It’s difficult to find fans of the Philadelphia Eagles in the backyard of the Dallas Cowboys, but Liberty High School alumnus Jay Ajayi will be one Eagle who gets local support on Super Sunday. The 2011 Liberty graduate will be the Eagles’ starting running back when they meet the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl on Feb. 4.
“This is going to be the first time in the history of the universe that people from the Dallas area are rooting for the Eagles a little bit,” said Brandon Gonzales, who coached Ajayi at Clark Middle School and then at Liberty High, where Gonzales now teaches, assists with the track team and is defensive coordinator of the football team.
Gonzales remembers Ajayi, a star running back for Liberty during the 2009 and 2010 seasons, as “a big team-first guy” whose first love was soccer. Ajayi, who was born in London and moved to the United States when he was 7 years old, played soccer in middle school and through his sophomore year at Liberty.
Ajayi wasn’t a star soccer player for Liberty, partly because he stopped playing before the growth spurt that turned him into a 6-foot, 200-pound running back with a potent combination of speed and strength. (The Eagles now list him at 6-foot and 220 pounds).
But Ajayi was certainly an enthusiastic soccer player, said Liberty boys soccer coach Fred Kaiser. Ajayi was a member of the junior-varsity team as a freshman and sophomore, but he played with the varsity in pre-district tournaments. In the first tournament of his sophomore season, he scored a goal and had an assist, and Kaiser remembers how happy Ajayi was after scoring the goal – and how happy the team was for him.
“I have never seen a more ecstatic person after scoring a goal. You would have thought he just won the World Cup. It was awesome to see such pure joy!” Kaiser said. “Even more telling was how excited the team was for him to score. He was always positive and always excited to play and be a part of the team. Whenever anyone did something good on the field, Jay was the first one to celebrate with them. Probably his greatest asset at the time was how good of a teammate he was.”
If the Eagles need someone to fill in on kickoffs at the Super Bowl, Ajayi might also be their guy. During Ajayi’s senior season, the Liberty kicker was injured when he was blocked on a kickoff. Liberty was offsides on the play, forcing it to re-kick from five yards back – and its kicker wasn’t available.
“Not having a backup kicker, Jay just runs out there and lines up to take the kickoff and kicks it out of the back of the end zone,” said Kaiser, who coaches the Liberty kickers.
Other Liberty staff members remember Ajayi for his tremendous athletic ability, but they also remember his upbeat personality and his eagerness to learn. Jeb Matulich, who is an art instructor and the fine arts department chair at Liberty, was Ajayi’s Texas history teacher in seventh grade at Clark and coached him on the football and basketball teams. Ajayi was smaller than most of the other boys in middle school, Matulich said, but his “attitude, effort and quickness” made up for it.
Ajayi was fun to coach and have in class, Matulich said.
“I also taught at Liberty and was able to watch him through his high school career,” Matulich said. “I would see him almost daily and it was fun to watch his success.”
Cissy Blaisure, a counselor at Liberty, is the former girls soccer coach and said she looked forward to seeing Ajayi every day. She said Ajayi was the student who always had a smile on his face and that everyone looked forward to watching him play football.
“He carried our school spirit on his shoulders and gave every student here something to talk about. He was loved by those who knew him personally, and even those who didn’t, everyone loved to watch him play,” she said. “Jay comes from an exceptional family who supports him and his siblings as well. Jay is an outstanding role model to this school not only for his football accomplishments, but for who he is as a person.”
Gonzales knew that Ajayi was a special player and person. But given the odds of making it to the NFL, Gonzales is surprised that the guy who he still sees as “the same Jay” is a star running back preparing to play on football’s biggest stage.
Standing in the middle of the Liberty locker room, Gonzales said he likes what Ajayi represents for the current Liberty students. As they’re working toward their dreams, Ajayi can be their inspiration.
“He’s this vision of what they can be,” Gonzales said.
(Photos courtesy of Liberty High School Yearbook)