Liberty Middle School’s Joe Merritt remembers the best flag football player he ever coached scoring four touchdowns on four straight plays — and none of them counted.
It was overtime, against Benito he thinks, and his Liberty Eagles were on the 2-yard-line. His best player rushes for what Merritt says was a sure touchdown, before the refs ruled he was down at the 1.
On the next play, the same kid throws for a touchdown, but the refs said the receiver was out of bounds. And, the play after that, the very same kid lines up at wide receiver and catches a touchdown pass, although the ref said he didn’t land with his feet inbounds.
Years later, Merritt couldn’t help but remember that game as he sat and watched that same player, Nelson Agholor, catch nine passes for the other Eagles, of Philadelphia, in a thrilling Super Bowl win over favored New England.
Merritt has taught and coached the boys flag football team since Liberty opened, and his list of former players include Matt Patchan and Jordan Sherit (both of whom went on to the University of Florida in Gainesville out of high school), Matt’s brother Scott Patchan (currently at the University of Miami, FL) and Chaz Neal (who signed with Florida State University in Tallahassee on Feb. 7).
The night of the Super Bowl, however, was the first time Merritt says he had chills watching a former player, sitting on the couch at his parents’ house, jumping up and yelling every time Agholor grabbed a pass on his way to 84 yards receiving.
“It’s like you knew he was going to be a good athlete, but with each passing year, there was a new accolade that made you just feel happy for him,” said Merritt, who had Agholor in his sixth grade reading class. “He reached the pinnacle in high school, he reached the pinnacle in college, he was a first-round draft pick out of college, and he wins the Super Bowl? I mean, come on. That’s what every kid dreams of, holding up that Lombardi Trophy.”
A Humble Beginning…
Agholor, who was born in Nigeria, grew up in northeast Tampa, in the Suitcase City area near the University of South Florida. He attended Liberty from 2005-08, where he starred on both the football field and the basketball court. In fact, his overtime performance aside, some remember Agholor as a better basketball player initially than football.
“I didn’t see the talent as much in football as in basketball,” says Phil Lana, who taught Agholor in his sixth grade science class. “He was an incredible basketball player in middle school. I thought that would be what he ended up going to college for.”
Merritt agrees. “I thought his older brother Franklin was the better football player,” he says, laughing.
In previous stories written about him, Agholor has talked about avoiding the trouble that dogged many of the friends he grew up with in northeast Tampa. The temptation to take the wrong path when that fork in the road presented itself was hard for many to resist.
It was at Liberty, some teachers who remember him say, that Agholor had help in fighting those urges.
“Nelson was a bit of a knucklehead coming in here,” Merritt recalled. “There were some teachers that took him under their wing, to get him right. He was smart…great personality…athletic. And, we started preaching to him how far those things can take you in life.”
“He was a genuinely nice kid, very charismatic,” says Brendan Paul, who had Agholor in his seventh grade math class. “He definitely grew quite a bit throughout the time he was here. If you listen to his interviews, he talks a lot about being given opportunities and making the most of those opportunities, and he definitely made the most of his time here. Liberty got him on right track. He had a lot of teachers looking out for him.”
Agholor responded to the mentoring. As an eighth grader, he was one of the most popular kids in school, and was named one of Liberty’s Turnaround Achievement Award winners. “By the end of his eighth grade year, I remember seeing him as more of a leader than anything else,” Lana says. “He was already helping the younger kids then.”
After graduating from middle school, Agholor went to Berkeley Prep, where he became one of Florida’s top football recruits as both a running back and a defensive back. He rushed for 4,732 yards in four seasons, and added 921 receiving yards, 12 interceptions and eight kickoff returns for touchdowns.
As a senior, Agholor led the Bucs to the Class 3A State semifinals, rushing for 1,983 yards and 28 touchdowns, and won the Guy Toph award as Hillsborough County’s top high school football player. He chose the University of Southern California at Los Angeles from dozens of college suitors, where he blossomed as a wide receiver and caught 104 passes for 1,313 yards and 12 touchdowns as a junior.
That was enough to make Agholor the 20th overall pick of Philadelphia in the 2015 NFL draft.
“He was one of those kids that stayed in touch,” Paul says. “Before the draft, he visited and spent time with students in a mentoring group here. I had the opportunity to go to his very first game in Atlanta (with Lana), and we met up with him afterwards.”
Agholor disappointed during his first two pro seasons in Philly, before a breakout 2017 campaign that saw him catch 62 passes for 768 yards (more than his first two seasons combined) and 12 touchdowns. In the postseason, he was brilliant, including a 42-yard TD catch in the NFC Championship game. His nine catches in the Super Bowl were a career high.
Few were happier to see Agholor bounce back than his former Liberty mentors.
“It’s definitely surreal,” Paul says. “I think his career thus far just speaks volumes about who he is. He had two really rough years, and just turned it around. It’s just that attitude and effort he has.”
Lana, who is now the Director of Operations and logistics for the Atlanta Football Host Committee bringing the Super Bowl to the Mercedes-Benz Stadium next year, watched Agholor’s performance in person.
“It really added to the whole experience, knowing I was actually watching someone I knew playing in the game,” says Lana, who wasn’t shy about letting everyone know about Agholor’s days at Liberty.
“Pretty much everybody around me knew I had taught him in sixth grade,” Lana says. “I sat in a section heavy with Patriots’ fans, but they knew when I stood and cheered every time he caught a pass.”
Agholor comes back to Liberty a few times a year to preach to kids, many from the same rough-around-the-edges neighborhood he grew up in, the same message he was taught — make good choices, listen to your teachers and school administrators, and they will help you reach the goals that you strive for. His words will carry added weight, as a newly-minted Super Bowl champion.
“The fact that he does come back, and does impact other kids and that’s something that’s important to him, that just tells you the kind of dude that he is, the kind of character he has,” Merritt says.
Agholor has purchased shoes, helmets and other equipment for kids who can’t afford them. He has given them his cell phone number and told them to text him if they need something, even just a little advice. Merritt says Agholor reaches out to kids that he sees a little of himself in, to do what he can.
It is that connection, more than a decade later, that makes it easy to cheer for Agholor, to tune in on Sundays and root for the former Liberty Eagle.
“The whole school is super proud of him,” Merritt says. “There’s a lot of pride that Nelson used to go here. The fact that he turned out to be great kid, and did great things, it’s just icing on the cake that he won a Super Bowl. When I watch, I still see that 12-year-old kid.”