A.J. Brown signed with the bitter rival of his hometown college. Three years later, the vitriol hasn't slowed down, but neither has the Ole Miss wide receiver.
By Chase Goodbread | Published Oct. 23, 2018
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."