I was sitting in the auditorium at the LSU football facility with Jeremy Hill and La’el Collins, two local Louisiana boys who had recently committed to LSU. It was 2010, my junior year of high school, and I was on an unofficial visit, still undecided.
I’m a Louisiana kid myself, but honestly, LSU wasn’t really on my radar. At one point, I had actually been ready to commit to Tennessee. They had a wide receivers coach up there named Frank Wilson who I really liked, and he had offered me a scholarship.
But then he got a new job.
He was there in the auditorium that day. So was head coach Les Miles, who sat down to talk to me. Afterward, he left the auditorium, and then the lights went down and some old LSU highlights began to play on a big projection screen.
Jeremy and La’el had been trying to sell me on joining them at LSU. Anthony Johnson — some people called him “the Freak” — was another Louisiana boy and a top recruit who had just committed. The goal at LSU was to establish a brotherhood of Louisiana boys who stayed home to create a family of homegrown talent.
Family. That was the motto. They called it “the Fam.”
So I was sitting there in the dark, and … I don’t know what happened. But watching those old LSU highlights I started picturing myself in purple and gold, and then something inside me just clicked. I opened my mouth and said exactly what I was thinking, out loud, straight from the heart.
“I think I’m gonna stay home.”
Jeremy, La’el and Coach Frank all turned and leaned in toward me. I was still looking up at the screen.
“Yeah. I’m gonna commit.”
Coach Frank jumped out of his seat. It actually startled us. Then he ran up the aisle toward the double doors in the front of the auditorium. Jeremy, La’el and I followed.
Outside, Coach Miles was halfway up the stairs to his office when Coach Frank busted out into the lobby and yelled, “We got one!…
“Weeeee goooot ooooone!”
Coach Miles turned around, pumped his fist and smiled. Then he did a little jog down the stairs, hustling to meet me at the bottom. I reached out to shake his hand, but he blew right past it and just bear-hugged me. I mean, he swallowed me.
Anybody who’s played for Coach Miles knows the kind of hug I’m talking about — that patented Les Miles hug that was as much a part of being a Tiger as wearing the purple and gold.
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Coach Frank is originally from Louisiana. When he left Tennessee to become the running backs coach and recruiting coordinator at LSU, he said he was tired of seeing the top talent from Louisiana leave the state.
He was talking about guys like Reggie Wayne and Ed Reed, Louisiana boys who left home and went to Miami. Guys like Landon Collins, who went to Alabama. Guys like Trovon Reed, who went to Auburn. And there have been plenty more.
So Coach Frank created an event he called “Boys from the Boot.” It’s a recruiting weekend held each year for in-state recruits, like a junior day. But it’s also a philosophy. It’s a culture that he wanted to create in which there was a certain level of pride in not only being a top player in Louisiana, but also staying home to play college football.
That’s what Jeremy and La’el sold me on.
Now, if you don’t know anything about how we play football in Louisiana, you’re probably thinking, “Why is it so important to keep the top talent in state? It’s not like it’s Florida or Texas….”
Well, you’re right. It’s not Florida or Texas. And it’s not California or Ohio, or any other traditional football power you might think of.
Now let me tell you what that means.
I grew up in a place called Convent. It’s a tiny industrial town — population just over 700 — in St. James Parish on the Mississippi River, not far off I-10, between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. Like a lot of families in Convent, mine lived in a small trailer on a dirt road. When I was a kid, my older brother, Gerard, and I played with our friends out on that dirt road from sunup to sundown, sometimes even later. We played baseball, basketball, football — and if we didn’t have a ball, we’d play games like hide-and-seek or red light-green light. We were always outside, always running.
And it was hot, man. I mean, if the Texas heat and the Florida humidity got married and had a baby, it would be Louisiana. It was a stagnant heat that you just baked in. On a good day you’d get a little breeze off the Mississippi, but most of the time the heat just seemed to be rising up from the ground — a heat that hung in the air and pulled the sweat right out of you.
Baseball was my first love. I played it all the time growing up, and a lot of people thought I had a bright future in baseball.
But in Louisiana, football is king.
And it was in my family’s blood, too.
My mom was all alone, and she worked just about any job she could get for as many hours as she could to make sure that my brother and I had everything we needed. My mom’s brother Ernest — along with some of my youth coaches — was a real father figure to me. He was one of my five uncles who had played football, and he got my brother started in the game.
Gerard is seven years older than me. So by the time I was nine, Gerard was already playing wide receiver at Lutcher High, where Uncle Ernest had won a state title back in the ’80s. Every week, Gerard would bring game film home to study. He’d pop the tape into the VCR, and he and I would watch together, dissecting plays and breaking everything down.
That’s where I got a lot of my football education.
Gerard was a pretty big receiver. By the time he played college football at nearby Southern University, he was about 6′ 2″ and 225 pounds. And one thing I remember from those film sessions we had is the way he played. He was physical, always blocking downfield, laying people out on crackbacks and whatnot.
I was always pretty small. Even today, I’m about 5′ 11″ and just over 200 pounds. So when I was a kid, if we went to play basketball or football, I usually got picked last because I was the smallest kid out there.
It was really noticeable when I was playing with Gerard and his older friends.
But I always wanted to be like my big brother, so I played with him any chance I got. And when I played, I played like Gerard. I was always blocking, hitting people and trying to run people over, even if the guy had a full foot and 50-plus pounds on me.
I guess that’s where the physical nature of my game comes from.
And it turned out to be a nice component to have to my game, because in Louisiana, football is generally more fast than it is physical.
When you think of Louisiana, you probably think of Cajun food. Mardi Gras. Jazz. All the things that make our state Louisiana unique.
But if you’re from Louisiana, you also think about football.
The small town where I grew up probably isn’t much different from the small towns in Texas and Florida and other states where high school football is everything. You know, the town where everything shuts down on Friday nights and all the businesses close. Maybe the Dollar General, or the old Texaco station, or the 24-hour McDonald’s stays open, but that’s it. The only lights in town you can see on Friday nights are the ones at the football stadium, where you have to get there three hours early to find parking and the bleachers would get so pack that they’d overflow onto the track.
But one thing that’s different in Louisiana is that we don’t have the big boys like you see in Texas and Florida. You don’t see a lot of 300-pound guys coming out of Louisiana. With how hot it gets and how much we’d sweat when we played outside, I don’t know how any kid could even get that big.
Don’t get me wrong, some great offensive linemen have come out of our state — La’el is a perfect example. But when I was in high school, I think the biggest offensive lineman on my team was like 220 pounds … maybe. Most of the time, if your school was lucky enough to have one of those big boys — like my cousin Glenn Dorsey, who won a national championship at LSU and plays for the 49ers now — he was most likely playing on the defensive line.
So if you were a quarterback, you had to be mobile, because you were getting zero protection. If you were a running back, you had to be able to get to the edge and turn the corner quick, because holes and running lanes were hard to come by. If you were a receiver like me, you needed to fire off the ball and get open, because the quarterback wasn’t going to have all day to wait for you to find space.
That’s why, skill guy for skill guy, I think Louisiana can match up with any other state. Skill guys in Louisiana had to have speed and quickness, run great routes, and know how to get open and outrun guys just out of necessity — for survival.
And because we played in the Louisiana heat, our endurance is unparalleled.
I wasn’t the fastest kid, but I had enough speed to hold my own, and my physicality and my hands made up for what I lacked in speed.
I have those afternoons playing with Gerard and his friends to thank for that.
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When I got to Lutcher, the coaches gave me number 80 — the number Gerard had worn — because everybody knew that I wanted to follow in his footsteps. He had won a state title while he was there.
In my time there, I won two.
To this day, he still swears his team was the best in school history. I, of course, say mine was better because we won two.
But my Uncle Ernest might have had the edge on us both. His 1983 team that won the state title was the only one in school history to run the table and go undefeated.
My Uncle Ernest was the backbone of the family. He was the glue — the one always having barbecues and keeping everybody connected. Everybody loved him.
But Uncle Ernest died suddenly of a heart attack when I was 14 years old. It shook the whole family pretty hard. He never got to see me win a state title at Lutcher, or play at LSU, where I continued to wear my brother’s number.
When I got drafted by the Dolphins in 2014, I asked if I could wear number 80. But Dion Sims, a tight end, already had it. So they offered me number 14.
I was 14 when my Uncle Ernest died, and I was drafted in the 2014 draft. So the number 14 felt symbolic in that it honored my uncle and also honored all the sacrifices my mom had made for me throughout my life.
Sometimes, when I go back home, people ask me if I’m ever going to switch back to wearing number 80.
But I think 14 reminds me of where I come from just as much, if not more, than number 80. So I think I’m gonna stick with it forever.
The summer after I committed to LSU, I went to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, to play in a seven-on-seven tournament for Team Louisiana. I was the top-rated wide receiver in the state, and I was going to get the opportunity to share the field with the No. 2–rated receiver.
Odell Beckham Jr.
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I had heard a lot about him, so I was interested to see what he was all about. I remember he surprised me immediately because he got there late and ran pretty much right from his parents’ car onto the field. No stretching, no warming up. Just straight into action.
And together, we balled out.
He hadn’t committed yet, but he was one of those guys who could have gone anywhere he wanted. So when we got back to the hotel that night, I said to him, “Man, there’s nothing like having you next to me on the field. We could keep this going at LSU. It could be big.”
A few months after that camp, he committed to LSU.
So with the Freak, Jeremy, La’el, Odell and me, we had a core of guys who could really carry the flag for the Fam and for Louisiana.
And we started landing Louisiana talent left and right.
Coach Frank’s plan was coming to fruition.
The lasting memory I have of playing at LSU isn’t any individual play I made, or any individual game, or playing alongside Odell.
It’s what I saw happen my freshman season.
When I got to LSU, I was the top-ranked receiver in the state, so I was highly recruited. But when I stepped on the practice field for the first time, it dawned on me that … everybody else out there was highly recruited, too. I was surrounded by guys who had been studs in high school, and we were all competing for only a few spots in the starting lineup.
I didn’t start my freshman year. I played mostly special teams, as did a handful of other freshmen who were in the same position as me, competing for playing time.
But what really stood out to me was that … nobody cared. Playing special teams didn’t bother anybody. If a guy wasn’t starting, or if he wasn’t getting as many snaps as he wanted, he didn’t mind, because we had that brotherhood and that camaraderie. We all realized that we were playing for something bigger than ourselves. We were playing for the state of Louisiana.
And it showed. Our special teams unit was one of the best in the nation, and there were games — like the one against Auburn in 2011, when our punt and kick coverage was suffocating and we forced a fumble on a kickoff return — when we just took over the game. Just seeing how guys who weren’t playing the positions they had been recruited to play embraced their new roles and helped get us to the national championship is something I’ll always remember.
That was just the culture Coach Miles and his staff built.
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I was actually shocked when Coach Miles was fired. It wasn’t something I was expecting to happen. I was sad, because he was a guy who I had built a relationship with during the recruiting process and during my three years at LSU, and I was blessed enough to have played in a BCS national championship game for him.
But the culture he helped establish — especially Coach Frank’s “Boys from the Boot” — is still alive. Now, it’s time for us to get behind our new coach, Ed Orgeron, as he moves us into what I believe will be a bright future.
I had so many great moments as a Tiger. There’s nothing on earth like Saturdays in Death Valley. That’s what we live for down there, and that’s something that opposing teams fear. That was the best time of my life, and to this day, I have friends for life in Odell, Jeremy, La’el and the rest of the guys from the LSU teams I played on. It truly is the Fam. We went to LSU because we believed that with the talent we have in the state of Louisiana, if we could keep it in state, we could compete for a championship every season.
We still believe that.
So if you want to know how we play football down in Louisiana, but you can’t make it down there to see for yourself, just flip on the TV on a Saturday during college football season. You’ll see plenty of Boys from the Boot wearing the purple and gold. And they’ll show you what we’re all about.