The bruising Patriots running back’s NFL journey took a two-year detour through tiny Scooba, Miss., about as far from big game—psychologically, at least—as you can get
SCOOBA, Miss. — For two years, LeGarrette Blount’s life was mostly contained within a distance not much longer than a few football fields.
The campus of East Mississippi Community College can be lapped in about five minutes by a good miler, and when Blount was a student here he slept in a dorm so close to the football stadium that it’s barely out of range of a wide-right field goal. His home was Sullivan Hall, a two-story brown brick building with olive green doors that looks like a roadside motel. Blount made a name for himself right across the street at the old Sullivan-Windham Field, a plot of grass flanked by a chainlink fence and seven rows of bleachers.
EMCC’s football games were, and still are, played on Thursday nights. With no classes on Fridays, students flock out of this tiny town (population less than 1,000) for the weekends. Plus, in this part of the country, Friday nights are for high school lights, and Saturdays are reserved for the SEC. In the fall of 2006 and 2007, the grand stage of Super Bowl Sunday couldn’t have felt farther away for Blount than it did in this tiny town near the Alabama border marked by a single flashing red light.
This is just the second four-way stop on U.S. 45 in the 55 miles from Starkville, Miss., so says one campus employee. Scooba’s “downtown” consists of a pair of gas stations at the intersection, catty-corner from a sign that announces: “Birthplace of World Champion Turkey Caller Jack Lewis Dudley.” The big news in town right now is the pending opening of a Dollar General store right behind Scooba’s main restaurant, the Subway at the Chevron station.
“If you are going to Scooba, Miss.,” says Roger Carr, who was Blount’s head coach at East Mississippi, “you are going there just to find it.”
Or, to find something. Coming out of high school in little Perry, Fla., Blount didn’t receive the attention, or have the grades, to play big-time college ball. So he came to the even smaller town of Scooba, where, as one current East Mississippi coach puts it, the only things for students to do are “ball and books.” The bruising running back who scored 18 touchdowns and rushed for a career-high 1,161 yards for the Patriots this season at age 30, has followed a far from straight path to his second Super Bowl. Here on this campus, at 19 years old, was where he navigated the first major detour of his football career.
“There were probably times he was lonesome,” Carr says. “This wasn’t bigtime. No one knew a whole lot about him, or us, at the time. But, it didn’t take long.”
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In the past five years, East Mississippi has won three junior college national titles, built a new 5,000-seat stadium and been featured on the Netflix series Last Chance U. But none of that existed when Blount enrolled here. The players’ lockers were old castoffs from a high school where the head coach’s son used to work with, and the coaching staff was responsible for cutting, striping and irrigating the football fields. The one and only recruiting tool was the chance for a guy like Blount to continue playing football.
Recruiting was different in those days. There was no social media, and no video platform like Hudl for coaches to scour game film. It was still possible for a player like Blount, who was a man among boys on his small Florida high school team, to fly under the radar.
When Blount was coming out of school, the head coach at East Mississippi was Carr, who played receiver for the Baltimore Colts, coincidentally, at the same time Bill Belichick took his first coaching gig as a $25/week gopher for Colts head coach Ted Marchibroda. The way Carr tells it, his son, John, was on his East Mississippi staff, and got a call from a buddy he’d coached with at a high school in Lousiana: Steve Ensminger, the former LSU quarterback, then an assistant at Auburn. The Tigers had found a running back, a good one, but he wasn’t going to have the grades to qualify for Division I. His name was LeGarrette Blount.
Junior colleges in Mississippi can sign eight out-of-state players on their 55-man rosters. Blount came as one of those players in the summer of 2005. He promptly suffered a high ankle sprain that would surely claim much of his first juco season, so he went back home to Perry, Fla., and returned in January 2006, so he could get two full seasons in at that level. East Mississippi was trying to run a spread offense, out of the shotgun formation. By the second game of Blount’s first season, once the coaches realized what they had, they scrapped the spread offense.
“There was one game he carried the football I think 16 or 17 straight times,” recalls Carr, who is now a pastor at Chapel By The Sea Baptist Church in North Myrtle Beach, S.C. “We were playing Itawamba Community College on their homecoming. Their guys couldn’t tackle him. He just kept running over them. After the game, their coach said to me, ‘I want you to know he knocked out both of our starting linebackers and our free safety.’ That was the kind of guy he was in this league. They knew he was getting the ball, and they still couldn’t stop him.”
That will sound familiar to anyone who watched Blount carry seven Steelers with him to the goal line on an 18-yard run in the AFC Championship Game. Even back then, the only thing that could stop Blount was himself. He’d come back from school breaks 10 or so pounds overweight. Carr lived on campus, like the coaches do today, right across from Sullivan Hall. He had a key to Blount’s room, and he recalls going in at 6 a.m., pulling his player out of bed and walking him about 30 yards to the treadmill in the outdated weight room. Blount never resisted—he just needed that activation energy to get him going. On the field, on the other hand, his challenge was not letting his adrenaline carry him away.
His first season at East Mississippi, he got kicked out of a game. His early success had made him a marked man in Mississippi’s junior college league. The opponent was Coahoma Community College, recalls former East Mississippi offensive coordinator Alan Hall, and at the end of a run Blount was speared by a defender four or five yards out of bounds. The opposing player was flagged, but Blount set out to even the score on his own. He ran after the guy and shoved him hard. Blount was tossed out.
The next year, Hall recalls, East Mississippi was hosting Coahoma for its homecoming game. East Mississippi had a third-and-long, backed up deep in the its own territory, and Blount caught the corner on a toss play, running the ball out to the 30-yard line. Coahoma’s safety caught him and drove him all the way into the fence. Hall could see what was about to happen next, so he took off down the sideline to stop a repeat of the previous year. East Mississippi’s quarterback got to his teammate first and tackled Blount to the ground. The coaches sat Blount for a play or two, and he was fine to go back in. He just needed someone to snap him out of it.
“What makes him so special is what got him sidetracked early on,” says Hall, who is now the principal of San Jose Prep in Jacksonville, Fla. “He is a very fierce competitor that is also very emotional. It was learning how to channel that.”
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East Mississippi wasn’t the last time Blount would have to restart his football career.
In two years in Scooba, Blount carried the ball 367 times for 2,292 yards, attracting notice from the top Division I programs he’d so badly wanted to play for out of high school. Scouts from his home-state Seminoles visited Scooba multiple times. But he was drawn to Oregon, where he connected with the team’s longtime running backs coach, Gary Campbell. It also didn’t hurt that after two years of wearing the most basic uniforms imaginable at East Mississippi—solid-color Rawlings jerseys—he was upgrading to the Ducks’ flashy Nike threads.
His East Mississippi coaches were paying attention when he rushed for a school-record 17 touchdowns in his first season at Oregon, and they were paying attention the following year when, after a season-opening loss to Boise State, he punched an opposing defender and the teammate who tried to restrain him. Blount was suspended for eight games. Another detour.
“The kid paid dearly for that choice,” Hall says. “He could have been a first- or second-round draft pick, compared to an undrafted free agent. You’re talking about millions of dollars, not to mention being a joke for eight months. I give him credit for where he’s at today. He could have said, Forget this, man, but he didn’t do that. No different mentality than he took when he came [to East Mississippi].”
Blount has played for three NFL teams, but his last detour has taken him to the best place for him. He was released by the Steelers during the 2014 season, a couple months after being arrested for marijuana possession along with teammate Le’Veon Bell and directly following a game when he left the field before the clock had expired. After clearing waivers, he signed on for a second stint with the Patriots, won a Super Bowl XLIX ring two and a half months later, and now will play for another one. After struggles in other places, his best fit in the NFL has been the toughest coach in the NFL. “My question early on was could he be disciplined enough, could someone corral him enough to keep him going straight,” Carr says. “He’s found his fit up there.”
Back in Scooba, a lot has changed, but much remains the same. Carr recalls sitting out on his front porch right across from the old football stadium, and he’d be able to count on one hand the number of cars that would drive past between Friday and Sunday. It was just as sleepy on campus this past Sunday when The MMQB visited, but a few students were hanging outside one of the athlete dorms, near an outdoor vending machine. Everyone on campus knows about “Blount force trauma,” the bruising running style that’s been Blount’s hallmark dating back to his days at East Mississippi.
The 41,000-square foot student union didn’t exist then, nor did a stadium with its own locker-room facilities, or a video scoreboard. The Subway wasn’t open, either, so at night after the campus cafeteria closed, if Blount got hungry he’d buy some bacon and bread at the gas station convenience store and make a breakfast sandwich on the little grill he’d keep in his dorm room.
“He played on that field right there that we don’t even use anymore,” says Kialur Armstrong, a manager for the football team and president of East Mississippi’s student government, “and now he’s going to have the chance to win his second Super Bowl.”
Armstrong and his teammates will be watching on Sunday. Thanks to Blount, the distance from Scooba to the Super Bowl won’t be far as it once seemed.
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