How tragedy, triumph and the Andersons got Omar Bayless his chance with the Panthers

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Go find highlights from Omar Bayless’ senior season at Arkansas State.

Go ahead. Look.

If you need a game in particular, check out the season-opener against SMU. It will be worth it.

You’ll see one-handed touchdown grabs, bursts downfield and moves in the open field that result in multiple defenders looking foolish with their missed tackles while Bayless squeaks past them to yet another touchdown.

It’s not just his highlights from his final college season that are flashy. After just one 100-yard receiving game in his previous three seasons, Bayless had eight in 2019 — the most by any player in a season at Arkansas State or the Sun Belt Conference.

All of that by a player who contemplated quitting football and school multiple times after going through unspeakable tragedy.

“I feel like (my senior year) was a dedication season to all the people that I did lose,” said Bayless, who was one of 17 undrafted free agents signed by the Panthers this week. “And (it was) also for me, because if I wouldn’t have come back, none of this would have ever happened. I would have never been a Carolina Panther.”

Growing up in Laurel, Mississippi, football was always Bayless’ first love. He was a natural, playing in backyards or the parks, but he stopped playing organized football when he got to high school, turning his attention to basketball. His friends, however, convinced him return to football his junior season, and as senior, he broke out, tallying 70 receptions for 1,442 yards and 18 touchdowns — helping Laurel High win a state title.

Bayless could have played basketball in college — he had offers from multiple Sun Belt schools — but ended up sticking with football because it was what he loved most.

He received significant interest from Gary Pinkel’s staff at Missouri, but that dissipated weeks before National Signing Day due to a change in coaches. Then Arkansas State head coach Blake Anderson got involved.

“I actually returned him personally, we found him late in the process due to a friend of mine that was at an SEC school that was recruiting him, but wasn’t going to be able to offer him and told us about him kind of late in the process. I just immediately liked his personality and met his mom as well, I really liked her,” Anderson told the Observer in a phone interview. “(We) didn’t get to see a lot of football from him, really just saw him play basketball and thought he had great ball skills and was just really athletic and, as you can see, he’s got a good frame to him. He was just a guy that really elevated and played above the rim, which I’ve always thought was a great skill for a wideout.”

Bayless went on a one-week visit to Arkansas State, arriving on a Monday. The only requirement was that he was back in Mississippi in time for his basketball game Friday night. The recruitment process was quick and simple, and the people he met on his visit to Jonesboro were a large part of the appeal for the wide receiver.

Anderson never got to watch Bayless play football in person before extending an offer, but was impressed by what he did on the basketball court and on film. Multiple-sport athletes are always a positive anyway, Anderson said.


After redshirting as a freshman, Bayless showed improvement each season. Part of that increase in his development came from taking the time to learn how to develop.

“I think it benefited him (to redshirt) as much as anybody that I’ve ever seen. He’s very confident in his ability, but he’s not a cocky, loud-mouth guy and he just quietly went about his business,” Anderson said. “A lot of the time that he was here, the media, and even the NFL folks, were talking about other people on the roster. And he was just going to use it as motivation, but he didn’t say a whole lot. He just kind of let his work ethic and his game speak for him.”

While his performance was getting better, including going from one touchdown his first season to six the next, Bayless experienced significant loss heading into his third season in 2018. Between April and August, an uncle, cousin and two high school friends died. Despite all that, he still managed to put together his best year yet, recording 39 catches for 566 yards and two touchdowns.

But once the season was over and he was back in Laurel, Bayless said he seriously contemplated not finishing school and staying home. It wasn’t the first time he had expressed those feelings. Family is important to him. He was raised by many women, from grandmas to aunties, and they were always there for him during his time of need.

Staying home and helping them was the comforting choice.

“I was kind of like in a dark place with all this stuff going on, I was confused, I didn’t know what to do,” Bayless said. “I’m thinking if I can go back home and I can just be around my family, but at the same time, if I do quit, I’m really not changing anything, because you can’t change death, you can’t bring those people back to life. Me and (Anderson) sat down and had a heart-to-heart talk and I told him I was going to come back. I was so close to graduating, too, and he was like, ‘why would you put all that time in with all that school work … at least come back and get your degree.’ “

After that meeting, Bayless never again mentioned leaving the program or quitting school. He got his degree in spring 2019 — the first person in his family to do so (Anderson said he would have gone down to Mississippi to bring him back to Arkansas if he had to).

Bayless and Anderson have a unique relationship. Anderson calls him “family.” Bayless says they are like “father-son,” butting heads at times, too. What helped strengthen their relationship was when Bayless spent significant time with Anderson’s family — his kids and wife, Wendy, who passed away from her battle with breast cancer on August 19, 2019.

“(Bayless) was a guy that if I’d have the players over to the house to eat, he would be the guy who would still be there at the end, cleaning up. He was the guy that came by and spent an hour to sit and talk with my wife when she was coming out of chemo treatment,” Anderson said “He’d be the guy just comes to my office and prop his feet up, but didn’t have anything to talk about, just wanted to hang out.”

And it was Wendy’s encouragement that played a large part in him deciding to finish his college career.

“(Wendy’s) last time that she was able to come to a practice was in the spring, before she really became bedridden, and there was a video of the two of them sitting on the side of the hill after a scrimmage, just sitting there talking and player after player coming up saying hello to her, but they just sit there have a conversation. About what? I don’t know; they’re both laughing,” Anderson said. “It’s probably one of the most enjoyable times that she had towards the end of this fight and it just was a very genuine, he didn’t want anything out of it. She didn’t, either, they just cared about each other.”

Bayless’ senior season was dedicated to her and those he lost, including friend Justin Mack, 26, who was shot to death in Waynesboro, Mississippi, about a week after Wendy passed. That game against SMU? It was the same day as Mack’s funeral.

The Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year went on to finish with the second-most receiving yards in the country in 2019 (1,653) and the third-most receiving touchdowns (17) — both conference records. He averaged 127.2 receiving yards per game, the most in the country, and had a pair of blocked kicks (tied for second-most). And that was with the Red Wolves losing their starting quarterback in Week 3 and a walk-on freshman taking over the job.


Bayless isn’t the fastest player — he ran a 4.62-second 40-yard dash at the NFL combine. He’s not the biggest, either, at 6-foot-1, 212 pounds. But the Panthers showed a lot of interest in him throughout the pre-draft process, especially wide receivers coach Frisman Jackson. After being disappointed by not being drafted, Bayless had his choice of NFL teams to join as an undrafted free agent.

“(Jackson said) ‘you got an opportunity to prove yourself with a new coaching staff,’ and I just felt like it was the right place to go, for me to get the opportunity to showcase what I can do,” Bayless said. “That’s what I did. I told him I want to be Carolina Panther.”

He’ll face stiff competition for a roster spot. Anderson referred to him as the best practice player Arkansas State has had since he took over in late 2013 and feels he’ll fit well in Joe Brady’s new offense. The Panthers’ defense-only draft left room for more undrafted players to make the team on offense. So far, Carolina has only brought in one other undrafted receiver (TreVontae Hights from TCU), but does have 10 other wide receivers on the roster. Still, Bayless will get a shot, even with a reduced offseason due to COVID-19.

“After all he’s been through, and coming so close to his career being cut short, and all the adversity that we’ve been through together, it would mean the world (to see him play in the NFL). I’ll watch and be his biggest fan and pull for him,” Anderson said. “I just want him to get the true opportunity, because I know that he’ll make the most of it and that’s what makes you proud, he appreciates it.

“You see guys that are great athletes that don’t truly respect it or appreciate it. He’s not the best athlete in the room, he’s just one of those guys that you gotta have.”


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