By Brandon Speck
WALNUT – Armani Linton carefully opened a squeaky door as his coach, John Meeks, did an interview. Not long ago, he might have busted in and scooted a metal chair across the floor.
“I was this little ball of anger, pretty much,” Linton said. “I didn’t want to act right. I had a horrible attitude.”
Armani Linton had no idea who he was. Meeks did.
Friday at Booneville, Walnut’s three-star safety, an Ole Miss commit, is starting the first game of his final prep season. The road has been crooked at times.
When the kid from Chicago moved to small-town Walnut, Meeks was determined to help straighten his path.
“It was basically one of those things where he basically wanted to pull me in,” Linton said. “At that time, I wasn’t the best kid, and he basically wanted me to get a hold of something I could stick with.”
Linton (6-foot-2, 200 pounds) grew up, and football stuck.
But before he became a June headline for flipping his college commitment from Mississippi State to rival Ole Miss, the only thing he knew about football was the Bears. But he is thankful to be far away from Soldier Field.
“It was a rough place. It was a rough lifestyle,” Linton said. “I moved here and my cousin, she kind of brought me in. She was basically my mom, and she still is.”
It was 2009. He was an aimless seventh grader. But Meeks, then junior high coach, saw a likeable kid, capable of more. Linton found more.
Meeks asked if he wanted to play football, but he was ineligible. It hurt, but as water boy, he watched high school practice, and his love for the game grew.
“But at the same time, I was still having that classroom trouble,” Linton said. “Teachers couldn’t tell me anything.”
Making the grade
Meeks and basketball coach Mike Lewis pushed him to get his grades up. In eighth grade, Linton’s first play at running back went for 60-some yards against Chalybeate.
“That’s when it really hit me,” Linton said. “It was just like, ‘Yeah, you can do this.’”
Meeks, now in his third year as head coach, had taken Linton to the 2010 Egg Bowl, his first taste of college football in the South. As a freshman, he rushed for 348 yards and three touchdowns and averaged more than 10 yards per carry. He caught 13 passes for 209 yards and two touchdowns and had 13 tackles.
It was a good season, but not good enough for the standards he had already begun to set, already removed from that self-described angry kid.
“First and foremost, he’s a great person,” Meeks said.
After an LSU camp as a sophomore, he took the opportunity to move in with family, an LSU coach, in Louisiana and played at Class 5A Dutchtown. After moving back to Walnut, Linton rushed for 1,348 yards and 25 touchdowns and had 36 tackles and two picks at safety. His recruitment picked up, and he committed to Mississippi State in February.
He was looking forward to being a Bulldog, football and a high-level education.
He didn’t rescind his commitment the minute Ole Miss offered. Though he says he had developed into an Ole Miss fan, he mulled it for weeks.
Once, he didn’t care what others thought. Now, it’s everyone else, then himself. He carefully thought about what his future held.
On June 6, along with Bruce senior receiver Jay Johnson, also an MSU commit, it was time. At Ole Miss Elite Camp, they both made their flips public.
Linton thinks out his answers to questions and admittedly practices. He prepped the same way when he decided to commit to the Rebels.
“After I made my decision on ‘OK, well, I know where home is,’ I started mentally prepping myself. You’re going to get these people who are going to hate you. They’re going to say whatever. They’re going to say what they want, but it’s not their decision. It’s something that’s going to affect the rest of your life.
“You never know when your last play will be. It could affect five (years). Look at D.T. Shackelford and it could affect six.”
The thoughtful teenager had already considered the two years of knee injuries that led Ole Miss linebacker Shackelford to a sixth year of eligibility.
The hits came, but Linton doesn’t feel like he made the announcement in a bad way, mindful of reversing his choice, mindful of backlash.
Linton isn’t the Chicago kid who moved to Walnut. But he’s also not who he wants to be.
“I want to be a better leader,” he said. “When I go to college, I want to be practicing for a national championship. When I’m in high school, I want to be practicing for the state championship.”