Philadelphia Eagles' Jay Ajayi: British underdog's journey to the Super Bowl

Jay Ajayi and his best friend Malcolm Hill had scored 20 touchdowns each in their junior year at Liberty High School, Frisco, Texas. At their end-of-season banquet, the district teams were announced. Hill was named in the first team.

"Jay finds out he gets second team and he is pissed," Hill tells ESPN. "It's the maddest I've ever seen him, he definitely should have got first team but I guess they had some other guys who'd been in district a little longer.

"I was excited and Jay was kinda mad so I didn't want to be too excited. He said 'I will never let this happen again... they're going to give me first-team district next year'. And from that time, I've never seen a man work so hard."

Their coach was Galen Zimmerman and eight years on from that night, he remembers when he saw Ajayi had been traded from Miami Dolphins to the Philadelphia Eagles in October. "We were out at dinner and my oldest daughter remembered him, her first thought was 'is he okay? It must be hard for him'.

"That tells me a lot when my kids say that. They remember him as a player and that's pretty special to me that he's a quality of person that my kids remember."

Both Hill and Zimmerman remember Ajayi as a promising 13-year-old football player, whose attention was on occasion turned by the lure of soccer, and played a part in his rise to the NFL's elite.

Ajayi's journey to the Eagles -- from peewee and high school football, through Boise State and the Dolphins -- is a tale of an underdog, who thrived in that environment, had good people around him, wonderful friends, family and a motivation to be the best he could possibly be. It is one that has taken him to Sunday's Super Bowl.

London-born Ajayi moved to America when he was seven. A talented football player himself, Hill first got to know the Brit when they were in different elementary schools and whenever one broke the line, the other would follow suit. In 6th grade they were in the same middle school, and a healthy competitiveness broke out between them. "We went at it," Hill remembers and by 7th grade they were inseparable and played on the same team through High School.

"He was a little reserved in earlier years. He was a kid who had a lot of talent, but was a late grower. But he always kept up; you knew that one day he was going to blow up and take over.

"In the 7th grade we didn't lose a game and we built a bond and a brotherhood that was inseparable with a few other guys. There's another guy whose name is Tayo and there's us three and then we each have a brother, around the same age. The six of us are a crew. It's funny how everything turned out.

"We hold each other accountable, we celebrate with each other, and when we have to mourn, we mourn with each other."

It was around the time Ajayi and Hill were getting to know each other in middle school that Zimmerman was scouting for potential players for a brand new High School in Frisco.

"That was my first shot at watching Jay," Zimmerman tells ESPN. "You could tell when he was playing that he had very good footwork and ability. He had very good vision, he could see the lanes and cuts. He was multidimensional. He played soccer, football and ran track in high school."

There was no catalyst which steered Ajayi from promising football player to college target, but there is a perception the injustice Hill spoke about spurred him on.

During the off-season which followed his inclusion in the district second team, Ajayi experienced a growth spurt and a summer spent in the gym saw him put on 20 pounds of muscle. "He was a man on a mission," Hill recalls. The senior year that followed was outstanding.

"We were playing another school, we were going to be the two best teams in our district and he scored five touchdowns in the first half of the game and the last one was on the last play of the half and that was 60 yards," Zimmerman remembers. "Most teams would throw it but I chose to hand off to him and it looked like he made 14 people miss and there were only 11 on the field.

"You look at the guy next to you and just go 'wow'. It was one of those moments where you could see how special he could be just because of that run right there."

Ajayi's star rose in the school; his fellow students made t-shirts with a clock on the front showing 7pm, the time of their game, and the slogan 'It's Jay Time'. Hill takes the story on. "He was district MVP and set record on record and he only played in half the games. We'd be up by so much and he wouldn't have to play the rest."

Despite being named a Parade All-American alongside district MVP, Ajayi kept the underdog tag after moving to Boise State. It was a narrative of his career that saw him fulfil potential and thrive in that category.

"In peewee they had another running back and Jay had to work his way up," Hill recalls. "In middle school there was another running back in front of Jay, in high school same story, when he got to Boise same story, when he got to Miami, the same story.

"Every time he's been faced with a challenge, he's responded. When he got to Philadelphia, new system, he managed to get himself in as starting running back and now he's starting in the Super Bowl."

Talent apart, another section of Ajayi's sporting tapestry sticks out in Zimmerman's mind -- his attitude. Even when he had been picked up by Boise, he wanted to compete alongside his friends in the 4x400 metres -- an uncommon occurrence. It played into the Liberty High School football team's credo.

"Our slogan was currahee -- we stand alone together, it comes from Band of Brothers," Zimmerman says. "The champions stand alone but the only way you get there is together. We had great offensive linemen, our defense was exceptional. A lot of the success comes from being part of a really good team."

Hill will not be at the Super Bowl on Sunday, he's in Dallas, but will be hosting a party and will be standing alongside Ajayi in spirit when he runs out in Minneapolis.

"The journey makes it the best. He's been through a lot whether people know it or not. But when you go into a Miami team and you think you're going to start and Arian Foster comes in and you go off and have three 200-yard games and next season things aren't panning out as well as you thought and then you find out you're traded... then golly. You have to look in the mirror and stand up and find a way through. I think the Philly trade is one of the best things that has happened to him in his career -- it's given him a new life."

Zimmerman will watch on proud, with his family. He will remember the young 13-year-old who went from a soccer-loving youngster to Super Bowl contender.

"I'm extremely proud of him. He's done a great job of putting himself in that position because of the choices he's made. I'm so excited for him, this opportunity and to play for THE prize, the championship. But he's a great friend to his friends, he's an incredible son to his parents and someday he'll be a championship husband and father. I'm just proud of what he's become."
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