By Billy Watkins
One of coach Ricky Woods’ seven state championships occurred in 2015 with Starkville High School. His best two players that year, wide receiver A.J. Brown and linebacker Willie Gay — will face off Sunday in Super Bowl 57 in Glendale, Ariz.
I asked Woods to tell me a story about each one that might explain how elite they were in high school. Both stood over 6-foot and weighed right at 200 pounds.
Woods started with Brown, who set the Philadelphia Eagles’ single-season record this season for receiving yards (1,496). He caught 88 passes and scored 11 touchdowns.
“We had a drill we did every day at practice where the receivers had to catch 20 passes. They did pushups for every one they missed,” recalled Woods, who took over at Starkville when Brown was a senior and Gay was a junior. “The receivers were going against different coverages, and the route changed according to the coverage.
“To my knowledge, A.J. did not drop a single pass in that drill the entire year — and I’ll bet he caught half of them with one hand.”
Now about Gay: “He’s the only player I’ve ever had who could’ve played all 22 positions on the field. He would’ve been a great lineman, receiver, quarterback, cornerback.
“Going into the playoffs that next year after A.J. had graduated, we were struggling on offense. So I asked Willie about moving to quarterback. He said, ‘Whatever you need me to do,’ ”
Against Warren Central, Gay rushed 40 times for 325 yards and five touchdowns to lead the Yellow Jackets to a 35-28 victory. The next week, against Clinton and star running back Cam Akers, Gay ran for 249 yards and four touchdowns. Starkville fell just short, 35-28.
“It was amazing to have both of them on the same team,” Woods said. “A.J. and Willie were not only our best players, they were our hardest workers. They developed the chemistry of that team. The other players liked them, and they fell in line right behind them.
“I remember after one game, A.J. only had two catches that night, but he was celebrating the win. I mentioned to one of my coaches, ‘He’s exactly the same as he was last week after he caught 15 passes.’ He just wanted to win. And Willie was the same way.
“I never had one ounce of trouble out of either one of them.”
Both showed out in that the 2015 state title game victory over Petal, 27-7 in Oxford. Brown had 10 receptions for 117 yards and a touchdown and broke the school record for catches in a season (83).
Gay had a sack and two tackles for loss. Petal managed only 219 yards total offense.
“Willie had a sack on their first possession and that really set the tone for our defense that night,” Woods said.
It is sometimes easy to forget just how good NFL players are. Woods, who retired after last season, has coached — and coached against — some of the best football talent in Mississippi for decades. He puts Brown and Gay in a category with only one other person — Derek Pegues, who he coached at South Panola.
“Willie always had that nervous energy before a game and it carried over onto the field,” Woods said. “I think that really got our defense going. He was just so fast (4.46 at the NFL Combine) that you just couldn’t run away from him.
“And there wasn’t anybody who could cover A.J. Brown,” Woods said. “We had a good rushing game that year, mainly because most teams were putting three people on A.J. He was still catching balls. And when he wasn’t, he was making it possible for other guys to perform.
“I remember one night against Madison Central, I put A.J. in the slot and Madison Central trotted three guys over there to cover him. A.J. ran a flag route, or a corner route some people call it. The outside receiver ran a slant and go, and there was not a defender around him. Touchdown.”
Woods laughed when another story came to him.
“Before that state championship game, we were in the locker room at school getting ready to drive to Oxford. A.J. walked by me and asked me if I was nervous. I said, ‘A.J. are you getting on the bus?’ He said, ‘Oh, yes sir, I’ll be there.’ I said, “Well, then I’m not nervous.’ ”
Brown was drafted by the San Diego Padres. He and Kyler Murray are the only athletes to play in Under Armour’s all-star football and baseball games.
“I really believe if he had chosen baseball, he would be the starting center fielder for the Padres right now,” Woods said.
Brown, of course, went to Ole Miss and Gay signed with State. That never affected their friendship. Brown tweeted this week a picture of them in their college uniforms and wrote: “Grew up 5 minutes away from each other. Won a state championship in high school together. Playing for the Super Bowl. The city (Starkville) s beyond proud.”
Fans and folks around the NFL were stunned when the Tennessee Titans, who drafted Brown (4.49 40 at the NFL Combine) in the second round in 2019, traded him last spring to the Eagles for a pair of draft picks.
Eagles coach Nick Sirianni couldn’t be happier about the deal.
“ “As far as (his) play – as advertised,” Sirianni said at a recent press conference. “I didn’t have to watch a lot of film. I obviously knew a lot about him … And then you get him out here, and there’s obviously things you think to yourself, ‘Man, well he can do that too, and that’s going to be a nice addition to this offense.’ … Everything we imagined has been as advertised and then some.”
Brown was devastated upon hearing of the trade. But after a phone call from a close friend, Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts, Brown could see how it might benefit his career. Hurts told him he was one of the missing pieces the Eagles needed.
“I had plans,” Brown told Sports Spectrum, “and God had other plans. I lean heavily on my faith ad try to let Him direct my paths.”
The Chiefs got exactly who they wanted with their second-round selection in 2020.
“Willie Gay was our linebacker,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said after the draft. “It is kind of weird how it all worked out and we were able to get him. We were kind of holding our breath there at the end. We’re sure glad we got him.”
Gay told the Kansas City media after being drafted: “I started playing the game when I was six and I was always the fastest guy on the field. But when I got to high school, I was able to compete with guys that were just as good as me. It made me fall in love with competing,” Gay said. “Just the rough part of the game is what I love — and the brotherhood. It makes you a better man outside of football. It teaches you life lessons that you never thought football could teach you.”
No state will feature more athletes Sunday than Mississippi. Including Brown and Gay, 11 players from this state— or have strong ties to the state — will play before millions worldwide.
Mississippians on the Chiefs include Gay, All Pro defensive tackle Chris Jones of Houston (Mississippi State), and linebacker Darius Harris of Horn Lake (Middle Tennessee State).
On the Eagles, Brown, linebacker Nakobe Dean of Horn Lake (Georgia); All Pro defensive tackle Fletcher Cox (Mississippi State) and running back Kenneth Gainwell (Memphis), both of Yazoo City; and quarterback Gardner Minshew of Brandon (Washington State).
The list also includes the Eagles’ Cameron Tom (Southern Miss, Baton Rouge, Quez Watkins (Southern Miss, Athens, Ala.) and Darius Slay (Mississippi State, Brunswick, Ga.).
Jerrion Ealy (Ole Miss and Jackson Prep) is on the Chiefs’ practice squad. And according to Mississippi veteran sports writer Dale McKee, Lucedale’s Ty Fryfogle has signed a futures contract (2023) with the Chiefs.
Ricky Woods has traveled to see Brown and Gay play in the NFL. Neither trip went well.
“A.J. got hurt — turned an ankle,” Woods said. “And Willie hurt his knee on the third play of the game. I didn’t get to see either one of them afterward.
“I sure don’t need to show up for the Super Bowl and bring them any bad luck,” he laughed.
Instead, Woods will be at Sunday night church in Ackerman, where he is spending his retirement with family.
“I’m gonna record it and watch it from the beginning when I get home. I think both guys are safe with me in church for a while,” he said “I’m neutral. Can ’t pull for one over the other. I’m just proud of them. And one thing is for sure — one of them is going to win a Super Bowl this weekend.”