The Starkville native made waves in his high school career, accumulating 2,883 receiving yards and 35 touchdowns for his hometown Starkville Yellowjackets. Brown’s road to Ole Miss did not happen overnight, however, and it took a lot of work on his part to join the conversation as one of the best wide receivers in the nation.
Although it has taken years for Brown to reach his peak at Ole Miss, Starkville High School photographer Thomas Brown has seen Brown play football since his peewee days and said his talent was always superb.
“A.J. was a natural talent from the beginning,” Thomas Brown said. “I personally didn’t see anything that stood out physically like you see in some kids that are better just because of their size or speed. A.J. was just good. His ball skills and hand-eye coordination were there as a seven-year-old.”
According to Thomas Brown, A.J. Brown sat out of football during his junior high and freshman years but returned to the gridiron for his sophomore year of high school and never looked back.
“In tenth grade, I noticed he was back,” Thomas Brown said. “When we played West Point, I noticed that they would always kind of plug A.J. in here or there, even on defense. So (his) being relied on as a tenth grader at a 6A school against one of the best opponents and rivals stood out to me.”
It was after his sophomore season that A.J. Brown began adding size to his talent.
“The coming out party was 11th-grade year,” Thomas Brown said. “He really grew a lot. I thought he was headed toward playing tight end — he had gotten so big. I remember going to the spring practice game thinking, ‘Man, A.J. is going to have to play with his hand on the ground,’ but when he started running I was like, ‘Oh, man, he hasn’t lost a step.’”
A.J. Brown’s talent in high school was quickly noticed by his teammates, as well, including former Starkville quarterback Brady Davis.
“From the very beginning, I knew he was different,” Davis said. “God blessed him with the
physical attributes and all the ability in the world.”
Davis now plays quarterback at Illinois State University but still works out with Brown on
occasion, when he returns home to Mississippi. According to Davis, he can see Brown’s talent
shine through in his work ethic and drive in the weight room.
“What sets A.J. Brown apart is his work ethic,” Davis said. “Every time we are both in Mississippi, we are working every day. And for him, that is just one of his two or three workouts for that day.”
That work ethic paid off during Brown’s senior season as he helped lead his Yellowjackets to their first state championship since 2012.
“At (that) point, I think everybody in the nation knew about A.J. Brown,” Thomas Brown said. “No surprises. He had just as good of a senior year with everyone in the stadium knowing the ball was going to him. Every single game, it was only a matter of time before A.J. struck.”
All the way to the state championship game versus Petal, A.J. Brown continued to make highlight-reel plays that kept his national hype going.
“As usual, A.J. put his stamp on that game with a deep ball that kind of wrapped up and
summed up his high school career,” Thomas Brown said.
A.J. Brown’s work ethic and success impacted the Yellowjackets who would play in his wake.
According to current Starkville running back Rodrigues Clark, who was just a freshman during
Brown’s senior season, Brown was frequently found practicing and working by himself outside
of practice hours.
“He put in work behind closed doors,” Clark said. “I remember going out to the field thinking
I (was) the only one there, and just seeing him work by himself was so shocking.”
Clark and Brown have formed a relationship since Brown’s graduation, and now that Clark is a senior at Starkville, Brown encourages him to keep working toward another state championship, which would be the school’s first since Brown’s senior season.
“It plays a big role in my life just knowing I can look up to him and (Mississippi State’s) Willie
Gay,” Clark said. “My confidence is at 100 percent. A.J. just tells me to keep balling.”
According to Davis, after seeing Brown excel in high school, there was never any doubt that he would be among college football’s elite in a matter of time.
“I knew A.J. had the potential to be the best wideout in the country,” Davis said. “And I think he is just that — if not the best player in college football.”
With Brown being from Starkville, he’s added an extra variable to the Egg Bowl every season he has been a Rebel. In 2017’s installment of the rivalry, Brown yelled to the crowd, “This is my city,” after scoring a touchdown. The Rebels won the game 31-28.
Last season, Brown accumulated 1,252 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns, which were enough to earn him All-SEC and All-American honors as well as to secure his win of the C-Spire Conerly Trophy. Those numbers were also enough to give him the school single-season record for receiving yards.
Brown’s 2018 campaign got off to a hot start, as well, as he hauled in a touchdown pass and 93 yards against Texas Tech in Houston. Brown was one of four Rebel wideouts to have more than 60 receiving yards in the season opener. He has quickly become a fan-favorite at Ole Miss and has once again attracted national attention as he did in his high school days. He is a projected first-round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, and if he continues to live up to his potential, he could be a force to be reckoned with at the professional level.
At this point, however, no one is surprised.