRONG. I CAN. I WILL.”
“It reminds me to keep a chip on my shoulder,” the rookie said, staring at his bracelets after practice on Tuesday. “Undersized kid. Not heavily recruited coming out of high school. Didn’t get drafted. So big chip on my shoulder. I’m ready to shock the world and to prove to everybody what I’ve got.”
Dortch’s first shot happens Thursday at MetLife Stadium, where the Jets open the preseason against the New York Giants (7 p.m. ET, NFL Network). He figures to get a long look at receiver with the backups, but his best chance of making the 53-man roster will be as the punt returner. Right now, he’s No. 1 on the depth chart.
“The biggest opportunity of my life,” he called it.
Dortch’s history suggests he won’t melt under the spotlight.
Two years ago — Oct. 28, 2017 — he punctured his small intestine in a game against Louisville. He scored a touchdown and landed on the foam pylon in the end zone. He got up slowly, with everybody thinking it was a routine case of a player getting the wind knocked out of him. He finished the game and scored two more touchdowns — a four-TD day in a 42-32 victory over the Lamar Jackson-led Cardinals.
It was the best day of his football life.
And the worst day of his life.
“As soon as the game was over, my adrenaline stopped and I felt everything,” Dortch said. “I told the doctors I need to go to the hospital. They gave me X-rays, MRIs and everything. That’s when they found out I had punctured my small intestine. I had to get surgery that night.”
Dortch told the Wake Forest medical staff there was a “hollow” feeling in his stomach, and that prompted the red flags. His parents already had gathered at a restaurant near the Wake Forest campus, and they were waiting for Greg to arrive for their traditional postgame dinner. This was going to be the best one of them all. After all, how many times does your son score four touchdowns in a game?
When he didn’t show up on time, they figured he was delayed by autograph seekers outside the stadium. Then came the call from the school, saying he was being rushed to the hospital.
“It was beyond scary,” his mother, Loretta Dortch, said in a phone interview. “This is your child. It was a touch-and-go situation, a really serious injury. Had he not told the trainers …”
Her voice trailed off. She didn’t want to contemplate what might have happened if the injury had gone untreated. Looking back, Dortch said the worst part wasn’t the actual injury, but being told he was out for the season. He was off to a fantastic start as a redshirt freshman — nine touchdown catches and three 100-yard receiving games, including a 167-yard receiving day against Louisville.
Now he was done.
Talk about hollow.
For the first time in his life, Dortch didn’t have football. He was obsessed with the game as a youngster, watching old football movies and joining a pee wee league when he was 6. When he was 7, he played quarterback and Audibled out of a play at the line of scrimmage, impressing his coach. He was so good that he sparked a fuss in his local league in Richmond, Virginia, with some coaches arguing that he had to be bumped up a level … even though he was the smallest kid on the field.
“From the time he came out of my belly,” Loretta said, “he’s had a football in his hands. It’s his life.”
Dortch returned to Wake Forest last season and performed so well (89 catches, 1,078 yards and two punt-return touchdowns) that he decided to enter the NFL draft. He was invited to the NFL scouting combine, but didn’t get drafted because of his size. If he makes the Jets’ roster, he will be one of the shortest players in team history. Look around the league, though, and you will find a handful of diminutive standouts.
“I don’t feel like I play to my size,” Dortch said. “I play bigger than what I am. I’ve heard a lot of people say that. There are a lot of big guys out there. You have to show up every day and show them you belong. You have to be tough. You have to play with a chip on your shoulder and play with that grit on every play.”
Dortch received several free-agent offers, but he picked the Jets because he knew there would be an opportunity as a punt returner. They let Andre Roberts, their All-Pro return specialist, walk away as a free agent, leaving a gaping hole. Dortch considers himself “a natural” because of his ball-catching skills — he attributes that to his days as an outfielder and shortstop — and insane quickness.
In college, his family liked to say he “Dortched” would-be tacklers. In fact, his mother made up T-shirts that said: “You Got Dortched!”
“I’m not one to brag on myself,” Greg said, “but if you watch the film, you’ll see.”
The Jets like what they see, especially on punts.
“He looks like a center fielder, getting under that thing,” coach Adam Gase said. “He catches it smooth. He’s fearless. Just watching his college tape, he’s a guy that we watched and when he didn’t get drafted it was ideal for us. He kind of fits into what we do, and his return ability is something we were interested in. Just watching him play in college as a wide receiver, he’s not afraid to go over the middle. He took a lot of shots in college and that doesn’t bother him.”
Dortch’s toughness is well-documented. Now his job is to show his explosiveness to the Jets’ decision-makers and the cynics who question whether a 5-foot-7, 173-pound player can survive in a land of giants. He has a chance to prove them wrong.
He can. He will not flinch.