Dolphins RB Jay Ajayi Can Take a Hit and Keep Going—and Not Just on the Field

Dan PompeiNFL ColumnistNovember 11, 2016

MIAMI GARDENS, FL - NOVEMBER 06:  Jay Ajayi #23 of the Miami Dolphins reacts after defeating the New York Jets at the Hard Rock Stadium on November 6, 2016 in Miami Gardens, Florida.  (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)
Chris Trotman/Getty Images

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — This is how Dolphins running back Jay Ajayi began his game against the Jets last Sunday.

First carry: Gets hit in the backfield, loses two yards, fumbles the football and recovers it himself.

Second carry: Tries to go left, but the pile engulfs him, and he loses a yard.

Third carry: Gets cut down before taking his first step with the ball. Loss of five.

By now, the Jets are barking at Ajayi. He had run for 200 yards in each of the previous two games, and they want to make sure he knows it's not going to happen again against the then-No. 1 run defense in the NFL.

"Your 200-yard streak ends here, Ajayi," he hears as he gets up from the play.

Little do the Jets know Ajayi has them right where he wants them. Some people have to burn themselves playing with the matches before they can light a spark.

Now the look in Ajayi's eyes is different.

His next opportunity on the drive is on an outside zone run to the left. He cuts it up off-tackle and runs through two defensive backs as if they were smoke. He scores on a 20-yard run, makes his way to the padded end-zone wall and gives it a right hook.

The next day, the end-zone wall is fine, but his hand is sore. "Maybe I shouldn't have hit it so hard," he says with a laugh.

For most of the game, the yards are tough to come by, as the Jets warned they would be. Then, on the final drive, the Dolphins need to keep the Jets from getting the ball one last time. They give it to Ajayi four times. He gains 44 yards to get to 111 for the day, and the Dolphins put away a 27-23 victory.

It was a slow start but a strong finish. And that's just what he's about.

This is how Jay Ajayi began his college career at Boise State.

He walked into the Wal-Mart on Overland Road in Meridian, Idaho, on Oct. 9, 2011, and found a few pairs of sweatpants he liked. He made an impetuous decision to take them without paying for them. They turned out to be the costliest sweatpants he ever touched.

Ajayi was charged with shoplifting, fined $389.50 and sentenced to five days in jail. Instead of serving the time, he was allowed to take eight hours of classes.

Then-Boise State head coach Chris Petersen came close to dismissing Ajayi from the team, but he decided to give him one more chance because he had developed a respect for Ajayi's parents and believed he was a good kid who did a dumb thing. But there had to be consequences. Ajayi would have to redshirt the season. He would not be allowed to accompany the team to a bowl game. And he would be suspended for the 2012 season opener.

One week later at Boise State's Caven-Williams indoor practice facility, Ajayi was taking part in the team's weekly full-contact scrimmage for redshirts and players who hadn't gotten in the game that week. He took a handoff and then took a hit to his knee that hyperextended it a bit, and then the leg was hit again. Both his ACL and meniscus were torn.

"Tough year," he says. "I felt God was humbling me. I was in my room. I felt worthless almost. It was a dark point. I didn't have the game of football. I was in trouble. My teammates were like, is this guy even worthy of being here? I hadn't proved myself yet."

At his lowest, he felt like he had only three things going for him: "the three F's"—his family, his close friends and his Christian faith. "That's what helped me through that time," he says. "My support system didn't give up on me, and the coaching staff allowed me the opportunity to work out of that doghouse."

The following season, he had gained 20 pounds. Wearing a knee brace and weighing near 240, Ajayi couldn't outrun some linemen, let alone his past.

Jay Ajayi of Boise State breaks free on a touchdown run against Arizona in the 2014 Fiesta Bowl.
Jay Ajayi of Boise State breaks free on a touchdown run against Arizona in the 2014 Fiesta Bowl.Ralph Freso/Getty Images

In time, though, he shed the weight and the brace and carried himself like a young man who appreciated a second chance. In 2013, he broke out with 1,425 rushing yards. The next year, he became the only player in FBS history to have 1,800-plus rushing yards and 500-plus receiving yards.

This is how Jay Ajayi began his NFL life.

When the draft arrived, Ajayi expected to be a second-round pick—a third-rounder at worst. That's what NFL front-office men had told him.

So on the day of the second and third rounds, Ajayi's childhood home was filled with hopeful anticipation, as well as the wonderful aromas of Nigerian food. His mother, Kemi Ajayi—a Nigerian who has spent most of her life in England—prepared some of his favorite traditional dishes: jollof rice, which is brown rice in a peppery sauce; fried rice with mixed vegetables and shrimp; and seasoned chicken.

About 40 family members and friends from all over the continent—Canada, Maryland, New Mexico and other places—made their way to Plano, Texas, for what was sure to be a grand celebration. They stood and prayed for him at times. Champagne was on ice.

Round 2 came and went. Then came Round 3. Twenty-six teams chose, and the Cowboys were up. This, Ajayi was convinced, was his moment. He would go to the team that was building a practice facility a 10-minute drive from his house. How perfect.

Before the draft, Cowboys running backs coach Gary Brown had taken him to dinner and told him the Cowboys planned to select a running back in the first three rounds. The other runners Brown said the Cowboys were interested in—Todd Gurley, Melvin Gordon, T.J. Yeldon and Ameer Abdullah—all were off the board.

Then, with the 27th pick, the Cowboys chose offensive tackle Chaz Green. The rest of the third round passed without that phone call.

More than four hours after the party began, not a person had left. But there would be no more draft picks that day. He had hoped to share the moment of his arrival with the people who had paved his path.

Ajayi stood in front of the crowd. He had to say something. "It didn't happen today," he told them. "I don't have an explanation."

He remembers it as "one of the worst days of my life."

Jay Ajayi celebrates his second straight 200-yard rushing day on Oct. 23.
Jay Ajayi celebrates his second straight 200-yard rushing day on Oct. 23.Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

His agent, Erik Burkhardt, was telling him his fall mostly could be attributed to concerns about his knee. Burkhardt said he was aware some team doctors advised their general managers not to take him. Others told their general managers to drop him a round or two.

Ajayi had a hard time understanding that. He had never missed so much as a practice after coming back from his knee surgery, and he had 751 touches from scrimmage in his college career. Gurley had not even come back from his ACL tear, and he went 10th overall.

The following day, the crowd of 40 became a gathering of 15. People had things to do, places to go.

Adam Engroff was watching all of this play out with a vested interest. The Dolphins' director of college scouting lives in Boise and runs in the same social circles as many of Ajayi's coaches. He spends a lot of time in the Boise State football offices. Ajayi had been to his home and played video games with Engroff's sons, Austin, nine, and Brody, seven. Engroff was so fond of Ajayi that he advised him on how to prepare for draft interviews, the combine and his pro day.

Engroff has seen it all with the Dolphins over 18 years, from Jimmy Johnson to Rick Spielman to Randy Mueller to Bill Parcells to Jeff Ireland to Dennis Hickey and now Mike Tannenbaum. He has survived because of his judgment.

Knowing Ajayi better than anyone in the NFL, Engroff confidently vouched for his character and pushed hard for his team to draft him. After 148 players were off the board, his bosses listened.

Jay Ajayi, fifth-round draft pick, finally was moved to shed a tear and pop a champagne cork.

This is how Jay Ajayi began his rookie season.

After a third-quarter drive in the Dolphins' final exhibition game, Ajayi jogged to the sideline. Then it hit him—a pain so intense he could barely talk or breathe. Ajayi wasn't sure how he did it, but he had cracked a rib.

He was headed to injured reserve, where he would spend the first seven games of the season. "I'm watching all these guys I trained with," Ajayi says. "They're playing, working on their craft. I'm on IR."

His mother's advice was this: Use the time on the shelf to make yourself better. So Ajayi got in his playbook and did all he could to prepare his body for the 100-yard wars that were in his future.

MIAMI GARDENS, FL - NOVEMBER 06:  Running back Jay Ajayi #23 of the Miami Dolphins carries the ball during a NFL game against the New York Jets at Hard Rock Stadium on November 6, 2016 in Miami Gardens, Florida.  (Photo by Ronald C. Modra/Sports Imagery/G
Ronald C. Modra/Sports Imagery/Getty Images

By the time he returned, the Dolphins' season was off the rails. The head coach had been fired. Everyone knew more change would be coming.

He tried to block out the noise, and in his NFL debut against the Bills he averaged 8.2 yards per carry. Ajayi made enough of an impression in a limited amount of playing time for his next head coach to believe Ajayi could at least be half of a two-man running back rotation in the future.

This is how Jay Ajayi began the 2016 regular season.

He was sitting on his couch in his Plantation, Florida, townhome while his teammates were 3,200 miles away. On a 67-inch flat-screen TV, Ajayi watched his Dolphins lose to the Seattle Seahawks.

Dolphins fans all over South Florida were loud and boisterous while watching the same game, but Ajayi, along with Tayo Adewon, his best friend since fourth grade, and Jamil Douglas, a practice squad player at the time, sat mostly in silence.

"He made one comment," Adewon says. "'I wish I was with my team playing.'"

CINCINNATI, OH - SEPTEMBER 29:  Jay Ajayi #23 of the Miami Dolphins carries the football during the third quarter of the game against the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium on September 29, 2016 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by John Grieshop/Getty Ima
John Grieshop/Getty Images

Ajayi thought about the hours of physical effort and study he had put in during the offseason. He felt embarrassed. He didn't want to leave home.

Springtime in Miami had been full of hope for Ajayi. Starting halfback Lamar Miller left the team as a free agent to sign with the Texans. The Dolphins signed restricted free agent C.J. Anderson to an offer sheet, but the Broncos matched. That left Ajayi running with the first string.

It was on one of those sunny springtime days when Ajayi came up with his personal theme for the 2016 season. "The year of the jump," he called it, because he intended on making a big leap forward.

It could not possibly be that smooth. Not for Ajayi.

In late July, the Dolphins signed a veteran running back. It was with the intent, new head coach Adam Gase said, of giving the Dolphins a two-back rotation. Gase said he still considered Ajayi his primary running back.

But this wasn't just any veteran running back. It was Arian Foster, four-time Pro Bowler and former NFL rushing champion. Shortly after meeting Ajayi, Foster had a request.

"Can I have your number?" he said to Ajayi.

He didn't want his mobile number. He wanted his jersey number, 23.

"No," came the reply.

"I felt like there was a reason I was No. 23," Ajayi says. "I felt in my heart I needed to be 23. Michael Jordan, LeBron James, a lot of great players have worn 23."

Even with Foster's ominous presence, Ajayi continued to be the first-string back all through camp and preseason.

But training camp exposes things that OTA practices and minicamps cannot. The pads are on, the sun is unrelenting, the contact is real and the reps are plentiful.

The Dolphins under Gase were transitioning from a gap-scheme running game to an outside zone running game, and it didn't always look good in practice. As the regular season drew near, Ajayi was losing ground, and he could read the writing on the grease board.

"As we had progressed through training camp there were some growing pains with all our backs getting used to what we were doing with our wide zone scheme," Gase says. "It took Jay time to get used to the outside zone stuff. Arian had been doing it his whole career, so it looked different when Arian did it compared to him. We were more comfortable with Arian jumping in there.

"I was telling him heading into that last [preseason] game, don't get frustrated, you are going to be playing a lot. We have a 30-year-old back coming off the injury, and we were going to basically split the carries. He got upset."

On the first play of the Dolphins' final preseason game, Ajayi fumbled. That set off Gase. Ajayi had not fumbled once since the offseason program began. How could he be so careless on the first play of the game? Where was his head?

Now both of them were salty.

The next week, Gase was getting ready for his debut as a head coach, which happened to be in the loudest stadium in the league against one of the best defenses of the era. He made the decision to start Foster. And because Damien Williams and Kenyan Drake had been preparing to play on special teams and Ajayi had not, Williams and Drake were going to be the second and third backs on the active roster. That left Ajayi on the sideline in street clothes.

In meetings and practices that week, Ajayi showed his displeasure with his attitude. Gase, fed up, decided Ajayi would not accompany the team to Seattle.

Ajayi was crushed.

"Did I not do enough?" he asked himself. "I didn't know. It was a confusing period for me.

"At that time, my mentality wasn't in the right place," Ajayi says. "I was more worried about everyone else and not myself. I lost the identity of the competition—the battle between myself and myself. I was thinking I was going against all of these other guys when all I had to worry about was myself and my play and my attitude, then let everything sort itself out."

Ajayi had been looking forward to the trip to Seattle for personal reasons too. The Dolphins would be practicing at the University of Washington, where Petersen—his Boise State head coach—and other staff members now were working. He had arranged a get-together.

Instead, it was Gase who got together with Petersen. Dolphins general manager Chris Grier introduced them.

"You left Jay back, huh?" Petersen said.

Gase explained what happened.

"I think this will be good for him," Petersen told him. "You will see a different guy. I promise you he'll never change his work ethic. When his mind is focused on being the best back he can, he'll be a very good player, trust me."

MIAMI GARDENS, FL - OCTOBER 23: Jay Ajayi #23 of the Miami Dolphins is introduced prior to the game against the Buffalo Bills on October 23, 2016 at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida. Miami defeated Buffalo 28-25. (Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty I
Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

That conversation helped Gase reset. Another conversation helped Ajayi reset.

When the team was in Seattle, Ajayi spoke by phone with Dolphins running backs coach Danny Barrett, expressing his resolve. Barrett told him he still believed in him and was looking forward to getting him back on the field.

Then Barrett told Gase he thought he would see a different guy when the team returned Monday. He was right. "It was a reality check," Adewon says. "He took it like a man. It added more fuel to the tank, more fire. It motivated him."

Gase was always telling his players he valued their feedback. So a little more than a week into the season, Ajayi came to see him. He told his coach he wanted to make sure he understood which kinds of runs Ajayi thought were best for him.

"Go ahead," Gase said, pen in hand.

Gap scheme, draw, inside zone. Gase wrote it down.

Initially, Gase called those runs a lot for Ajayi, and the results were encouraging. That led to a greater commitment against the Steelers, and Ajayi responded with 204 rushing yards. The following week, he rushed for 214 against the Bills, making him the fourth player in history to have back-to-back 200-yard games. The first three were O.J. Simpson, Earl Campbell and Ricky Williams.

As Ajayi kept gaining yards, Gase and Ajayi became more comfortable with runs besides gap scheme, draw and inside zone. The Dolphins now are running mostly outside zone, which is what they set out to do in training camp.

Ajayi's success has altered the identity of his team.

"This has changed our whole mindset," says Gase, whose Dolphins have won three straight and are back at .500 after losing four of their first five. "We went from a team that we felt had really good skill guys and should be able to throw the ball to a team that we feel we can run the ball way better than what we expected to."

After the Bills game, Foster retired, and Ajayi, No. 23, became an international sensation. Ajayi is a British citizen who lived in London until he was seven. In addition to fulfilling media requests from South Florida, he has been featured on BBC TV and participated in a conference call with writers from the U.K. With Ajayi's British accent and million-dollar smile, it is not difficult to envision him as the poster boy for the NFL in England.

Jay Ajayi @JayTrain

Looking forward to a big Sunday 🙌🏿 My @MiamiDolphins are back + @Arsenal and my man @Alex_OxChambo have a key matchup #FinsUp #Gooners #COYG https://t.co/zs59t6qWGn

The Dolphins haven't had a player who really captures the imagination of fans since Williams in his first Miami season in 2002—when he ran for 200 yards in consecutive games. That may be changing. On the cover of the Dolphins program Sunday was a photo of Ajayi pumping his arm as if pulling the cord for a train whistle. "JAY-TRAIN," it read. Every time he has a big play at Hard Rock Stadium, the whistle blows.

Success always changes things. Success already has changed things for Ajayi. But not in the usual ways.

"He's handled the last two weeks so well, he's almost gone the other way that you'd expect," Gase says. "He's gotten quieter and worked even harder, which is not easy to do."

Ajayi, 23, still is figuring it all out, but he values the advice of his mother, Kemi, and father, Ibi Ajayi. "We keep telling him the key is to stay humble, and be grateful to God for where you are," Kemi says.

This is how Jay Ajayi usually begins a run.

He gets hit.

Sometimes in the backfield. Sometimes at the line of scrimmage, sometimes after a couple of steps.

But then he trucks through the hit. He keeps going. And going and going.

The runner, it seems, reflects the man. If he is one part recklessness, he is two parts resiliency. "Perseverance, being able to fight through challenges and adversity—that has been defining for me," he says.

He is averaging 3.7 yards after contact, best in the NFL among players with at least 50 carries, according to Pro Football Focus.

"You watch the film of him, it's inspiring," Dolphins guard Jermon Bushrod says. "He sells out every single play, running through guys, two at a time."

Ajayi runs the way a hurricane rains. At 225 pounds, he has exceptional balance, and it enables him to stay on his feet with momentum after contact. His runs make sounds that make you shudder. Limbs fly off him in different directions.

Ajayi takes pride in breaking tackles, moving piles and creating yards when the play isn't blocked correctly. "I look up to backs like Marshawn Lynch for the way he played the game with his physicality," Ajayi says. "That's something I'd like to be known for."

He even runs that way on the team's practice fields in Davie. In fact, he runs with so much intensity against his own defense that the Dolphins are having a hard time keeping everyone on their feet. In the interest of player safety, Gase says he's considering ways to alter how the team practices the run.

"He's a bitch, man," Gase says.

The best part of his runs are the finishes. At the point when other runners often surrender, there is one last leg pump, a powerful shoulder thrust, a stiff arm that will leave a mark.

For Ajayi, it never has been about how he begins.


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