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Why Ole Miss WR A.J. Brown is looking out for No. 1

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STARKVILLE, Miss. -- The tire blew out on an unpaved stretch of dirt just north of town. Waddell Road is the apparent width of two lanes, if you imagine striping on the reddish dirt, and it's fraught with rocks and potholes full of rainwater. It's a rough enough ride that it can make the spoken voice rattle at even modest speeds; challenging terrain for trucks, and no place for a compact hybrid with no spare in the trunk. Waddell is flanked by towering tree lines on both sides, so tall even GPS has trouble finding it, and Mississippi's sweltering heat adds a blanket of humidity that inhales like steam. The tow truck is there in just 15 minutes, a small-town blessing born of the absence of traffic, but the delay is enough to derail an appointed meeting at the 16th Section Missionary Baptist Church with a man the locals call "Bug."

"No worries," Bug says. "I'll meet you at the garage."

When the tow truck arrives, Bug is already waiting. He's got plenty to say, but this story isn't one to be told at William Wells Tire & Auto. The three-mile zip up Old West Point Road takes just a few minutes, and Bug pulls his old Dodge Charger into Missionary Baptist's gravel parking lot, empty on this Wednesday afternoon. Inside, the quaint church has seating for several hundred and carries a welcoming purple decorative touch. Church isn't in service, but Arthur "Bug" Brown respectfully removes his hat anyway. It's a San Diego Padres cap, and if it's not the only one like it in all of Starkville, it's got to be close.

Brown points toward the interior wall on his left, but there is nothing on it but white paint. He then circles his finger, gesturing toward the other three walls, and the reason for the venue is revealed.

"In here, he was safe from it," Brown said. "When he was inside these four walls, the pressure was gone, because there was nothing in here but support. Outside these walls ... it done got ugly."

Brown is referring to his youngest child, Ole Miss wide receiver A.J. Brown, one of college football's elite players, a 230-pound nightmare of a matchup for defensive backs and a primary reason NFL scouts beat a weekly path to Oxford this past fall. He amassed nearly 3,000 receiving yards in three seasons.

But he's done it in enemy colors.

Three years ago, Brown announced a decision to play college football at Ole Miss, two hours north of Starkville, rather than staying home and playing for Mississippi State in the only hometown he's ever known. In other states, at other schools, in other rivalries, the repercussions might have been minimal. Perhaps even non-existent.

But in Mississippi, it's a choice that can make a church feel more like a storm shelter.

* * * * *


SITTING IN AN OLE MISS TEAM MEETING ROOM, A.J. Brown answers a question with a question.

Why wait months, all the way to National Signing Day, before announcing a college decision he'd already made?

"Why commit early and bring all that hate on myself any sooner than I had to?" he asks.

For a kid from Starkville, intent on signing with the rival Rebels, that's unassailable logic.

For weeks leading up to his announcement, he couldn't go anywhere without people telling him they were excited for him to attend State, and he would simply nod his head knowing he'd narrowed his choices to Alabama and Ole Miss.

"I knew I was fixing to shock the world," Brown said.

A crowd of students, family, faculty and media gathered inside the Starkville High fieldhouse for National Signing Day on Feb. 3, 2016. Several players from the school were set to sign, with Brown to be the last among them. Ole Miss receivers coach Grant Heard, now at Indiana, remembers watching the ceremony on a live web stream, along with the rest of the Rebels coaching staff, from a conference room back in Oxford. He'd logged not just hours but full days across enemy lines, courting Brown with a mix of enthusiasm and a gut feeling he couldn't shake -- that his efforts might be a complete waste of time.

"We weren't totally sure what he would do. They would pan the camera across the table showing all the guys signing, and when it got to A.J., his head was down," Heard said. "He looked like he wanted to throw up."

Finally, Brown picked up an Ole Miss hat, put it on his head and got an immediate indication of how his decision would be received. According to several who were there, a biased reporter stormed out of the room and, even at his own high school -- just two months after he'd led the Yellow Jackets to a Class 6A state title -- there were a few boos among the students.

That was nothing, however, compared to the social media backlash.

"There were death threats, people saying they were going to blow up our house, all that," Bug said. The family didn't take the threats seriously enough to involve police, but they nevertheless cut Bug's son to the heart. A local rumor started that Ole Miss had to have given Brown money to sign, in violation of NCAA rules.

"People were telling him to never come back to Starkville again," said Southern Illinois WR Raphael Leonard, one of Brown's Starkville High teammates who had witnessed the announcement.

Brown returned fire on social media, unflinching in the face of the insults. His father, however, demanded he delete his responses. Bug was a strict disciplinarian as a father, not afraid to use a belt when he felt it necessary and told his son that wasn't how the Brown name would be represented.

"That's not who we are," he'd said. "We don't throw salt for salt."

Perhaps the most disturbing interaction came on the day Brown let some friends know via Twitter he was headed to the local Wendy's. When he left, he suspected he was being followed by a pickup truck. Minutes later, photos of the back of his vehicle were posted to Twitter by an apparently angry Mississippi State fan alerting others to A.J.'s whereabouts.

Nothing came of it, but it wasn't forgotten.

* * * * *


BUG WAS ONLY 3 WHEN HIS FATHER moved him from Chicago to Starkville nearly 50 years ago. He lives on 165 acres of family-owned property off Rock Hill Road, and worked for Starkville's electrical service for 24 years until 2009, when he fell off the top of a bucket truck while working on a powerline. He hit the truck's bumper on the way down, injured his back and was forced into retirement.

Starkville will always be home for him, and he makes a clear distinction between the Starkville residents who know the Brown family, and those who don't:

"All the hate came from people not from here," he said. "The people A.J. knew growing up all love him. The hate came either from State fans not from here, or the students, or whoever else never met him."

What the critics didn't know was that Brown grew up cheering for the hometown Bulldogs. As a kid, he wanted to play there. But as his recruitment unfolded, the Bulldogs showed him limited interest. Although MSU was the first school to offer him a scholarship, other programs put far more effort into signing him. Alabama's Nick Saban, Texas A&M's Kevin Sumlin and, of course, Ole Miss' Hugh Freeze all traveled to Starkville for an in-home visit, along with coaches from other top programs. Mississippi State's Dan Mullen did not stop by.

This is what bugs Bug most -- that had all MSU fans known the circumstances, they might never have blamed A.J. for signing elsewhere.

"That still gets to me even now," Bug said. "Mississippi State didn't really want him, but the fans are still going to come at my son anyway? Yeah, that was hard."

Brown and family believe MSU assumed he would sign with his hometown school simply because it was his hometown school, and thus didn't pursue him as hard as other prospects. The night Mississippi State lost any chance, Bulldogs WR coach Billy Gonzales made a home visit to Brown, called Mullen, and put the head coach on speakerphone. After a few minutes, Brown stood up and walked out, leaving

Gonzales as the only audience to Mullen's pitch.

"I've got head coaches from everywhere coming to visit," Brown said, "but Dan Mullen couldn't drive five minutes?"

His ultimate decision put him in a very small club.

While some Starkville natives have gone on to play at Ole Miss after a JUCO stop, the list of recruits from Starkville who signed with the Rebels directly out of high school is a shorter one. Given an average signing class of 25 recruits, around 375 Rebels signees separated Brown from the last person to take the same plunge. That's a drought of 15 years, and his name was Eric Rice.

The nephew of Hall of Fame WR Jerry Rice, Eric is now the head coach at Columbus High, just a half-hour east of Starkville. Sitting in the Columbus coach's office, shortly before an early-October practice, Rice recalls feeling -- just as Brown did -- that MSU saw him as an easy sign simply due to the hometown advantage. Two things, Rice said, made his experience more palpable than Brown's: the absence of social media, and his status as a recruit.

"No Twitter, no Instagram, no Facebook," he said. "And I was a three-star guy, so I mostly just got teasing from people I knew. If I was recruited like A.J. was, like a five-star, things might've been a little different."

* * * * *


THE OLE MISS-MISSISSIPPI STATE RIVALRY is a unique one in college football, with a history of 115 meetings dating back to 1901. The annual Egg Bowl rarely carries championship stakes, and from a national perspective, it can be an afterthought. In Mississippi, however, it carries Super Bowl-like relevance. Few know its history better than Ole Miss coach Matt Luke. He's a Rebels legacy -- he, his father and brother all played in Oxford -- and his tenure as a player, graduate assistant and coach at Ole Miss spans 16 non-consecutive years.

"Sometimes the rivalry goes overboard, but having a group of fans that care, that's important," Luke said. "In this state, we don't have NFL teams. There aren't other big interests, so people care. It's a way of life -- that's how people view it."

As rival fan bases often do, these two have forged caricatures of one another that serve as touchstones for intolerance. Fair or not, State fans label Ole Miss, the state's flagship university and the older of the two schools by 30 years, as snobbish and self-important. Mississippi is one of America's flattest states, but Ole Miss sits at a 500-foot altitude -- 165 feet higher than Starkville -- and the rivalry's dynamic suggests the fans sense every foot of it. The campus' old-school Georgian architecture gives off a stately presence, enhanced by massive oak and magnolia trees. Tailgating in The Grove, a 10-acre sprawl of a pre-game party, is a legend without peer once described by The New York Times as "the mother and mistress of outdoor ritual mayhem."

Starkville lies about 90 miles South of Oxford, down Highway 15, and the drive gets more rural by the minute. Take a wrong turn, in fact, and you could end up stuck in the mud on Waddell Road. Mississippi State is an agricultural school, dismissed for its lack of sophistication by the stereotypical Ole Miss fan. It features a nationally-renowned veterinary program, and at Bulldog home games, ice cream produced from MSU's own dairy herd and churned at its own creamery is served with pride in the press box. Fans ring cowbells at Scott Field so relentlessly the SEC had to handcuff the tradition, following complaints from visiting coaches, by prohibiting artificial noise at certain times.

The rivalry matches, if not surpasses, any in the nation in one area: animus.

Mullen, now the coach at Florida, refused to say Ole Miss by name and referred to it as the "school up North." The most zealous of supporters add a level of toxicity that stews year-round. Chase Parham, a lifelong Mississippi resident and a reporter for Rebelgrove.com, calibrates the bitterness against a gold standard of rivalry disdain:

"Alabama and Auburn co-exist better," he said.

The 2017 Egg Bowl was at MSU, Brown's only return to Starkville to face his hometown school. Leonard had a ticket in the MSU student section, and heard the worst of insults hurled at one of his best friends. "They were all over him," Leonard said. "People yelling 'F--- you, A.J. Brown.' I heard that clear as day."

Brown was a natural subplot, but as the game unfolded, he wasn't the only one. Officials flagged seven personal fouls (four on Ole Miss, three on MSU), and Rebels defensive lineman Breeland Speaks, a 2018 second-round pick of the Kansas City Chiefs, was ejected. Ole Miss wide receiver D.K. Metcalf was flagged for a creative-but-crude touchdown celebration in which he went to his hands and knees, simulating MSU's bulldog mascot, and raised his right leg as if to urinate on the turf.

But it was Brown who suffered the worst indignity. He revealed after the game he was spat upon by a Mississippi State player he has steadfastly refused to name, and Brown's reaction was caught on the television broadcast. "This is my city," Brown said with a sneer to the crowd behind the Ole Miss bench.

His city, and his game.

In a 31-28 Ole Miss win, Brown burned his hometown school as badly as the proverbial bridge he burned when he left for Ole Miss two years earlier: six catches, 167 yards and a touchdown. The performance helped him establish a new school record for single-season receiving yardage (1,252 in 12 games) that was previously held by Laquon Treadwell, a first-round pick of the Minnesota Vikings in 2016. Brown broke his own mark last year with 1,320 yards.

* * * * *


BROWN'S EMERGENCE AS ONE OF THE MOST promising pro prospects at his position wasn't at all evident in his early years. He excelled at baseball long before doing so in football. Bug loaded his backyard with sports equipment, including a batting cage, a pitching rubber and a batting tee where A.J. launched thousands of balls into a net. He attached a harness to a tire, and A.J. would run up and down a lengthy dirt driveway while dragging the tire for improved speed.

A nearby tree dropped baseball-sized hedge apples all over the yard. And since hedge apples are known more for a pest control value than for their edibility, A.J. cleaned up by firing pitches with them into a thicket at the edge of the yard.

Now that Brown's at Ole Miss, Bug's yard is full of hedge apples again.

The San Diego Padres found their way to Starkville for a strong, speedy outfielder who was one of only 36 players nationally to be picked for the 2015 Under Armour All-America team, but his stock in the baseball draft would have been higher had clubs not expected him to play football. The Padres claimed him in the 19th round of the 2016 MLB Draft, prompting Bug to buy the Padres cap that stands out around town.

Brown signed, forgoing NCAA baseball eligibility, and spends a week each July working out at the club's spring training facility in Peoria, Arizona. He's more serious about football, but hasn't put the idea of a two-sport career fully out of mind.

A natural as a youngster in baseball, he was anything but that in football.

Starkville High assistant coach Willie Gillespie, who starred at receiver for the USFL's Tampa Bay Bandits before a brief NFL career, said Brown didn't have much taste for contact as a youngster. He didn't care for going over the middle, and didn't play with physicality despite having the body for it.

"His sophomore year, a towel fell off his uniform during a play, and he went back and picked it up during the play," Gillespie said. "Next morning the coaching staff is watching film, and our head coach keeps rewinding A.J. picking up this towel, and asking me, 'What's your guy doing, coach?' "

After something of a manhood challenge from Gillespie, Brown developed a willingness to hit, and eventually an enjoyment for it. Now, he flourishes in the slot position at Ole Miss, which demands more physical play than if he were split wide.

"It was different for him, having to maneuver through linebackers and safeties. It's not like you just have a cornerback to worry about," Ole Miss receivers coach Jacob Peeler said. "You've got a lot of traffic in there. He was reluctant at first, but then he really took to it."

At 230 pounds and with a 40-yard dash in the low 4.5s, he's no ordinary slot receiver. He can vertical jump 37 inches, broad jump 10 feet-plus and power clean 340 pounds. It's an athletic profile that, along with his gift for the game, has the NFL excited. In the summer, NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah compared him to a faster JuJu Smith-Schuster.

"His hands are fantastic, and he's hard to bring down," an AFC scout said. "Those are the things that stand out to me."

* * * * *


THE ADMISSION IS A LITTLE SHOCKING to the ear, but Matt Luke isn't afraid to make it. The Ole Miss coach shifts in his office chair, raises his eyebrows and bottom lines A.J. Brown's value to the program.

"I think it's safe to say that I'm not sitting in this seat right now if he doesn't play the way he does," he said. "You might not want to say it, but it's the elephant in the room."

That's a $3 million annual salary Luke just credited to his star receiver, but he arrives at the conclusion with an open honesty about the position in which he found himself in 2017. Amid the fallout of NCAA sanctions and the firing of Freeze, Luke coached all of that season under interim status with no idea whether he'd be named permanent head coach. Brown's contribution to a team that relied almost entirely on its passing attack for a 6-6 season was, to Luke, a defining factor in the school's decision to make a long-term commitment to the coach.

Brown's dominating performance against Mississippi State gave the Rebels a .500 record under trying circumstances and provided an uplifting finish to a season that ended early thanks to an NCAA bowl ban. But it was what he did after the season that a generation of Ole Miss fans won't forget.

Ole Miss' NCAA sanctions were severe enough that Rebels players were granted a waiver of the rule that typically requires transfers sit out a season with their new school. It amounted to an open invitation to leave without penalty, one several players took advantage of. Brown considered leaving himself, but his father advised against it.

"I've done been 21," Bug told his son. "You ain't never been 52."

QB Shea Patterson's choice to leave, Brown said, was a poorly kept secret in the Ole Miss locker room. Patterson was the program's most high-profile player, and when his intention to transfer became known, all eyes turned to the team's next most high-profile player: Brown.

Michigan, Florida, Houston, Nebraska, Georgia Tech and others all benefitted from Ole Miss players making an exit, until Brown stopped the bleeding.

"I remember walking off the field after [the] Mississippi State [game], and he looked at me and said, 'I've got you, coach. We're going to do this together'," Peeler recalled. "He put me at ease, not the other way around. The easy thing for guys to do at that point was to look and explore. And he shut it down. And when you have a guy of his caliber say that he's not wavering, it resonated with other guys and helped them make their decisions."

When staying in Starkville would have been the easy thing to do, Brown left.

When leaving Oxford would've been the easy play, he stayed.

One decision reviled; the other revered.

And with that, Oxford's status as his surrogate hometown was galvanized beyond any question. He made it known he wouldn't be transferring with a clever Tweet containing a clip of Leonardo DiCaprio from "The Wolf of Wall Street."

"I became a lot of people's favorite Rebel after that one," he said.

* * * * *


NOTHING TAKES A SMALL TOWN'S TEMPERATURE as accurately as its local barber shop, and Hill's Barber Shop sits right across Louisville Street from Starkville High. Mississippi State posters adorn the old, wood-panel walls inside, while a series of Starkville Parks & Recreation church league basketball trophies proudly overlook the shop from a high shelf. The well-aged barber chairs tilt back with head and foot rests, and owner Vince Hill operates the one nearest the front door.

Standard cut: $12, cash only.

He gave A.J. Brown his first trim ever, and says Bug had to hold his crying son to keep him still for it.

He's worked his clippers on A.J.'s biggest fans, and trimmed up others who've sat in his chair and groused about why he's not catching passes for State. Hill remembers a wild day in the shop after Brown announced he would play at Ole Miss.

"It was the talk all day in here," Hill said. "People were going crazy."

Like his father, Brown knows the people he grew up with in Starkville remain his biggest fans. But then there are those who aren't afraid to remind him where their allegiances lie.

"Even now, people will say, 'Good luck -- unless you're playing Mississippi State,' " Brown said. "The way I see it, if you want to wish me well, wish me well every game."

When friends ask him on Twitter when he'll be back in town, he still lets them know, but now, he's learned to inform them through a private message rather than a public post.

When he comes back home, he still works out at Starkville High.

He still stops in at Vince's Barber Shop for a trim.

He still comes back to take his usual seat at 16th Section Missionary Baptist Church -- middle section, middle row, left side -- and there, between those walls, he knows every face.

But Starkville is not quite the home it once was. Asked if he could see himself ever living in Starkville again, perhaps after his NFL career has been exhausted, Brown shakes his head.

"I think that door closed," he said.

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