MI Captains Relive The Game & Look Ahead To Iowa

For a second straight week, Jon Jansen catches up with captains Andrew Vastardis and Josh Ross on the “In the Trenches” podcast. Vastardis discusses Saturday’s victory over the Buckeyes and thinks back on what he remembers from the postgame celebration on the field. Ross talks about why he feels like the happiest man alive and the quick transition from the win over Ohio State to this weekend’s matchup against Iowa.

By Brian Boesch

The scene on the field at Michigan Stadium around 3:30 p.m. on Saturday was euphoric. Michigan snapped a losing streak against its biggest rival, clinched a Big Ten East Division title, and stayed alive in the College Football Playoff picture, all with one monumental 42-27 victory over Ohio State. It was the culmination of a year’s worth of preparation, as the Wolverines constantly asked, and were asked, the question — “What are you doing to beat Ohio State today?”

Michigan embraced that question as a team, and they answered that question as a team. The Wolverines’ offense did not face a third down the entire second half, during which the team’s only non-scoring drive featured the victory formation. The Wolverines’ defense limited the Buckeyes’ dynamic offense to 27 points, 20 fewer than their season average coming into “The Game.” Last, but not least, the Michigan special teams unit executed in some challenging weather elements to consistently put pressure on Ohio State.

“I am the happiest man alive right now,” linebacker Josh Ross told Jon Jansen on this week’s edition of the “In the Trenches” podcast. “(Saturday) was a movie, to be honest with you. We executed so well in all phases, and we had our best game, and that’s what you ask for in games like these.”

“I’m so proud of this team, so proud of this staff, and just so overjoyed,” fellow captain Andrew Vastardis said. “We went out there and executed the game plan to a ‘T.”

Now, the Wolverines must do it again. Michigan cannot bask in the glory of Saturday’s convincing win. The 10-win Iowa Hawkeyes await in this weekend’s Big Ten Championship Game. Kirk Ferentz’s team does not try to fool you, as Iowa provides a physical and fundamentally sound brand of football each week.

As head coach Jim Harbaugh said, “They play at a level of consistency that is at the highest level of any team that you ever play.” Fortunately, the Wolverines have also been consistent, both on gameday and in the lead-up to each game.

“(It) goes back to the preparation I’ve talked about so much this year. Guys enjoy the process. They enjoy the grind. They enjoy preparing for these games,” Vastardis said. “We’re just getting right back to it. You get your 24 hours to celebrate, and then it’s just back to work. This team loves to work.”

“We got bigger and better things in front of us, and it’s just exciting to be in the position that we’re in,” Ross said. “Everything’s in front of us, and we know that, and it’s just time to go get it.”

If the Wolverines are successful on Saturday against Iowa, then they will get a chance to celebrate on Sunday before restarting the grind again — this time, for a College Football Playoff game, and as Big Ten Champions.

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Bearcats’ Gardner Collects ACC Defensive Player OTW

CINCINNATI – Cincinnati junior cornerback Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner was named the American Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Week on Monday following his standout performance in the Bearcats’ 35-13 win at East Carolina on Friday.

Gardner matched his career highs with eight tackles and two pass breakups, and returned a blocked field goal 60 yards for a touchdown in the fourth quarter.

The Detroit, Mich., native is a two-time All-AAC First Team selection who has never allowed a touchdown pass in his career. This season, he has allowed only 14 receptions on 32 targets and quarterbacks have a 12.0 rating when targeting him this season – the second-best mark in the nation.

Senior quarterback Desmond Ridder also collected AAC Honor Roll mention after throwing for 301 yards and two touchdowns, while becoming the AAC’s career record holder in total yards (12,071) and touchdown responsibility (113).

Friday’s win moved Cincinnati to 12-0 on the season for the second time in school history and gave UC homefield advantage for this Saturday’s AAC Championship Game.

UP NEXT
Cincinnati will look to win its second consecutive America Athletic Conference Championship when it hosts No. 16/16/24 Houston on Saturday at 4 p.m. (ABC) in Nippert Stadium.

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Georgia Bulldogs Continue Championship Preparation

ATHENS, Ga. – Defensive players Travon Walker and Quay Walker previewed Saturday’s SEC Championship match up against Alabama.

The Bulldogs are set to kick off against the Crimson Tide at 4:00p.m. ET in Atlanta, Ga., at Mercedes Benz Stadium.

#44 Travon Walker | DL | Jr.
On the responsibilities of his position…
“Basically, at the position that I play, sometimes, we can be asked to do a lot, but sometimes, it doesn’t get the recognition that it deserves. At my position, there is a lot that goes into it. Setting the edge, dropping in coverage, asked to get sacks, or asked to eat blocks, so it could be a variety of things.”

On the locker room vibe going into the SEC Championship…
“The connection with the team and the guys in the locker room, it’s an unbreakable feeling about the guys. Everybody has that bond and knows each other’s ‘why’. Why we are doing it. Therefore, with us knowing why each other is doing it, we can hold each other accountable to that ‘why.'”

On getting to Bryce Young…
“I think it’s going to be a great matchup for both sides. I just think that we have to continue doing what we have been doing all season, and everything will go as planned. That being said, we just got to keep rushing the passer, and it will all fall in place.”

#7 Quay Walker | ILB | Sr.
On what has contributed to his standout senior year…
“I think it started in the offseason. Changing my body, changing the way I eat, pretty much just feeling better, getting to know things better, and learning the defense. I think it pretty much started with that. Once you know the defense really well, you can play really fast and you’re not going to get into too much danger. It pretty much started with that, but mainly we changed the way I eat and changed my body and feeling better. That’s pretty much it.”

On the focus for playing Alabama for an SEC championship versus a normal in-season game…
“When you focus, you adapt a little bit, but I think that’s always been our motive this whole year. No matter what game it is, we treat all of them the same. We don’t need anyone to try to do anything different than what they have already done this whole year. But other than that, we’ve got to go out and execute and everything else is going to be taken care of.”

On Coach Kirby Smart’s message to the team the week before the SEC Championship…
“Keeping the main thing the main thing, focus on what we have to do and don’t pay attention to anything else besides what we have to do. That’s pretty much it. We have to focus on what’s ahead of us and everything else is going to play out how it’s supposed to play.”

Mordecai Riding Mustangs To Top of Ranking Charts

NEW ORLEANS (SMU) – Tanner Mordecai was recently named to the Manning Award Midseason Watch List, an award sponsored by the Allstate Sugar Bowl.

Mordecai has 2,320 yards and leads the nation with 29 touchdown passes in 2021 and is completing passes at a 71% rate.  The premier player has 300+ passing yards in six of seven games, and his career-high 427 passing yards against Tulane rank ninth at SMU, and the 461 yards of total offense rank sixth.

Heading into week eight, Mordecai was tied for the national lead for passing TDs, ranked second in points responsible for and in the Top 10 in completion percentage, completions per game, passing efficiency, passing yards per game, and total offense.

The premier player leads a Mustangs team that is 7-0 for the second time in three seasons after a 55-26 October 21st win over Tulane.  Mordecai is also a member of Maxwell Award and Davey O’Brien Award Watch Lists and has twice been named the American Athletic Conference Offensive Player of the Week.

Finalists for the honor will be determined by a selected panel of national media covering college football, as well as the Mannings. The list will be released on Dec. 2 and the winner is scheduled to be announced following the College Football Playoff National Championship.

SMU plays at Houston on Oct. 30 at 6 p.m. on ESPN2 or ESPNU.

Undefeated Start At MSU Puts Coach On Watchlist

EAST LANSING, Mich. – Michigan State head football coach Mel Tucker has been named to the midseason watch list for the Dodd Trophy, officials from the Bobby Dodd Coach of the Year Foundation, and the Peach Bowl, Inc. recently announced.

In his second season at the helm of the Spartans, Tucker has helped lead MSU to a 7-0 start, marking just the eighth time overall and the first since 2015 that Michigan State has won its first seven games of the season. Michigan State is currently ranked No. 7 in the USA TODAY/AFCA Coaches Poll and No. 9 in The Associated Press Poll. The Spartans are also 4-0 in Big Ten play for the first time since 2017.

The Dodd Trophy, college football’s most coveted coaching award, celebrates the head coach of a team who enjoys success on the gridiron, while also stressing the importance of scholarship, leadership and integrity – the three pillars of legendary coach Bobby Dodd’s philosophy.

The midseason watch list was created through a selection process by the Bobby Dodd Coach of the Year Foundation and Peach Bowl, Inc., taking into consideration each program’s current performance during the 2021 season, Academic Progress Rate (APR), and each coach’s commitment to service and charity in the community.

Considering The Dodd Trophy represents more than just a coach’s performance on the field, a coach in his first year, who has not had a full season to establish his own impact on APR and the local community, is not eligible to win.

“Each of these coaches embodies the scholarship, leadership, and integrity that Coach Dodd stressed every day of his coaching career,” said Jim Terry, chairman of the Bobby Dodd Coach of the Year Foundation. “This award is more than just winning on the field, and every one of these coaches cares deeply about seeing his players grow and mature as young men, in addition to winning football games. That is what The Dodd Trophy is all about.”

No. 9/7 Michigan State returns to action Saturday, Oct. 30 to host No. 6/6 Michigan at noon in Spartan Stadium. The game will be televised on FOX.

Schottenheimer Leaves Lasting Impact On The NFL

If there is one NFL premier coach who has a legacy defined by winning in great numbers and then losing in the bigger games, then that would be Marty Schottenheimer. Schottenheimer enjoyed an astonishing 200 career wins as a head coach as he led four teams to become the eighth-winningest coach in the history of the NFL. Those four teams – the Cleveland Browns, Kansas City Chiefs, Washington Redskins, and the San Diego Chargers – combined to go 200-126-1 under the premier coach who died at the age of 77 on February 9, 2021.

You know that a coach has had an impact on the game when an entire style of play is named after him. Schottenheimer believed wholeheartedly in “Martyball”. This method of winning football games relied on a hard-nosed approach from hard-nosed players. As the league was evolving around him in the late 90s and through the 2000s, Schottenheimer continued to preach “Martyball”, building the success of his teams – and their entire roster – around an overpowering running game and a defense that would lay their bodies on the line whether it was 3rd-and-30 in the first quarter or 4th-and-one with the game on the line.

Schottenheimer – a man who lived by his mantra of “one play at a time” – could never find the success he deserved in the postseason. The coach with a career winning percentage in the regular season of 61% was never able to make his style of football work in the playoffs. Schottenheimer went 5-13 when coaching in the postseason, a career winning percentage in those games of just 28%. This included first-round playoff exits with teams such as the 13-3 Chiefs in both 1995 and 1997, along with the 14-2 Chargers in 2006.

That Chargers team – perhaps the best overall squad that Schottenheimer ever coached led by NFL MVP LaDanian Tomlinson – imploded in what was to be Schottenheimer’s final NFL game. They lost a home divisional round game 24-21 to Tom Brady (that guy again) and the New England Patriots. It was a loss – combined with the tension between Schottenheimer and general manager A.J. Smith –that saw Schottenheimer fired in a move that shocked the NFL world given the team they had put together and Schottenheimer’s obvious ability to win football games and have his team believe in his methods and his tactics.

While some of the losses may have been down to poor clock management or a stubborn belief in the power of his system, it is hard to look at this premier coach as not being a tad unlucky to have never reached a Super Bowl. He lost twice to John Elway-led Broncos teams in the AFC Championship Game while coaching the Browns in games that became known as “The Drive” and “The Fumble”. To have one game lost in a way that gives it a name that lasts down the decades is rough, to have it happen twice is downright cruel.

It is with the Chiefs that Schottenheimer is synonymous with most fans. You can lay a direct path from the work that Schottenheimer produced in Kansas City through the Dick Vermeil era and to the Andy Reid-led team that is one of the most feared in the league today.

“When Marty arrived in 1989, he reinvigorated what was then a struggling franchise and quickly turned the Chiefs into a consistent winner,” Chiefs chairman and CEO Clark Hunt said in a statement. “Marty’s teams made Chiefs football a proud part of Kansas City’s identity once again, and the team’s resurgence forged a powerful bond with a new generation of fans who created the legendary home-field advantage at Arrowhead Stadium.”

After that, it was to San Diego and another brutal playoff loss that came from a player mistake and not a coaching one. With the Chargers up by eight and with six minutes to play, Marlon McCree picked off Brady and the game should have been sealed. Instead of dropping to the turf, however, McCree was hit and fumbled with the Patriots recovering. On such small margins are playoff football games won and lost and Schottenheimer, for all his outstanding coaching, often seemed to be on the wrong side of them.

To dwell on that, though, is to diminish a career. The NFL is a better place for Schottenheimer having been involved and when premier players like Tomlinson and Drew Brees speak of Schottenheimer’s work ethic, wisdom, and attention to detail it tells you everything about what kind of coach he was.

Article by Premier Players

Rivers Takes His Stellar NFL Career To St. Michael Catholic HS

Philip Rivers might have just been a quarterback playing at the wrong time. The 17-year NFL veteran decided to retire this offseason after a glittering career that was denied multiple Super Bowl berths thanks to a combination of Tom Brady and Peyton Manning (and now Patrick Mahomes) dominating that spot in the AFC.

Rivers has retired at a point where he seemingly has plenty left in the tank. He didn’t choose to bow out after a down year or two, with this premier player calling it quits after guiding an Indianapolis Colts team that was 7-9 in 2019 back to the playoffs with an 11-5 record in 2020. Rivers took to Indianapolis like a duck to water after 16 seasons on the West Coast with the Chargers. He passed for 4,169 yards, 24 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions and there were many who expected him to be back in a Colts uniform in 2021. Instead, Rivers has chosen to meander off into the sunset with his Indy stint a footnote in a career that will see him go down as one of the greatest Chargers to ever play the game.

The 39-year-old passer will be one that is strongly discussed when it comes time to vote on Hall of Fame matters after his five years of non-playing are up. This could – and probably will – be five years from now, but you have to imagine that if a legitimate contender in the next two seasons needs a quarterback late in the season after an injury that Rivers will be one of the first calls they make. This is especially true because while Rivers is retiring from the professional game, this premier player is going to give back to the sport and he has already been hired as a high school coach at St. Michael Catholic just outside of Mobile, Alabama.

Rivers’ legacy is secure because of his numbers. He was an eight-time Pro Bowler. He ranks fifth all-time in the NFL (upon his retirement) in both passing yards (63,440) and in touchdown passes (421). Rivers would be considered one of the NFL’s all-time greats at his position in terms of toughness. The quarterback made 240 consecutive regular-season starts, a stat that puts him tied for third on the all-time list with center Mick Tinglehoff. The only more durable players in the history of the league – by this measure at least – are legendary tough guy quarterback Brett Favre and legendary all-around tough guy Vikings defensive lineman Jim Marshall.

The only taint to his legacy – a legacy that includes an NFL record for touchdown passes between a quarterback and a tight end for the 89 times he and Antonio Gates hooked up for scores in San Diego – is Rivers’ post-season woes. Rivers had an astonishing 12 seasons where he passed for over 12,000 yards, yet he was never able to lead the Chargers (or Colts) to a Super Bowl and his career 5-7 record in the playoffs contains just one AFC Championship Game appearance.

Even that, however, comes with a caveat when Rivers is considered. It was the 2007 AFC Championship Game that Rivers reached with the Chargers and nothing was going to stop this premier player from taking the field against the New England Patriots. The Chargers lost 21-12. Rivers was not at his best as he passed for just 211 yards with no touchdowns and two picks. It was a hard-fought win for Brady and the Patriots, one that they achieved with Rivers limping through the game with a torn ACL. Rivers’ knee had to be unlocked after the injury suffered just one week before in the Divisional Round but it is that level of toughness and mental fortitude that will remain the defining features when Rivers’ name comes up in debates about quarterbacks.

Article by Premier Players

Smith Only Needed Half The Game To Shine Brightest Among Stars

It feels crazy to think that coming into the 2020 college football season all eyes on the wide receiver position at Alabama were on Jaylen Waddle. Waddle – still a mighty receiver in his own right – fractured his ankle early in the season and seemed to leave a void at the position for the Crimson Tide. Circumstance can lead to greatness, however, and that is exactly what happened this fall as DeVonta Smith exploded onto the scene as one of the premier players in the country and as potentially the greatest college wide receiver (in a single season) of all time.

Smith was domineering in the first half of the National Title game. He outgained Ohio State on his own, catching an insane 12 passes for 215 yards and three touchdowns. He made the whole thing look incredibly easy – gliding around the field like he owned it (which he did) while the Buckeyes’ defenders were running in mud and chasing his shadow. The game was all but over thanks to Smith as the Crimson Tide were up 35=17 at the half on the back of their premier player, and it would have been very interesting to see what type of numbers Smith would have put up if he hadn’t picked up a pretty disgusting looking finger injury right at the start of the second half.

They say that the stars shine brightest in the biggest moments, the biggest games, and with all the star power on the field – Mac Jones/Najee Harris/Justin Fields – it was Smith who simply took over the contest.

Smith did everything he wanted in this game. He was able to score touchdowns beating double-coverage with his peerless route running. He was able to beat tough one-on-one coverage from the Buckeyes’ best cover guy in Shaun Wade because his feet and balance are so good that Smith is able to catch passes that most playing on Sundays would struggle with. He was able to use matchups and schemes to his advantage – anyone that can give me a reasonable explanation why linebacker Tuf Borland was covering Smith on his final touchdown I’m here for it – to out think and out run the entire Buckeyes’ team. It was incredible to watch.

The wild part of all of this is that Smith being very, very good cannot have come as any surprise to Ohio State head coach Ryan Day and his coaching staff. Smith being the first wide receiver to win the Heisman Trophy since Desmond Howard of Michigan in 1991 – and even his win was skewed by Howard’s special teams work – was a clue. Other clues would be that Smith led the entire FBS in receptions (105), receiving yards (1,641), and receiving touchdowns (20). Those are huge numbers in any season, let alone one with Alabama having played two fewer games than normal because of the pandemic. Covering Smith had to be priority No. 1 for the Ohio State defense, yet this premier player just took over the game with his skill.

One of the wildest aspects of Smith’s success is that he is far from a big guy. Listed at 6-foot-1 and 175-pounds – though there is a feeling that the NFL Combine will show these stats to be overselling both properties – he isn’t the typical Alabama receiver that overwhelms defenses with a killer trait. The likes of Calvin Ridley, Amari Cooper, and Julio Jones all had elite size, elite speed, or both. Smith really has neither. He just has a feel for the game that can’t be taught and rather than those elite prospects his best comparison might just be to Jerry Rice – the greatest receiver of all time who also didn’t have killer measurable or traits.

Where Smith and his 43 career touchdowns – almost triple that of Jones – goes from here is yet to be seen. What we can say is that for one season – and then one half – this premier player was untouchable.

Article By Premier Players

Henry Carries On The Legacy of Great Titans Running Backs

There are few things more entertaining in football than watching a running back take over a game. I was reminded this once again on Sunday as Derrick Henry did his best impression of a human freight train for the Tennessee Titans against the Indianapolis Colts.

While Henry is the latest Tennessee Titans’ running back to be that dominant of a force, he comes from a team with a surprising amount of stars at the position, especially if you go back to their days as the Houston Texans.  Recent fans will remember the speed freak of a back that was Chris Johnson – he of the ridiculous 4.24 time in the 40-yard-dash – while those of a certain age will recall the legendry Earl Campbell, one of the premier players at the position that has ever graced the NFL.

For others – mainly those of us in our 30s and 40s – the player most synonymous with the running back position in Nashville is Eddie George.

While Campbell was a beast for the Oilers in the late 70s and early 80s – a time before the magic of modern television and technology making games accessible to all – George was the lead back for the franchise from 1996-2003. This was a time of explosive growth in both revenue and popularity for the NFL, allowing more eyes to be on franchises weekly wherever you were in the country.

Also – and crucially – George was the back in charge when the Oilers moved states to become the Titans. This makes him the first true running back for this iteration of the franchise, making him feel like a more modern player even if he was rushing between the tackles almost 25 years ago as of writing.

George flashed in his freshman and sophomore seasons at Ohio State, but a couple of costly fumbles in a game against Illinois that the Buckeyes lost saw his playing time never really expand to where it could have been during those two seasons. As a junior he started to break out – he rushed for just under 1,500 yards and 12 touchdowns – but it was as a senior that he dominated the college landscape. This premier player won the Heisman Trophy in 1995 on the back of a year where he rushed for 1,927 yards and 24 touchdowns at an average of 5.9 yards per carry. It was also this season that George showed the type of power and durability that would become his hallmarks on Sundays.

George was the 14th overall pick of the 1996 NFL Draft and he was the third running back taken off of the board. He was picked behind Lawrence Phillips and Tim Biakabutuka, but outperformed both massively as they suffered from legal issues and injuries respectively.  George won the NFL Rookie of the Year award in 1996 and then went on to excel as the starting running back for the team without missing a start before moving to Dallas for a year at the end of the 2003 season. George is one of only two running backs to pass the 10,000 yard mark without missing a start (Jim Brown) and is second behind Walter Payton in consecutive regular season games started (130).

Those are names any running back would want to be associated with at the end of a career and help cement the status of George as one of the premier players at his position. George has only increased his legacy in retirement, working with charities including those trying to prevent Type 2 diabetes and even performing on Broadway – pre-pandemic – following 12 years of acting and singing lessons to hone his skills at a new craft. Some people are driving to be the best they can be multiple times in life and this premier player – and maybe one day premier actor – is just such a person.

Article by Premier Players

Navy Academy Nominates Myles Fells For Freddie Solomon Community Spirit

Myles Fells is known among his Navy teammates and coaches as one who attacks his football and classwork with passion and looks at a turbulent, troubled world with compassion and a yearning to help make it a better place.

In the short term, the senior slotback from Little Rock, Arkansas is preparing to graduate with a degree in political science and commissioned as a 2nd Lt. in the United States Marine Corps. He likes the idea of sticking around next season on temporary assigned duty as a graduate assistant coach.

As long as Fells is serving someone or something larger than himself, he is a happy man which is why the US Navy Academy has nominated him for The 2020 Freddie Solomon Community Spirit Award presented by The Premier Players Sports Foundation in Tampa, FL.

In the long view, Fells wants to lift and inspire others from a high-profile position of leadership. He talks matter-of-factly about running for public office successfully in his home state. He envisions himself serving the people of his home state as their Governor.

“My main goal is to leave [the world] better than the way I found it,” Fells says. “As I’ve seen things that have happened where I’m from, and as I’ve seen the state of things in various places around the United States, I feel the call to help my community. Life can be better — especially in places like where I’m from.”

There is Fells giving a short and passionate speech at a rally at the state capital in Little Rock. He is venting frustration following the May 25 killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, an incident that angered a nation.

There is Fells, bullhorn in hand, saying much during a snippet of a speech he organized without writing a word down. He estimates he came up with his speech in about five minutes.

“I grew up Black in Little Rock. My mom has had ‘the talk’ with me, about getting pulled over by police,” Fells said, identifying with the cheering crowd that includes many public school teachers and other African-Americans as he relays his own fear.

“I was driving back from a football game, and I got pulled over by three cop cars, for not having a light on. I was terrified,” he continues. “That was the same year [2012] Trayvon Martin was killed — a young Black man who looked just like me. I can’t help but think of my two brothers standing over there. What if it was them? What if it was one of my classmates?

“I couldn’t sleep for the past week, because this is weighing on me. The fact that we have so much traction [protesting racial injustice]…I have hope,” Fells adds. “Do everything in your power to be a strong role model. Continue to educate. It’s uncomfortable, but it’s time to have those conversations. Let’s help the people of Arkansas spread peace around the world!”

The rousing energy behind those words spoken in Fells’ clear and booming voice reflects the same quality he brings to each day on the Yard. Senior slot back C.J. Williams calls Fells “a machine” for the way he works tirelessly on his game and lifts teammates’ spirits. Senior Justin Smith admires how Fells exudes charisma and attracts followers with his need to know things about everyone on the team (Where are you from? How many brothers and sisters do you have? Names?).

As much as they feed off of Fells’ upbeat, day-to-day outlook, the Navy football family marvels at Fells’ mature perspective on a world that has taught him real-life lessons, both heart-warming and tragic.

The son of service-driven parents — his mother, Kecia, is an elementary school counselor and has worked in education for more than three decades; his father, Kenny, is a chemist who processes hazardous waste at a treatment storage and disposal facility two hours south of Little Rock in Eldorado, Ark. — Fells was developing his caring ways, even as a boy barely walking.

“At daycare, Myles was always quick to help the other kids, [for example] by picking up a bottle when one would drop it,” says Kenny Fells, who was drafted in 1986 as a running back by the Washington Redskins. “His work ethic was just different than most kids his age. I’ve told him since elementary school he’s a natural-born leader. People look to him, flock to him.”

Up until nearly middle school, when he attended Pulaski Academy in West Little Rock, Fells lived in the John Barrow section of the city, a neighborhood stricken by the twin scourges of drugs and violence.

The family then moved about 20 miles outside of Little Rock and lived on five acres that represented the picture of safety and security. The boys — older brother JaRon, now a nurse in Oklahoma City, and Morgan, a junior at Joe Robinson High School, Myles’ alma mater — commuted to school in Little Rock.

For financial reasons, Kenny, Kecia, and Morgan moved back to Little Rock after Myles had started his journey in Annapolis. Last spring, when the Covid-19 pandemic erupted, students all over America took to online learning at home. Myles went back to his old neighborhood in March, where he would remain for several months, before returning to Annapolis.

While living back in Little Rock, the killing of Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police touched off the nationwide discussion and demands for racial justice in America. Fells says he attended at least half a dozen protests, against the wishes of his worried mother.

“I asked my mother do I want to look back on this time and be someone who played it safe, or do I want to be a guy who made his voice heard?” Fells recalls. “Do I want to tell my kids one day I was out there trying to help or did I run and hide? So many people have been there to help me. I’ve got to help as much as I can.”

One of the things that spurred Fells on to make his speech at the state capital was a terrible run of local tragedy that touched him. Over about 10 days, Fells says five young men whom he’d known as a youth died — four by gunshot, one by opioid overdose.

“I didn’t notice how bad things were when I was younger living in the J.B. neighborhood — the killings, the robberies, the drugs,” Fells says. “We’ve seen shootings, heard gunshots.”

“Myles has been through and seen some things that a lot of us haven’t seen or been through. He’s got a perspective and wisdom a lot of us don’t know,” says Ken Niumatalolo, Navy’s 13th-year head coach, who believes Fells will be an exceptional leader in the military and in politics, should he eventually choose that path.

“[Fells] doesn’t make speeches often, but the guys perk up when he talks,” Niumatalolo adds. “He speaks the truth, [with] no ill will, the best intentions. He’s one of the most respected people on our team because he has a great heart. He’s done a lot of selfless things for our team without complaining. He’s a really good football player. Myles is also one of the best human beings I’ve ever known.”

“Myles is the type of teammate that keeps your head above water, keeps you level-headed and seeing the big picture,” says Smith, who adds Fells helped him to let go of his frustrations as an offensive performer and to embrace his effective roles on Navy’s kickoff, kickoff return, and punt return teams.

“I come from an opposite sort of background in Virginia Beach, compared to the situation Myles comes from. But he doesn’t run away from challenges or adversity, he attacks them head-on,” Smith adds. “He’s got friends who are in jail or have died due to the violence in Little Rock. He’s never satisfied with the way things are. He’s a born leader. I’ve seen examples of it around our team for a long time. He doesn’t do fake energy.”

As an outstanding student-athlete, Fells’ talent on and off the field blossomed in high school, first at Pulaski Academy over two seasons. As a sophomore, he led Pulaski in rushing on a team that won the Class 4A state title. But Fells tore his ACL in the state semifinals and could not play in the title game.

After having knee surgery, Fells transferred to Robinson High in the fall of 2015. He struggled with the knee and wasn’t the same player, but he re-committed to rigorous training and weight lifting to prepare for his senior year. And Fells came into his own in new ways academically.

He was chosen to represent Robinson as a rising junior at Boys State, a week-long camp and immersive program in civics education, operated in part by elected public officials and complete with governing bodies. Fells responded tremendously to Boys State’s focus on participation and personal experience and its design that mirrored the government’s operation in Little Rock.

Fells was chosen by Boys State officials as Governor of Arkansas at Boys Nation.

“Myles has always had this overarching idea of justice and standing up for what he believes is right,” says Damian Patterson, a career educator in Arkansas who coached and mentored Fells as a youngster. “His drive to be successfully kept pushing him in football and he’s driven to serve, just like the people he’s been around.

“We’ve talked a lot about pushing the envelope to change policies and not letting it get too emotional. Be calm and deliberate in your actions,” Patterson adds. “Myles exhibits all of those things. I tell him he’s not responsible for the fate of Black America, just do his piece. When he came back home during Covid, I told him he would be the first Black governor of Arkansas.”

While the knee injury scared off numerous Division I schools recruiting Fells — Arkansas, Vanderbilt, Memphis among them — Navy wanted him by the middle of his senior year in early 2017. By then, Fells was hitting on all cylinders.

He was a two-way starter in football, and shined on both sides of the ball, as Robinson reached the quarterfinals of the state championship tournament. Fells rushed for 928 yards and 14 touchdowns, had 240 yards receiving and seven more scores, but startled everyone by his prowess on defense as a first-time starter at LB, where Fells led 4A with 115 tackles, including 20 tackles for a loss and four sacks.

Fells was one of three finalists for Arkansas Defensive Player of the Year. In addition, as a senior, he led 4A in scoring in men’s soccer, after going nearly a decade without playing the sport. He served as captain of both teams that year.

And after not expressing much interest in running for Class President as a senior, a Robinson administrator urged him to give a speech with the rest of the competitors in the school auditorium, before the vote was held. Fells was the last person to speak. He was voted Class President.

“He is the type of kid everybody gravitates to,” says Tyler Updegrove, who coached Fells at Robinson. “You watch him play, you want to play harder. And you see he truly has a heart for other people.”

Fells has started every game for the Mids in 2020. He has averaged 7.3 yards on 19 carries, caught a career-long, 73-yard touchdown pass, and thrown a slew of crisp blocks.

And those close to Fells are waiting to see how far this born leader takes that part of his game. Kenny Fells gets emotional when he imagines what his son can become.

“If it’s something he wants, you’re not going to stop Myles,” he says. “He’s sitting on the verge of greatness.”

Article provided by US Navy Academy