Updated August 1, 2022 - 4:19 pm
The wake-up call occurred in 2020, or not long after the Raiders released him and decided against re-signing him to the practice squad as they had done the year before.
For the first time Lester Cotton could remember, he no longer had football to lean on.
In some ways, Cotton only had himself to blame. His life wasn’t where he wanted it to be. Nor was his body or his spirit. He needed to make changes — and fast.
The decisions he made carved out a path back to football and led to the same Raiders team that had lost faith in him in the summer of 2020. Two years later, he is in the running for the starting right guard position.
“We’re not quite there yet,” he said on Monday, tempering things a bit.
Cotton is asserting himself for all the right reasons. He has earned praise, everyone from quarterback Derek Carr to coach Josh McDaniels.
“I’m so proud of Lester,” said Carr.
Especially given his path, which includes the conversation the former Alabama standout had with himself in 2020 when he came to a life-altering conclusion. Or as he explained on Monday: “I had to get out of my own way.”
“I got closer to God,” Cotton said. “I really had to lean on Him. I had to put my faith first, in Him. It led the way for me. I kind of like, stopped trying to go my own route and started going the route He was giving me.”
The results were immediate.
“Stuff just started happening and falling in place for me,” Cotton said.
Cotton got serious about his diet, lifestyle and conditioning. He turned bad weight into muscle. His stamina and strength improved. So too did his focus and diligence.
The Raiders, impressed by the changes, brought him back in 2021. He didn’t make the team out of training camp, but unlike the year before they signed him back to the practice squad.
Cotton spent all season with the club and appeared in four games, including the Raiders’ overtime victory over the Chargers in which they punched their ticket to the playoffs. The experience set the stage for an even more dedicated offseason in which he opened all sorts of eyes and, ultimately, earned a team award for his work in the weight room.
Cotton isn’t taking anything for granted, recognizing there is still a long way to go before the season opener. His focus is to continue his path with the hope it leads to a starting job.
“It would be an honor,” Cotton said.
For many of his teammates, it would be a just reward for all of his hard work.
“From day one he stepped in. He’s always kind of had that want to, that dog about him,” said Brandon Parker, who has been getting most of the snaps at right tackle. “He kind of had to shape up a little bit. He was much bigger when he came in, but he’s kind of dedicated himself again. And we expect the same mentality from him on the field and he’s been stepping in right away.”
That includes Carr, who recalls one of his first meetings with Cotton resulting in the then-rookie asking: “What do I need to do to be your starting guard.”
“That’s what he asked me,” Carr said. “And I was like, ‘what a question.’”
The advice Carr gave him: “Keep working your butt off.”
Carr sought out Cotton recently in the players’ parking lot to give him his props.
“I said, ‘Lester, I’m so proud of you.’” Carr said. “Because through the cuts, through the resigns, through the this and that, new schemes, you have done nothing but put your head down. …
“You’ve worked your butt off and now you are getting reps and all these things. And I said, ‘you look good man. You’re doing some good things.’”