There once was a time when Brunswick High could have been called Tailback High.
It seemed the Pirates always had a feature running back in their many years under head coach John Willis.
If second-year head coach Sean Pender hangs around long enough, Brunswick might become Quarterback and Receiver High as the Pirates would figure to continue to sling the ball around like they did in Pender’s first season last fall.
Brunswick threw the ball around a good bit under former head coach Victor Floyd, too, as he employed a spread offense similar to the one the Pirates run today.
Perhaps, it was a by-product of that pass-happy offense, but under Floyd who was Brunswick’s coach for seven seasons until getting dismissed after the 2014 campaign, the Pirates might as well have been Defensive Back High.
It was during that time that three former Pirates who played in the defensive secondary went on thrive at major colleges and are now making money playing professionally in the NFL.
And two of them will be suiting up for the same team when training camps begin across the league in a couple of weeks. Darius Slay and Tracy Walker will be playing for the Detroit Lions while Justin Coleman will be playing for the Seattle Seahawks.
Slay is one of the game’s current stars, having recently been named a Top 100 NFL player as he his No. 49 on that elite list.
Coleman has bounced around somewhat, playing for several teams including the New England Patriots, a team he won a Super Bowl ring with two seasons ago, and Walker is the latest to join the league after getting selected by the Lions back in the April draft.
With only a limited number of players making it to the NFL from Glynn County through the years, it seems a bit surreal that three are now in the league at the same time, all three having Brunswick High as their alma mater and the place where they launched their football careers.
“It is interesting,” said Floyd, who is back coaching now in Chester, S.C., where he was before he came to Brunswick. “I guess it is a rarity for that to happen in a place like there.”
Floyd still has a close relationship with all three players. He says he tries to talk to each one weekly.
Their former coach said all three had similar qualities that made them special players.
“All three guys were determined to be successful. They had the desire to be good. They all hated to lose,” Floyd said.
“They all had athletic ability. All three were long-body, lean guys. Darius has always been a speed guy. He ran a 4.3 (in the 40-yard dash) coming out of high school. Justin was a track guy, too. He finished second in the state in the (300-meter hurdles) which is pretty much a guts race. He was more tough than anything else. Tracy was just a terrific athlete. He could dunk a basketball, so he thought he was a basketball player like a lot of guys do, but when he came out for football, it wasn’t hard to see he was a great athlete.”
Slay, who graduated from high school in 2009, would seem to be the one most likely destined for stardom, but even he had to pay his dues to get to the point where he is today.
After finishing out his prep career as an all-state running back and cornerback, Slay played two seasons at Itawamba Junior College in Mississippi where he was an all-state defender for the Indians.
From there, he went to Mississippi State where he played for Dan Mullen and had 64 tackles, six interceptions and two scores in two seasons with the Bulldogs.
Slay wasn’t even considered the best cornerback on his college team, but he shined at the NFL combine and wound up getting drafted by the Lions in the second round of the 2013 draft as the 36th overall pick and fifth cornerback taken.
He started 13 games as a rookie and has been a mainstay in the Lions’ secondary ever since.
Prior to the 2016 season, Slay signed a four-year, $48.5 million contract extension with the Lions that included $23.1 million in guaranteed money and a $14.5 million signing bonus.
This past season, Slay led the NFL with eight interceptions, was named First-Team All-Pro and made the Pro Bowl for the first time.
He shrugged off those accomplishments when talking to reporters recently at his local Big Play Slay camps at Howard Coffin Park.
“I’m just doing my best to be the best I can be,” he said. “I just have to keep grinding.”
Coleman was two years behind Slay in school and graduated in 2011. Though he was a four-star recruit and the 16th rated prospect in Georgia as a senior, Floyd remembers several schools passing on him which left the coach shaking his head in disbelief.
“He played both ways for us, but (the recruiters) all said he wasn’t fast enough, wasn’t 6 feet tall, the whole nine yards,” Floyd said. “I remember telling a recruiter from Auburn, the guy would play in the NFL. Tennessee took a chance on him, he played in over 30 games in the SEC there, but he didn’t get drafted.”
After tying for fourth in the SEC with four picks as a senior in 2014 and playing in the East-West Shrine Game, Coleman signed as a free agent with the Minnesota Vikings prior to the 2015 season.
He was released by the team in late August and was immediately signed by the Patriots. He would play for New England for two seasons as reserve cornerback. He was inactive for the 2017 Super Bowl when the Patriots defeated Atlanta in overtime.
The Patriots re-signed him later that spring, but would trade him to the Seahawks for a seventh-round pick in this year’s draft. Last season, he played in all 16 games for the Seahawks, finishing with 42 tackles, nine passes defended and two interceptions which he returned for touchdowns.
This March, Seattle placed a second-round restricted free agent tender on Coleman and signed him to a deal that is expected to pay him $2.9 million for the coming season. With the departure of star corner Richard Sherman, Coleman figures to possibly play a larger role with the Seahawks this season.
“Justin’s definitely had to work for it,” Floyd said. “He’s been kind of the underdog story, always having to prove himself.
“He’s not flashy. He’s not a talker. That’s not who he is. He’s a quiet, hard-work guy.”
Walker is the latest to join the NFL, and while he might not be the underdog that Coleman has been, he certainly would seem to be the least likely of the three former BHS stars to make the big-time considering he never really played football until high school.
Floyd made that happen, urging him to give the game a try along with several others who stayed after him to give football a chance. The professional basketball player wannabe finally decided to give it a try his junior year, and while he was raw as could be as a football player, his athletic ability was on full display from day one.
“He was long and athletic,” Floyd said. “He could run, he could jump. He had all the measurables. He was just thin, 165-170 pounds. He just needed to fill out physically, but football came pretty easy for him, really.”
Walker quickly blossomed at cornerback while in high school and scholarship offers rolled in during his senior season in 2013. He ultimately chose to sign with Louisiana-Lafayette where he switched to safety and became one of the school’s all-time great players in the secondary.
Oh, he has filled out physically, too. Standing 6-foot-1 and weighing 206 pounds, he stood out at this year’s NFL combine where he ran the 40 in 4.5 seconds and logged impressive numbers in other drills.
Several teams liked him going into the draft in April, but he figured to go in the fifth- or sixth-round. The Lions liked him so much they snagged him with the 86th overall pick in the third round.
“It’s definitely a blessing. I defintely didn’t expect it,” Walker said.
He signed a standard four-year deal with the Lions in May and is expected to be a backup this year while playing on special teams.
Walker has been working toward his rookie season with the Lions in official team workouts since the draft and is now just weeks away from his first training camp with the team.
While in town for his recent youth camps, Slay said Walker, who is also his cousin, has been learning the ropes this summer.
“I can’t help him that much,” Slay said with a little bit of a grin. “I don’t know all the tricks of the trade to being a good safety, but I’ll do the best I can to help him become a better player.”
Slay said he had a good feeling the Lions might take Walker in the draft before other teams got around to it.
“I knew they liked him, and there was a good chance of getting him,” he said.
Slay admitted that it is a bit surreal that someone from his same high school who also has his same bloodlines is now a teammate in the NFL.
“It is crazy, it’s special,” Slay said. “We both achieved what we wanted and now just have to work to get better.”
And then, there is also Coleman, who has landed in a good spot with the Seahawks.
“We all had the same goal and mindset,” Slay noted. “We all got after it and made it here.”
And though their high school coach is no longer steering the Brunswick football ship, all three players still have an interest in the Pirates program, according to Pender, the currrent coach.
Slay has helped the team by giving it money to purchase gear for the players, the coach noted.
“I told him if he would buy us T-shirts, I’d always put his signature on anything he helps us with and he liked that idea,” Pender said.
Pender said he wants all three players to come around the program and share their experiences with the current Pirates.
Walker, who watched the NFL draft from home with family in Brunswick, was scheduled to visit with the team after he was drafted and before reporting to his first mini-camp with the Lions in late spring.
“All three of them can be role models to our team,” Pender said.
And all three are products of Brunswick High, or is that Defensive Back High?