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It’s 7:30 a.m., and the sound of bells melodiously rings from the tower near the entrance to Brentwood Academy.
The recorded hymn floats across the 50-year-old private school’s idyllic campus, located about a half-hour drive from the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, and about four hours from Atlanta, where alum Jalen Ramsey made his Rams debut Sunday.
Before Ramsey won a national championship and became an All-American at Florida State, before the Jacksonville Jaguars selected him with the fifth pick in the 2016 NFL draft, and before the Rams acquired the lockdown cornerback last week in a blockbuster trade, this is where Ramsey starred for two years in football and as a state-champion decathlete.
“Best athlete I’ve ever seen,” Brentwood football coach Cody White said Tuesday during an interview in his second-story office in the immaculately outfitted athletics building known as “The Rock.”
Coaches, teachers and staff at Brentwood, winner of four state football titles in the last four years, still follow Ramsey. And the two-time Pro Bowl selection still stops by to visit or train at the school.
“A lot of young people are still processing who they are, why they are and what they are, but that young man, he was extraordinary,” said Dr. Rene’ Rochester, who teaches Advanced Placement psychology and is the school’s director of student academic support. “He had the ‘it’ factor and everybody knew it, and he knew it.”
In three-plus NFL seasons, Ramsey has become one of the league’s premier pass defenders and trash-talkers. Those talents were on full display in the Rams’ 37-10 victory over the Falcons on Sunday. Ramsey delighted teammates and Rams fans by mostly shutting down and jawing nonstop with Falcons star receiver Julio Jones.
That came as no surprise to Lt. Connor Johnson, a former Brentwood Academy teammate who attended the Air Force Academy.
“He’s always been the same exact guy,” Johnson said. “He’s a baller. He says what he wants, but he can back it up.”
Bernard Pollard, a former NFL safety, discovered the same when he helped train Ramsey for the NFL scouting combine. Ramsey was chosen by the Jaguars four picks after the Rams selected quarterback Jared Goff.“If he was a church mouse and he didn’t say anything, I don’t think that’s the same talent you’re going to see on the football field,” Pollard said.
Ramsey’s off-the-field exploits, however, sometimes leave former coaches and teachers shaking their heads. Last summer, in a not-so-veiled message that he wanted a new contract, Ramsey arrived at Jaguars training camp in an armored truck.
But Ramsey’s football persona was, and often remains, in contrast to his demeanor when he returns to Brentwood Academy.
“He turns into a different species when he’s competing,” said Rochester, a former basketball player and track athlete at Texas who tutored Ramsey in the long jump. “But when he’s not, and you’re just sitting down and talking with him, he’s a gentleman.”
Said Barbara Carney, Brentwood’s longtime athletics department assistant: “The guy that just comes to visit and sits in the chair and talks with you is kind of sweet.”
Ramsey, who turns 25 on Thursday, grew up in Smyrna, located about 35 minutes away from Brentwood. His father, Lamont, and brother Jamal played football at Middle Tennessee State.
Jack Pittman, a former college teammate of Lamont’s, coached Ramsey in the UNA Bears youth football program when he was a 10-year-old quarterback.
“It didn’t make any difference if the ball rolled back there on the snap,” Pittman said, laughing. “With Jalen, we were going to get some yards.”
Ramsey attended Battle Ground Academy in Franklin for middle school and Ensworth High in Nashville as a freshman. He suffered a leg injury that forced him to sit out his sophomore season, and he transferred to Brentwood Academy, where Pittman was a longtime teacher and assistant coach.
“He had gotten a lot taller and he became lanky,” Pittman said.
As well as Ramsey played during his first football season, he made an even bigger impression on the basketball court — though not as a player for the Eagles. During a dunk contest at halftime of one game, he walked onto the court in street clothes.
“It was remarkable,” said Pittman, who now teaches, coaches and serves as associate director of diversity and inclusion at Battle Ground Academy. “Balls off the backboard, 360s, windmills. People were like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ ”
Ramsey’s exploits on the track generated similar reactions.
“If there was no football,” track coach Brad Perry said outside his history classroom, “he could have been a world-class decathlete.”
Ramsey did not initially intend to take on one of sport’s most grueling tests when he first met with Perry.
“He said, ‘Hey coach, I’m just going to do the high jump and the 200,’ ” Perry recalled. “I said, ‘That sounds great Jalen. I’ve got a few more events I’d like you to try.’
“To his credit, he was open and willing to do it all.”
The 10-event decathlon is contested over two days. In Tennessee, the first includes the 100-meter dash, triple jump, discus, pole vault and 400-meter run. The second day includes the 110-meter high hurdles, shot put, long jump, high jump and 1,500-meter run. The javelin throw is not part of the high school program.
As a junior, Ramsey won state titles in the 200, 400, long jump and decathlon. He finished second in the 110-hurdles, scoring 48 points and helping Brentwood win a team title.
In his senior year, Ramsey suffered a midseason hip injury, which prevented him from competing in the decathlon. He still won the 400 and the long jump with a leap of 25 feet 3¼ inches, a state record.
Ramsey originally committed to play football at USC, but on national signing day he announced he would attend Florida State. Before the 2014 Bowl Championship Series title game against Auburn at the Rose Bowl, Ramsey cited USC’s firing of defensive backs coach Marvin Sanders, and Florida State’s hiring of Jeremy Pruitt as defensive coordinator as reasons for the switch.
Six years later, he finally made it to Los Angeles.
Ramsey and Breanna Tate, a former Brentwood Academy and University of Mississippi sprinter, recently had their second daughter.
Brentwood Academy will be rooting for Ramsey as he begins his next chapter with the Rams, Rochester said.
“It’s almost like he’s come full circle,” she said. “The community will be supportive of Jalen because he’s Jalen.”