By Jaylon Thompson / The Alliance
ATLANTA – In front of 122 friends and family members, Atlanta Legends cornerback Carlos Merritt took a deep breath.
As he stepped onto the field, he closed his eyes and smiled. A gentle calmness overcame his body as he faded back to his childhood dream.
See Merritt and the Atlanta Legends face the Arizona Hotshots on this Sunday, March 3, at 8 p.m. ET (6 p.m. local) at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe. The game can be seen on the NFL Network. Tickets to all Legends games are available here.
Merritt replayed the years working towards this moment. The days in the backyard prepared him for this opportunity.
On Sunday against the Birmingham Iron, Merritt finally got his chance. He took the field in his comfort zone as he was finally a professional athlete at home.
“I felt very comfortable and different than I felt during pregame,” Merritt said. “Being back at home was an awe. It was really comfortable.”
In his home debut, Merritt wowed the 10,717 supporters in attendance. He had two tackles, an interception, two pass breakups and a forced fumble against the Iron.
His play impressed the coaching staff. This season, he’s earned more playing time and is ranked second in The Alliance in interceptions.
“They were so excited and happy for me,” Merritt said. “I am from Atlanta and it was crazy. The love I got was great and I am glad I was able to create that moment for them.”
The moment almost didn’t happen. In the offseason, Merritt was on the street looking for a job after suffering a left wrist injury.
Things weren’t good. After the Legends released him from minicamp, he was contemplating season-ending surgery.
Merritt was at a crossroads in his career.
“I was thinking I was going to need to have surgery,” Merritt said. “I definitely didn’t think I was going to make it back by this year.”
In his dark times, he remembered his dream. He wanted to be a professional athlete and vowed to fight for his chance.
So, he prayed about his injury and got a second opinion. He was fortunate as good news was bestowed upon him.
“I got it looked at and was cleared to play football again,” Merritt said.
Upon being cleared, Merritt got back in contact with the Legends. Legends general manager Billy Devaney and head coach Kevin Coyle monitored the entire process. They got his medical records and decided to bring him back.
“There was a question of his medical clearance at the time,” Coyle said. “We had to go through the proper protocol for that. He saw some additional doctors and was cleared to participate. We were in constant communication as he was a guy we really liked.”
Weeks later, Merritt showed up at training camp in San Antonio. He made quick strides and earned a spot on the 52-man roster.
Now, he is making a name as a nickel cornerback. It’s been a long road, but one that has paid dividends in the end.
“I am glad I went through it because it made me stronger,” Merritt said.
Merritt’s interception added another chapter in his story. He is establishing himself as a true ball-hawk in the Legends secondary.
He relies on his mental ability to understand opposing quarterbacks on the field. Against the Iron, he recognized their offensive schemes thanks to the immense work he put in at practice.
“I automatically knew where the next receiver was coming from in my area,” Merritt said. “I quickly turned around and saw the opposing receiver. I went to drive the route and the quarterback overthrew the ball.”
Merritt credited his success to being studious in the classroom. He understands different route concepts and that allowed him to be in a position to make a play.
“Defensive backs live on tipped balls and overthrows,” Merritt said. “I made the play on it and I was glad I could get us down in the red zone.”
The Legends hope Merritt can continue making plays this season. He has excelled at every level since starring at Langston Hughes High School in Atlanta.
Now, it’s his time to shine and the team knows he will make the most of it.
“Carlos is one of those guys that wasn’t in an NFL camp,” Coyle said. “This is a new experience for him and he is getting better and learning every day. We got to keep pushing him to be 100 percent correct in everything he does.”
Merritt agrees. He said it’s all about improving one day at a time.
“It’s been a true process, journey and test of faith,” Merritt said. “This has been great to go through it like this. The journey means more and makes the story a lot bigger. I have been enjoying the ride.”
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Jaylon Thompson covers the Atlanta Legends for The Alliance of American Football. Follow him on Twitter @JaylonThompson.