MORGANTON, N.C. — On a fall night almost a decade ago, the blinds were shut and a 10-year-old boy had fallen asleep before the lights woke him up.
The flashes of red and blue on Oct. 27, 2007 suddenly illuminated the driveway, immediately alerting B.J. Emmons that something was wrong. So he walked outside.
“I opened the door and looked to my right and saw the ambulance,” the 4-star Alabama recruit said eight years later. “They were loading him onto the stretcher.”
The man on the stretcher was Barry Emmons, B.J.’s father — and from the front porch, B.J. was witnessing the final moments of his life.
Earlier that night, the father and son had shared a joyous moment, celebrating together when the Tennessee Volunteers slid past South Carolina in overtime to sit atop the SEC East football standings. Barry loved the Vols and he passed that on to B.J.
Tennessee football was always their thing.
But when B.J. found Barry to inform him Tennessee had won that night, he had no way of knowing it’d be the last moment the two ever shared. After the 10-year-old went to bed, Barry was involved in an altercation that left him with a crushed larynx.
“I remember being right behind the ambulance on the way to the hospital,” B.J. said.
Barry passed in the early hours of the next morning.
Eight years later, B.J. Emmons, a 4-star running back, is 18 years old and a senior at Freedom High School in Morganton, N.C. After Barry’s death, B.J. used the game that bonded them together as his channel to heal from the traumatic events that night. He’s now the nation’s No. 3 running back according to 247Sports, and committed to the University of Alabama. Emmons is looking to fill the void that likely Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry will leave behind if he forgoes his final year at Alabama for the NFL.
And though Barry won’t physically be there this February when Cedric LaBarryan Emmons Jr. signs the name they share onto his Alabama national letter of intent, certainly his presence will be felt.
“(Football’s) just a thing that my dad wanted me to do,” B.J. said. “He just gave me a ball — and I just ran away with it.”
“I might never have another B.J. Emmons”
B.J. was 6 when he first saw the punching bag, the 80-pound monstrosity Barry wanted his son to tackle. It was 7 a.m. and Barry had woken B.J. up to get an early start.
This is the day B.J. Emmons started playing football.
B.J. had grown up tagging along with his older sister, Charnell Scott, as she played basketball. But there was something about the sport he and his dad shared that caught his attention early. It quickly became clear that B.J. was adept at the sport, as well.
“He was doing moves on the football field that some players have to be taught. With him it just came natural,” his mother, Cynthia Martin, said. “The way he would juke and spin out and run in and out, I knew then, that maybe this here …”
“This is him.”
Football was a way for B.J. to escape and let go of everything else that was going on in his life.
Two weeks after Barry passed, B.J.’s Pee-Wee team won a championship for Oak Hill Elementary School. By the time he’d finished the eighth grade, he had fueled Table Rock Middle School to two conference titles. And by the time he was midway through his sophomore campaign at Freedom High School in western North Carolina, it became clear that B.J. Emmons would one day be a star.
Despite his fullback-like physique, he’s quicker than everyone else on the field — running the 40-yard dash in 4.4 seconds. He’s also strong enough to break through multiple tackles, relying on his strength in the rare event that his speed doesn’t do the trick.
In four years at Freedom, Emmons scored 101 touchdowns, 95 of which were rushing, according to The Morganton News Herald’s Paul Schenkel. He accumulated 6,573 career yards on the ground with all but about 100, according to Cynthia’s estimates, coming in a three-year period.
B.J. played defense as a freshman.
“I work at McDonald’s and I work at Applebee’s,” his sister Charnell said, “and customers will be like, ‘That’s your brother?’ And I say, ‘Yeah. That’s my brother.’ It’s crazy.”
When Freedom coach Brandon Allen came to the program for the 2014 season, though, unlike the rest of the town, he had never heard of B.J. Emmons. Soon that changed.
“The first game, we were heading to East Burke last year, and I’ll never forget this as long as I live,” Allen said. “I’m riding on the bus and I’m extremely quiet. I hadn’t been with the kids much more than a month.
“I’m sitting there and all of a sudden my phone goes off. It vibrates. … I look down, it says B.J. Emmons. He (texted me), ‘I got you coach.’ And that’s all he said.”
B.J. was sitting just three or four rows behind Allen that afternoon, but he could sense his coach’s uneasiness. That night, B.J. set a Burke County record with six rushing touchdowns, all in the first half.
Freedom won the game, 49-0.
“I might never have another B.J. Emmons,” Allen said a year later in his office. “There’s days that you wanna ring his neck, that’s with any player …. and then you sit back and you’re like, ‘Just enjoy what you’ve got right now,’ because there are not many people that have had the opportunity to coach somebody that’s that talented.”
The offers poured in through the years, beginning with Charlotte and NC State, as B.J. exploded onto the national scene. UGA, North Carolina, Virginia Tech and Barry’s beloved Tennessee all extended offers, too. Alabama would come later.
“It just brought so much joy and heart whenever I got my first piece of mail,” B.J. said. “It made me feel like I was somebody.”
But in October of 2014, B.J. feared he might become nobody. One mistake had him terrified he’d lost football permanently.
“Not the life I’m trying to live”
Almost exactly seven years to the day of Barry’s death, on Oct. 25, 2014, those same red and blue lights that terrified B.J. as a 10-year-old once again had him panicked.
That Saturday night, B.J. and his friends had gone out in a neighboring town and had allegedly brought marijuana. The cops caught them and pulled them over in an incident that was reported by the local media.
“As soon as the cop pulled up to the car, I was like, ‘Man. My high school career is over. I’m not going to have any more offers. I’m going to lose all my offers. Probably not going to get to play football anymore.’ That was the first thing that came to my head,” B.J., a UGA commit at the time, said.
“It was a time for me (to realize) that I don’t ever want to be here again. I don’t ever want to be in handcuffs again or see a flashlight pointed at my face and being searched. It’s not the life I’m trying to live.”
B.J. was charged with misdemeanor possession of a controlled substance and possession of drug paraphernalia, according to The Morganton News Herald. Charnell, home from Texas at the time, stayed in Morganton for an extra week to make sure her little brother was OK. She could sense his fear as soon as they got home from the police station.
“He was hollering and he was like, ‘Nobody’s gonna want me now,’” Charnell said. “Right then, I knew he was going to change because he knew what he could lose right there.”
UGA didn’t revoke his scholarship offer and the case was dismissed, but B.J. was required to attend a drug-awareness class and complete court-mandated community service. He didn’t mind either — it was Freedom suspending him for two weeks right before the playoffs that hurt the most.
“I remember the first Friday I almost cried before the game,” he recalled. “I was the last person to leave the locker room … it sucked not being able to put my pads on.
“It was maybe the worst two weeks of my life in high school and my career.”
About eight months later, B.J. de-committed from UGA. There was turnover within the Bulldogs’ coaching staff and the communication wasn’t the same. Emmons decided to re-open his recruiting, and he knew he had to get it together to meet and greet the new suitors.
So he changed. No more hanging out with the wrong crowd, no more putting his future in jeopardy.
“There’s nothing wrong with trying to figure out things by yourself, but there’s a certain pace that you should live with,” B.J. said. “I was just on the move way too fast. Ever since then I’ve been trying to make good choices and hang around the right people and be at the right place at the right time. That was really just an eye opener for me.”
Knowing that coach Allen’s 2-year-old son looked up to B.J. helped keep him humble during that period. With the guidance of Freedom assistant coach Dillon Sain, the primary male role model in his life, B.J. kept his head down and once again used football as his escape during an adverse time.
“I tell him all the time that I don’t care if he was terrible at football. I’d still be there for him,” Sain said. “He’s grown up a whole lot the past two years.”
Sure enough, maintaining a low profile soon paid off. About a month after he broke things off with UGA B.J. and his family were invited to the University of Alabama to meet with Nick Saban.
Tennessee, his childhood favorite, had rolled out the red carpet a year earlier when coach Butch Jones invited B.J. into his office just moments before the Vols took on Utah State — but Alabama just felt different.
As B.J. stood on the field of an empty Bryant-Denny Stadium, with the most important people in his life by his side, “Sweet Home Alabama” blared over the loudspeakers. Emmons began to dance.
“Mama,” he told Cynthia that day, “We’re going to commit.”
B.J. gave Saban a verbal commitment that afternoon in his office. And though Barry wasn’t there to share the moment on the field with his son, Coach Sain was. In their relationship Charnell sees a coach that unconditionally supports her brother, and with everything B.J. has been through, that has her forever grateful.
“I’m just glad that somebody outside the family has stuck with him and helped him,” she said. “When it’s with family, it’s different because they already know your story. Coach Sain, he’s developing with B.J. over time.”
“Alabama’s getting a good one”
Four years have come and gone for B.J. at Freedom, and in the fall, he’ll leave the small North Carolina town for the big and bright lights of SEC football. Allen believes his Morganton records “won’t be touched.”
But it’s more than just that. B.J.’s personal growth has made him stronger.
Once terrified of the red and blue lights that represented his father’s death and his own arrest, B.J.’s life is now defined by a different set of lights — those of Friday night on the football field and those of his spiritual life.
In the weeks leading up to the playoffs, local pastor George Logan visited Freedom’s practices to pray and share devotionals with the team.
At one point, Logan called Emmons to the front of the group to be an example for the lesson. He said if God gave B.J. the legs, the shoulders, the chest and the abilities that B.J. currently possesses, then “God wants B.J. to succeed even more than B.J. does.”
B.J. prays frequently, thanking God for providing him with the talent and asking for safety on game day. He also requests that “his people,” as he affectionately calls his family and friends, be kept safe. No one means more to him than they do.
“I know he thinks about (his dad) and talks to him and stuff every day,” Charnell said.
Today, B.J. has three tattoos inked across his upper body to honor his father. A truck sits across his chest in reference to Barry’s profession as a truck driver. Tucked underneath, the date 10-28-07 commemorates the date of his father’s death. And in cursive writing, Barry’s name is written across his son’s torso.
Surely not having Barry at his games at Alabama next year will be difficult, but B.J. has always made sure to give the powerful females in his life the credit they deserve.
It is Cynthia who has instilled in him the power of faith and has kept him grounded through everything. She’s his most passionate fan, always yelling for B.J. in the same spot every Friday night — on the fourth row between sections 2 and 3 of Freedom’s stadium. It is Charnell who has always been his rock, taking their relationship to a new level after his dad passed away. In the weeks after Barry’s death, there wasn’t a day that Charnell wasn’t checking on B.J. to see how he was coping.
And when he dons the Alabama uniform, it will be both of them — Cynthia and Charnell together — who will make the seven-hour trip to Tuscaloosa for his games, cheering him on at Bryant-Denny Stadium just as loudly as they have at Freedom for four years.
“It hasn’t been easy. He’s been through a lot of ups and downs and the football field was his outlet,” Cynthia said. “It hurt him. Not having your daddy at 10 years old, growing up without him — that’s hard for any child … but he has triumphed and hopefully he’s gonna come out on top.
“I’m glad (the football field) was there for him, because if not, there’s no telling where things could have ended up.”
B.J. is hopeful that when he arrives, he’ll play as a freshman. Emmons will have to compete with Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough, who have both seen playing time this season backing up Henry. But he’s ready to take on that challenge.
And when he ponders the journey up until this point, the words flow out naturally.
“I look at everything I’ve been through and I always find a way to still crack a smile,” he tweeted last week. “I understand folks just expected me to fold.”
But his high school coach isn’t one of those folks. Neither is Charnell, and neither is Cynthia. They’ve all been there since the beginning
“He’s setting a standard for the younger generation that they’re gonna look and say — ‘I want to try to be like B.J.,”’ Allen said.
“Alabama’s getting a good one. They really are.”