Tucked away 5 miles east of Starkville, Mississippi, lies a small, rural community called Mhoon Farm. Yes, the “h” is intentional. It’s not on any map, no one knows the true history of the name – multiple people have said it’s named after a dairy farm that no longer exists – and at its center is another smaller community called 16th Section, where communal life revolves around 16th Section Missionary Baptist Church.
Mhoon Farm is also the hometown of, oddly enough, two players who’ll compete against each other in : Philadelphia Eagles receiver A.J. Brown and Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Willie Gay.
The two, who won a state title at Starkville High School together in 2015, lived five minutes apart from each other and went to church gatherings together. Brown’s family lived about five minutes north of the church on 16th Section Road, while Gay’s family lived five minutes south of the church along the same road. Brown’s father is a deacon, his mother is the Sunday school teacher, and Gay’s great-great-grandfather was the pastor.
The players diverged in college but stayed within the state as Brown headed to Ole Miss while Gay starred at nearby Mississippi State.
Now, they’ll face each other in Sunday’s Super Bowl. Brown, who the Eagles acquired this past offseason from the Tennessee Titans, leads the team with 1,496 receiving yards and 11 receiving touchdowns. Gay, a third-year second-round draft pick, is third on the Chiefs with 88 combined tackles and started all 13 games he was active this season.
“It means a lot for both of us playing in this game,” Brown told Yahoo Sports this week. “It means everything to where we’re from – to Starkville. Guys not too far from each other playing in one of the biggest games. I hope it gives the kids back home hope that you can do whatever you want to do.”
“Watching A.J. a year ahead of me, it motivated me a lot,” Gay told Yahoo Sports this week. “Especially now seeing him succeed so much, it’s big for me, the kids back home where we’re from. We love to see it. We both know we’re leaving a positive image for those kids to see.”
Brown and Gay aren’t the only former high school teammates to be competing against each other this Super Bowl. There are three other pairs: Eagles outside linebacker Robert Quinn and Chiefs defensive end Carlos Dunlap played together at ; Eagles linebacker Kyron Johnson and Chiefs backup quarterback Shane Buechele went to , together; and Eagles practice squad offensive lineman Sua Opeta and Chiefs cornerback Zayne Anderson attended.
Brown and Gay will be the only pair likely to literally line up against each other on any given snap.
“From the time that they were school age – I’m saying first or second grade – all the way through high school, their lives were intertwined,” Aundrea Self, a television reporter for WCBI in Starkville, told Yahoo Sports. “Who knew that these little boys would end up winning a state championship together, but then going to rival schools and now they’re opponents at the Super Bowl? It’s just amazing.”
They played peewee football together as kids at the now-closed Alexander Elementary School near both of their houses and became two of the leaders on their championship winning team – Brown as a senior wideout regularly triple-teamed and Gay as a junior linebacker who “could play any position on the field if you wanted,” according to then head-coach Ricky Woods.
“They were both tremendous athletes,” Woods told Yahoo Sports. “But what made ’em better than anything was the kind of people they were.”
Both always came to practice with a smile on their face, Woods remembers, and led by example rather than with words. Before every practice, receivers would run 20 routes and have to do 30 push-ups for every uncontested pass they dropped. Woods says Brown never dropped any of those passes his senior year. And during games, Brown dominated. In a matchup against Callaway in 2015, and finished with five receptions for 118 yards and two touchdowns.
As for Gay, he captained a Starkville defense that held opponents to 11 points per game during its championship season and finished with 84 tackles, 17 for loss and six sacks. He switched from linebacker to quarterback for part of his senior year following the championship year when Starkville’s offense needed a jolt and – though he didnt attempt a pass.
“They’re just great blue-collar kids,” former high school head coach Jamie Mitchell, who coached both before Woods, told Yahoo Sports. “I think that helped them so much in their work ethic. Both of them, they weren’t given anything early on.”
The two worked constantly to better themselves in high school. Neither were “into crowds” and hung out with separate smaller groups or focused solely on sports. Brown actually skipped his freshman season to focus on baseball before returning his sophomore year after some convincing from teammate Ralph Leonard. Gay, meanwhile, “completely self-made his body” between his first two years before he became a defensive star.
“The guys were self-motivated, determined,” assistant coach Willie Gillespie told Yahoo Sports. “They were determined to be great, You can see it in them. You can see the way they carried themselves.”
As for Mhoon Farm and Starkville, they’re just rooting for their hometown heroes.
“Those guys really were special guys. They still are special guys,” Gillespie said. “The world is getting a chance to see what we we saw in high school. And it won’t be any different on Sunday. A.J.’s gonna be read to play. Willie’s going to be ready to play. And we out here in Starkville are kind of pulling for both of ‘em.”