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Jay Ajayi and Philadelphia Eagles: A match made on Halloween

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MINNEAPOLIS -- They stood in the shadows of a narrow tunnel on Monday night, waiting for the directive to amble into the spotlight. Some of the Philadelphia Eagles tapped texts to friends on their cell phones. Others peered at the gleaming lights that bathed the stage they would walk across during their entrance for Super Bowl LII Opening Night. Jay Ajayi was doing something far more telling:

The third-year running back was scanning the faces around him to see how his teammates were handling the moment.

Ajayi eventually noticed that All-Pro right tackle Lane Johnson could use a little help in the style department. While Ajayi would be answering reporters' questions on the expansive floor of the Xcel Energy Center -- along with most of the Eagles on that night -- Johnson was slated to address the media at one of the high-rise podiums the NFL had arranged for Philadelphia's most prominent players. If Johnson was going to be perched in such a notable position, Ajayi wanted him to look his best. So Ajayi pulled off his sunglasses and told Johnson to wear them for the evening.

Johnson already was excited about the chance to chat up the media on what is typically the most comical night of Super Bowl week. The unexpected gift from Ajayi only made the offensive lineman giddier.

"He gave me the glasses because he said he wanted me to be swagged out," Johnson revealed Monday evening. "That shows you what kind of person he is."

Of course, Johnson definitely isn't the kind of guy who is going to wilt in the public eye. He famously wore a dog mask while leaving the field after Philadelphia's Divisional Round win over the Atlanta Falcons, a move that became so popular Johnson has been selling dog masks and T-shirts ever since (with 65 percent of the proceeds benefiting local Philadelphia schools). What's more noteworthy about that moment is that it once again proved the comfort Ajayi has found with the Eagles. The same player who essentially was labeled a cancer in Miami is now looking out for his teammates whenever he gets a chance. That means a lot for an Eagles team that is about to face the New England Patriots in this year's Super Bowl.

"I've had a few challenges throughout my career," Ajayi said on Wednesday. "But I've learned that it's about staying determined and having that positive mindset and understanding that, realistically, I can only control what I can control. I'm grateful to be on this team. We're now at the Super Bowl with one game left and we plan on finishing it the right way."

It's ironic that the 24-year-old Ajayi is in such a position in the first place. He spent his first two NFL seasons in Miami, where he enjoyed a breakout campaign in 2016 that included 1,272 rushing yards, eight touchdowns and a Pro Bowl nod. It was those very feats that had many people scratching their heads when Philadelphia acquired Ajayi for a fourth-round pick on Halloween. The reality was that the Dolphins had soured on the Ajayi in the midst of a season going nowhere, one that saw his production decline and his complaining increase before midseason.

The player who has spent the last three months in Philadelphia has been entirely different. Instead of bemoaning a lack of touches, Ajayi has willingly accepted his role in a backfield rotation that includes LeGarrette Blount and Corey Clement. In fact, Ajayi's 873 yards during the 2017 regular season -- 408 of which came in an Eagles uniform -- are a far cry from what he produced when the Dolphins' offense ran through him last season. This is why his attitude has been just as critical to the success of this trade as his performance.

"He's brought great competition to the running back room because competition elevates everybody," Eagles wide receiver Torrey Smith said Monday night. "But he's also a great locker room presence. He's full of energy and he's fit in since he got here. He's just a ball of light and he's been able to be himself from Day 1."

It also helps that Ajayi can play.

Philadelphia's running game took a significant hit when Darren Sproles sustained a broken right arm and torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in a Week 3 win over the New York Giants. Five weeks later, the Eagles saw Ajayi as the best fit to help their backfield committee. What they lost in the speed and quickness of Sproles, they gained with the bruising power and deceptive burst of the six-foot, 223-pound Ajayi.

In his first game with the team -- after head coach Doug Pederson gave him about 10 to 15 plays to learn in the few days leading up to that afternoon -- Ajayi scored on a 46-yard touchdown run in a 51-23 win over the Denver Broncos.

"My mindset is always downhill, attacking (and) trying to punish guys," Ajayi said the week of the NFC Championship Game, in which Philly lambasted Minnesota, 38-7. "If it's a one-on-one, it's about not getting tackled."

"I think of him as an elite back," Patriots defensive tackle Ricky Jean Francois said Monday night. "It was kind of crazy that the Dolphins let him go in the middle of the season, but it's been a blessing for the Philadelphia Eagles and now he's in the Super Bowl. He's hard to tackle. He's not going down on first contact. He can do the inside runs and the outside runs, which means he can basically do it all. He's a hard back to defend."

If Ajayi needs any more motivation for this game, all he needs to do is look back at how last year ended. The Dolphins were similar to the Eagles in terms of how they surprised everyone with a playoff appearance few predicted. However, that magic ended abruptly in the Wild Card Round, where the Pittsburgh Steelers beat them, 30-12. Ajayi wound up going to the Super Bowl in Houston last February, only the London native was working the game for NFL-UK.

Ajayi stayed until the third quarter, then decided he'd had enough of watching a game he wasn't even playing in that day. As he left NRG Stadium, he vowed to never return to the Super Bowl unless his team was competing for the Lombardi Trophy.

"I remember that taste of going home (after the Steelers loss last season), getting bounced out and eliminated," Ajayi recalled a few weeks ago. "Everything you worked for is over. That adds fuel. There are guys in this locker room who've been to a Super Bowl and won it. They've been able to share their experiences with us. That's been really helpful, but (there also are) guys who've been in the playoffs and lost. That adds a chip (on your shoulder) and makes you want to bring this thing home."

Ajayi has acknowledged that this season has been a strange one. The timing of his trade meant that he had three bye weeks: one in Miami, another in Philadelphia and the third during the first week of this year's postseason after the Eagles secured the top seed in the NFC. Even as Philly prepared for its first playoff game vs. Atlanta, Ajayi said it still felt like the regular season hadn't ended. However, that rest was an unexpected blessing for a man who has been battling health problems since he entered the league as a fifth-round pick in the 2015 draft.

The belief is that Ajayi, who moved to the United States at age 7, would've been a higher selection if not for a chronic problem in his surgically repaired right knee. Doctors described the condition as being "bone on bone" and some scouts questioned if he would ever play in the league at all. It didn't matter that Ajayi ran for 3,248 yards and scored 51 touchdowns in his final two seasons at Boise State before leaving after his junior year. He was damaged goods, and that tag set the stage for what would be a challenging start to his pro career.

Ajayi first made headlines before the start of the 2016 season. Miami's first-year head coach, Adam Gase, left him home for that 12-10 loss in Seattle because Ajayi pouted about losing the starting job to Arian Foster in training camp. Ajayi eventually returned to the field the following week, but only saw 18 carries over the next three games. That was before Foster abruptly retired because of a lingering lower-body injury and everything changed for Ajayi.

Most people remember the good stuff from 2016. Ajayi turned into an overnight star, as he had back-to-back 200-yard games in his second and third starts of the season (he added another 200-yard day, this one for 206 yards, later that year). Privately, the Dolphins had concerns about his future as a long-term option. Ajayi had issues with ball security and wasn't the most consistent back when it came to pass protection. Once Miami began struggling this season, one team source said Ajayi routinely exploded at coaches and tried too often to make every carry a play worthy of the "SportsCenter" Top 10.

After a 40-0 loss to Baltimore in Week 8, Gase openly ripped Ajayi for too much improvising: "We've got to stop trying to hit home runs all the time. It's on the running back. Do your job. It's not hard to do."

Ajayi smirked and declined comment when asked about Gase this week, but he was more candid when he first joined the Eagles.

"Those are the criticisms that are out there," Ajayi said at back in November. "I can only speak on how I view myself. I view myself as a 'team' guy. That stuff, at the end of the day, is in the past."

"I can't speculate on what happened in South Florida, but I trust the guys on this team to handle players," Pederson said after the Ajayi trade was announced. "Everybody has a past. I was in a situation where we brought in a player and there were reports of character issues and all kinds of things (Pederson was a backup quarterback in Green Bay when wide receiver Andre Rison joined the Packers in 1996). The guys rallied around him and there wasn't one issue with this player. And we went on to win the Super Bowl."

Ajayi didn't need long to feel the warmth within the Eagles organization. It was obvious to him once he scored that first touchdown against Denver. After he raced into the end zone, he looked back to see several teammates sprinting right at him. They each took turns hugging and congratulating him in ways that made him feel valued.

"I think it was great for me to get in that first game against the Broncos," Ajayi said on Wednesday. "The team could actually see what kind of player I am. That helped show guys what I could do and how I could help the team. I knew my role would be to come in and do whatever it took to spark the team."

The most important thing Ajayi has done since that time is fit in to the Eagles' multi-dimensional offense. As much as Philadelphia relied on the dynamic play of Wentz, who sustained a season-ending knee injury in a loss to the Los Angeles Rams on Dec. 10, the running game has been just as critical to this team's success. Ajayi and Blount represent the power, while a smaller back like Clement offers the darting quickness and shiftiness that Sproles provided before his injury. They've worked so well together that Philly finished the regular season as the NFL's third-best rushing attack, averaging 132.2 yards per game.

Ajayi's relationship with Blount is especially noteworthy. It could've been touchy -- since the Pittsburgh Steelers released Blount in 2014 after he pouted about a lack of touches during a game -- but it's become another example of the Eagles' chemistry.

"I already knew Jay before he got here," Blount said Monday night. "We traded jerseys when he was in Miami and I was in New England last year, so I already was a big fan. His personality shows all the time. All he does is smile a lot and laugh a lot. He's one of those guys that you like having around your locker room."

Ajayi will be even happier if the Eagles are able to upset the Patriots. Aside from being miffed about watching the Super Bowl inside NRG Stadium, he also was annoyed by seeing an AFC East rival pursuing yet another championship. At the time, Ajayi thought his next opportunity at a Super Bowl would probably come in Miami someday, particularly after that breakout year that saw him finish fourth in the league in rushing. Now he's grateful that he's in Philadelphia, with a lesser role on a squad that is one win away from securing its own championship.

Though nobody can predict the future, the early reviews are that Philadelphia got the best of this deal. The fun he had with Johnson on Opening Night also confirmed something else: He is the right guy for this team.

"I'm just glad that everything worked out," Ajayi said Monday. "Instead of being at the [Super Bowl], shaking guys hands (during) pregame and doing analysis at halftime, I'm playing in the game. This is a dream come true. It's crazy how things happen."

Follow Jeffri Chadiha on Twitter @jeffrichadiha.

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