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"It will always come back to you"

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By Travis Jenkins

James Peay’s football-playing career may or may not have ended last month on a high school field in South Carolina. Amazingly, his career didn’t really start on a high school field in South Carolina.

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In December, Peay took part in the Division II Senior Bowl, an all-star contest held at Myrtle Beach High School. Players from as far away as Minnesota and Washington were on the field that day. Peay not only played for the victorious East team, he started at center, played the majority of the snaps there and even got one emergency play at defensive tackle. Unlike almost everyone else on hand, playing on a high school field was mostly uncharted territory for Peay.

“If you’d told me I’d be here (five years ago), I would’ve looked at you like you were crazy because at the time, I didn’t think football was in my life anymore,” Peay said.

Peay played one season of JV football at Chester High School as a freshman but that was it. He didn’t so much as a dress for a single varsity contest with the Cyclones. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to be on the field competing and his lack of participation wasn’t due to injury. It was due in part to an illness, but not his own. His great grandmother wasn’t doing well at the time, so he made “a man decision” to help his grandmother care for her.

“I had to put football on the backburner,” he said.

Caring for an ailing relative meant a lot of late nights. He said that led to him being inattentive in school and not studying the way he should have. Still, as a senior, three years removed from his only year of organized football in a Cyclones uniform, Peay still yearned to get back on the field. With no game tape to show coaches, with almost no experience and with a subpar transcript, Peay knew his opportunities would be limited, if they existed at all.

“My senior year, I started hitting coaches up. My grades were kind of bad, so I knew I would have to go the junior college route,” he said.

All of his calls and emails netted him one opportunity, but it was only an opportunity. Peay was invited to go 3,000 miles away from home to Feather River Community College in California. There was no scholarship offer, not even a promise he’d make the team or play, just an opportunity. It was one he was intent on taking, but days before he was to leave, Peay’s great grandmother took a turn for the worse. So he faced the nearly impossible decision of whether to chase his dream or make what he called “another grown man decision.” He opted to stay home to be with his family and assumed that his last chance at playing football had passed him by.

“I beat myself up over it at first,” Peay said. “But my grandmother always told me if something is meant to be, it will always come back to you.”

Peay did stay close to athletics, closer than he actually ever did as a high school student. He spent the 2014-’15 school year as a volunteer assistant coach for football, basketball and baseball. He was deciding what he wanted to do next when he got a surprise call from Quincy, California. It was a coach from Feather River asking if he still had interest in playing football. What was meant to be had come back to him. This time he made the trek west. He earned a spot on the team, played some as a freshman, then things really started to take off for him as a sophomore. For one thing, by that time, he’d lived in the state long enough to qualify for in-state tuition and a Pell grant that paid most of his school expenses. He also, improbably, earned a starting spot on the football team. Life was a lot different in the California mountains, where it was not uncommon to see a bear or mountain lion stroll across the team’s practice field. He grew as a player but said he also grew as a person.

“My mom wasn’t going to be out there cooking and taking care of me. It helped me grow up. I had to man up and take care of myself,” I said.

Though he doesn’t possess ideal height for an offensive lineman, Peay’s play popped on tape and coaches raved about his leadership, attracting interest from four-year colleges eager to have him play for them his last two years. He originally committed to Cheyney State, but the school had a coaching change, leaving Peay looking again. He eventually landed at Livingstone College. He worked his way into the rotation as a junior but claimed a starting job as a senior. It was his goal to earn a spot in some sort of all-star game. He worked hard to get to that point, but it was still a shock when he found out about his Division II Senior Bowl invite.

“The day I got the invite, I came to practice and guys were like ‘go see coach.’ I went upstairs to see him and he congratulated me. I asked him ‘what for?’ I wasn’t expecting it. It’s a whole new feeling knowing you worked so hard for it,” Peay said.

The week of practice and the game itself in Myrtle Beach were overwhelming in a good way. Peay said it showed what a person can accomplish. At one point, he had nothing but perseverance and the desire to play. He knows he is one of a scant few players to ever play in a college all-star game without playing varsity football in high school.

Peay will soon graduate from Livingstone with a degree in business. He plans to start his own business and would like to get into coaching at some point. He’s holding out hope, though, that he isn’t done playing football. He’d like to get a shot playing professionally at some level. Anybody with that dream faces long odds, but Peay has already faced long odds and made dreams a reality once before.