Eagles RB Jay Ajayi’s career, fueled by doubts, has been building toward this postseason
Philadelphia Eagles running back Jay Ajayi will assume a large role this postseason, which could offer a climax to a career fueled by doubts. (AP Photo/Michael Perez)
PHILADELPHIA — The Philadelphia Eagles’ trade for Jay Ajayi in October generated national attention, but the headlines didn’t cause his high school football coach to think about the running back’s time on the gridiron or his well-known youth soccer career. Instead, former Liberty (Frisco, Texas) coach Galen Zimmerman let his mind wander to Ajayi’s senior season of outdoor track.
It’s not that Ajayi was a sprinting phenom, though he did lead his 4X400 team to a district championship. Rather, Zimmerman looks at Ajayi’s final high school days as a way to describe the 6-foot, 220-pound London-born football star with beige-highlighted dreads, because he didn’t have to compete.
That spring, Ajayi was signed to play football at Boise State. He had nothing to gain on the track. Yet he shouted and sweated and bantered with teammates at every practice.
“He’s running the 400, and he’s selling out, because his buddies are on the team and they sacrifice for each other and they challenge each other,” Zimmerman said. “That was a successful class, because they did things that were hard.”
Indeed, life and football haven’t always come easy to Ajayi. And his latest task is a daunting one: The Eagles, without their MVP candidate Carson Wentz, will likely lean on Ajayi as the offense’s driving force in Saturday’s NFC divisional round game against the Falcons and, possibly, beyond.
The hopes of a championship-starved fan base and the promise of a once-spectacular season rest on the shoulders a one-time Pro Bowler who uses the moniker Jay Train as an alter ego. He’s a rare foreign-born NFL player who failed to rake in a bevy of top-tier scholarship offers in high school, slipped to the fifth round in the 2015 draft and faced criticism for a poor attitude on the heels of his best season.
To Ajayi, 24, his football career has long been about silencing naysayers.
“Building the chip, getting doubted here and there,” Ajayi said. “Colleges. D-1. It built over time. Building the fire, adding fuel. The draft. Everything. It’s been building more and more, just building that ultra competitiveness. I just always want to be the best and prove everyone wrong, because there’s a lot of people that say a lot of stuff.”
And the motivation has guided him here, to Philadelphia, where he has a chance to make his grandest statement by leading a new team somewhere they’ve never been.
Ajayi, whose family is Nigerian, moved to Maryland after he spent the early part of his childhood in England, and they soon relocated again to Texas. In Frisco, he continued to play soccer while also taking part in the middle school football program, and he caught the attention of coaches with his quickness, size and strength, according to Zimmerman.
Still, the path to success on the football field was rocky at times. Zimmerman said Ajayi split carries with a running back who played college ball at Hawaii, Pereese Joas, and his commitment to the sport wavered as worked toward a more full-time role on the team.
It was a tight-knit circle of friends, many of whom ran track together and played college football, that kept Ajayi’s career on track. More specifically, Zimmerman said, it was the ruthless nature of that group of kids that made a difference for Ajayi.
“He’s always had to compete,” Zimmerman said. “Even the guys that weren’t at his position — they competed. They figured out that you compete in the offseason, you compete in the weight room, you compete on the track.”
Philadelphia Eagles’ Jay Ajayi describes his playoff motivation
Eventually, Ajayi blossomed into the superstar Liberty’s coaches envisioned. He averaged 10 yards per carry his senior year, Zimmerman said, thrashing through some of the best defenses in the world’s most football-crazed state.
In one game, Zimmerman remembers Liberty had possession near its own 40-yard line, with just a second or two left on the clock. Instead of launching a Hail Mary, the team handed the ball to Ajayi on a draw — not as a concession; it was because he gave Liberty the best chance to score from 60 yards out. And he did.
“I watched him, it seemed like, break 15 tackles and score a touchdown,” Zimmerman said. “I just looked at my offensive line coach and said, ‘Yeah, he’s pretty special.'”
Soon, the somewhat late-blooming Ajayi signed with Boise State, a mid-major powerhouse, but he didn’t get the attention he felt he deserved from the country’s top programs. More perceived slights were on the way.
‘IT CHANGED ME’
Challenges emerged for Ajayi early in college, when a shoplifting arrest — he tried to steal sweatpants from a Walmart, according to reports — and an ACL tear threatened Ajayi’s career. But he told reporters he learned from off-field mistakes, he recovered from his injury and by his sophomore year in 2013, he was a key part of the Broncos offense.
“Dealing with a bunch of adversity, it changed me a little bit,” Ajayi said. “I just started to really work and be a competitor.”
And after developing a new-found attitude, he adopted the Jay Train alter ego to pair with it.
Ajayi yearned for a nickname that came with a cool on-field celebration, and more pressingly, he wanted to find a way to illustrate the shift in personality he underwent when he stepped on the football field. He aimed to find a term that could describe how he morphed from a mild-manner kid with a british accent into a destructive force hellbent on squelching doubts.
Ajayi said he saw a picture of himself somewhere on the internet that depicted his face photoshopped onto a train. The Jay Train was born.
“I’m a nice guy off the field, I’m real chill,” Ajayi said. “But when I’m on the field, I can turn into the Jay Train and become kind of violent, physical.”
Choo choo.#FlyEaglesFly pic.twitter.com/tYGKNk38Yb
— Philadelphia Eagles (@Eagles) November 5, 2017
With a new moniker and the starting job in hand after NFL-bound Doug Martin left school, Ajayi thrived with Boise State, earning all-America nods in 2014. His NFL resume was impressive.
But more controversy struck in the runup to the 2015 draft, as reports trickled out that Ajayi’s surgically-repair knee wouldn’t remain healthy for long. The concerns caused him to slip into the fifth round, which cost him millions of dollars and still seems to irk the explosive ball carrier.
As the list of critics expanded, Ajayi said his drive and passion grew. Those slights, he said, fueled him to win the Dolphins’ starting running back job, pushing past established veteran Lamar Miller, and allowed him to compile a Pro Bowl campaign in 2016. During the season, he became the fourth player in NFL history to rush for 200 yards in back-to-back weeks.
But the very reason Ajayi landed in Philadelphia this fall provided another source of motivation.
Ajayi’s statistics slipped earlier this year, and after Miami traded him to Philly for a fourth-round pick, the Miami Herald reported the running back’s poor attitude was the catalyst for the deal. According to the paper, Ajayi bickered with Dolphins coaches about playing time, and his moodiness affect the team.
“He complained bitterly about not getting the football,” the Herald’s Armando Salguero wrote. “He stormed out of the locker room — get this, after wins — because he hadn’t gotten what he deemed to be enough carries. And, oh yes, he didn’t exactly light it up on the field.”
The Eagles, however, said they did background research into their new player. When they traded for Ajayi, de facto general manager Howie Roseman said they found a good running back and good person with a strong work ethic, regardless of the stories from South Florida.
Rookie running back Corey Clement wasn’t sure want to expect when Ajayi first walked into position group meetings and joined the team on the practice field. He said he’s been impressed over the past two months.
“Jay’s presence in the room really has a spark to it,” Clement said. “I didn’t know really what we were getting until he actually sat in the room, but his knowledge and enthusiasm has really added to the room. So that’s why we like him.”
Still, questions linger about Ajayi’s personality, his knee and his ability to perform in the playoffs. He gained a paltry 33 yards on 16 carries in a Dolphins wildcard loss to the Steelers last year, his only postseason game.
But he has supporters, too, and Zimmerman said everyone on his old coaching staff at Liberty counts among them. In fact, Zimmerman remembers learning about the Ajayi trade. He was sitting in a restaurant with his family, when his 13-year-old daughter, who remembered watching Ajayi play at Liberty, spotted a television broadcasting the story.
“She got all worried, and she looked at my wife and said, ‘I hope Jay’s going to be OK. I hope he’s OK.'” Zimmerman said. “I looked at her and said, ‘I think he’s going to be all right. He’s going to Philadelphia, the No. 1 team. He’ll be OK.'”
OK has never been Ajayi’s goal, though. And the next few weeks might prove whether he can ascend beyond that, they might prove whether he can be great.
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