Despite growing up in a home built on a foundation of faith, Juwann Winfree arrived at the University of Maryland in the fall of a 2014 without much faith of his own.
“I didn’t really believe in God,” Winfree said this week. “My mom has always been a big believer and my family has always been big believers. I wasn’t a big believer.”
One of his teammates at Maryland, receiver Stefon Diggs, who is now a star with the Minnesota Vikings, told Winfree, “That’s because you haven’t gone through anything yet.”
Nearly five years later, Winfree’s been through a myriad of trials that have changed his life, built his faith in God and taken him to the doorstep of his lifetime dream. On April 27, Winfree, who spent his final three years of college at Colorado, was selected in the sixth round of the NFL Draft – 187th overall – by the Denver Broncos.
“When I got that call, it was crazy,” Winfree said. “I was expecting them to say, ‘We don’t know if we’re going to draft you, but (we’ll sign you in) free agency.’ That’s what I was kind of expecting and then they pulled the trigger and it felt real good.”
Physically, Winfree has NFL tools, with a 6-foot-1, 210-pound frame, 4.5-second speed in the 40-yard dash and exceptional skills on the field.
He’s also had the NFL in his sights for years.
As a senior at Dwight Morrow High School in New Jersey, Winfree was a four-star recruit with more than 20 scholarship offers, including from Georgia, Michigan, South Carolina and West Virginia.
“Growing up, I wanted to be three years and out – go three years (to school) and declare for the NFL,” Winfree said.
With star potential, it was no surprise that Winfree played as a true freshman at Maryland, catching 11 passes for 158 yards and two touchdowns.
That clear path to the NFL was soon filled with faith-building bumps, however.
Winfree was suspended for two games late in the 2014 season for violating the team’s student-athlete code of conduct. In June of 2015, he was suspended again and eventually dismissed from the team.
“I was 17 years old, fresh out of high school,” he said. “I was real young-minded. I didn’t know what it takes. (Getting into trouble) helped me realize what’s at stake, what I’m messing around with. You can’t take anything for granted.”
Winfree played the 2015 season at Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College, catching 55 passes for 837 yards and seven touchdowns, and then signed with CU.
Leading up to the 2016 season with the Buffs, Winfree was dynamic in workouts – until a season-ending knee injury two weeks before the opening game.
In 2017, Winfree was healthy, but then-head coach Mike MacIntyre’s loyalty to the Buffs’ senior trio of receivers (Bryce Bobo, Shay Fields and Devin Ross) kept Winfree on the bench much of the year. He finished with 21 catches for 325 yards and two scores.
Eyeing a breakout season in 2018, Winfree suffered an ankle injury in Week 2 that sidelined him for more than a month. He played well down the stretch, but finished with just 28 catches for 324 yards and two touchdowns.
Instead of three-and-out, Winfree spent five seasons in college and never put up star-caliber numbers.
Leading up to the draft, Winfree’s agent, Mike McCartney, sold the Broncos and other teams on the receiver’s perseverance through trials.
“I think he’s a diamond in the rough and all he has to do is stay healthy,” McCartney said. “That’s what I kept trying to tell people.”
It wasn’t the trials that defined Winfree, however. It’s how he allowed them to shape him into a better player and a better person.
“I’m thankful for that downfall because it helped me become who I am today,” Winfree said. “It helped me meet a lot of great people and build a lot of great bonds on my journey coming here.”
Despite never having the big-time numbers, Winfree was a model citizen at CU and was voted a team captain last year because of his strong work ethic, leadership and his now strong faith in God.
“As I started going through all these things, I started relying on God heavily,” he said. “You always question why some things happen to you, but it’s just God trying to teach you things and you can’t question His actions and His doings. I just learned to rely on my faith in Him.”
Winfree’s three years at Colorado played a key role in developing his faith and character.
“I loved my experience there at Colorado,” he said. “Things didn’t go all the way I planned, but I’m super thankful. I got to play Division I football there, play in the Pac-12 Conference. I got to play with some awesome teammates, and I got my degree. I made a lot of memories and met a lot of great people there.”
McCartney said he is “100 percent” confident Winfree would have been drafted by another team if the Broncos didn’t take him. Winfree actually thought he might be reunited with Diggs in Minnesota, because the Vikings showed a lot of interest.
Now, Winfree gets to rejoin former CU teammate Phillip Lindsay, a McCartney client who went undrafted last year and then made the Pro Bowl as an undrafted rookie running back with the Broncos.
Can Winfree write a Lindsay-type of success story? McCartney won’t put it past him.
“I know a lot of people at Colorado and I’ve been around the program since 1982,” said McCartney, whose father, Bill, coached the Buffs from 1982-94. “Having talked to everybody, they rave about (Winfree’s) character. As I’ve gotten to know him, he does have a great work ethic and he might love football more than anybody I represent.
“I’m just real excited that some teams saw (the potential). And, look, it’s just a starting point. He’s got to go do it now for them, but I have a lot of confidence that Juwann Winfree has barely scratched the surface of how good he can be.”
Winfree didn’t achieve his three-and-out dream, but he wound up earning his degree – which was mom’s goal all along – and maintained his focus on a pro career. He will report for Broncos mini-camp this week, and he might be more physically, mentally and spiritually prepared now more than ever.
“This has been my lifelong dream and I’ve just reached the footsteps of it,” he said. “I have a lot people depending on me, a lot of people watching me and looking up to me. My goals are not going to be set short just because I went the sixth round. I want to help my team get to the Super Bowl and I want to make myself a top receiver in the league. I’m confident I can become that guy.
“I’m really excited about the opportunity. I’m going to be at my best, for sure, when I get there.”