MINNEAPOLIS — Talking about being the best they could be, Jay Ajayi, Philadelphia Eagles running back, wasn’t just speaking about football. Wrapped in the flag of a nation across an ocean, wearing his Super Bowl Champions hat low, almost over his eyes, Ajayi spoke of showing up during this season from the Miami Dolphins. Ajayi knew the baggage he’d brought along.
“To see where I’ve come from, the journey,’’ Ajayi said when asked about redemption, since the Eagles had picked up a big-time running back in a bargain shop. “I’m so thankful for the opportunity I was given. I’m so thankful for my teammates for embracing me.”
That flag Ajayi wore was one more symbol of the enormity of the whole thing. Ajayi had left his native England when he was 7, moved to Maryland, took up this new sport. Sunday night inside U.S. Bank Stadium, a fan handed over a flag of the United Kingdom. Ajayi took it and wore it. Everyone dreams of this, Ajayi said later, to be the best, a champion. If the UK wanted a piece of it, he was great with that, too.
“I’m thankful for everything that’s happened in my life, to bring me to this point,’’ Ajayi said after he’d run nine times, added 57 yards to a Super Bowl LII box score that stopped at Eagles 41, Patriots 33. Since Ajayi arrived for this season’s stretch run, his explosiveness was often a game-changer.
Beyond any stats, Ajayi symbolizes another crucial piece of that championship Eagles puzzle. Ajayi was used to being the man. When he got here, LeGarrette Blount already was the man. Those two accommodated each other straight into history. An undrafted rookie took some of their snaps? They’d accommodate Corey Clement, too.
Ajayi spoke with a kind of reverence of the running back room itself at the NovaCare Complex. “That starts with Coach Duce Staley,’’ he said. He talked of Staley’s role in making the room special. Staley, of course, had been part of the most famous three-headed tailback combo in Eagles history. The lessons from Staley’s days splitting time with Brian Westbrook and Correll Buckhalter were passed on this season.
“Those guys, the guys that are in our running back room, are special,’’ Ajayi said. “Everyone is competitive, embraced me, never talked down. There’s a special feeling to being part of a great group like this tonight. … Corey, all those great plays. Even Kenjon [Barner] on his [kick] return, giving us great field position.”
Blount started and finished the game, ran for 90 yards, and spoke later of the resilience of the group. “We’ve done everything the coaches have told us to do all season,’’ Blount said.
“We were just so aggressive as a team,’’ Ajayi said. “We knew as an offense they couldn’t stop us tonight. Whatever we were going to do, we were going to execute. We were going to put our foot on the gas, and we were not going to let up until the clock said zero.”
Even if you want to argue that the whispers were true, that Ajayi was too much about himself in Miami. Even if you don’t want to say maybe the atmosphere down there had something to do with it. All that added to this puzzle. Ajayi was driving to work on Halloween, “like a regular day. Got a phone call, to come in.”
They told him right away. A lot of emotions, he said of that day.
“Looking back at it, I was so grateful,’’ he said.
Someone asked about getting traded to the Eagles instead of, say, Cleveland. Ajayi left it at a lot of emotions. Nobody hands you a flag to wrap yourself in the day you get traded. Nobody says maybe your dreams are about to come true. Then he walked into a new running backs room and his recent past disappeared.
No need to wonder why this man dropped to the ground after the ceremony, his own emotions taking over.
“I can say, even when I’m gone, I’m a Super Bowl champion,’’ Ajayi said.