By Gabriel Stovall
MORROW, Ga. — A.J. Nettles is a different kind of emerging high school athlete.
He wears the number “1” at Morrow to represent the kind of leader he wants to be for the Mustangs. But he wears No. 26 on his travel ball squad to commemorate his mom’s birthday.
He’s an out front kind of guy, carefully toeing the line that separates confidence from cockiness. He’ll say it, but his baseball coach Roderick Dunlap over at Morrow High will say it first — he’s a team catalyst.
“He’s an exceptional kid,” Dunlap said. “He’s capable of playing any position. He is definitely the unquestionable leader on this team.”
Making others around him better? Not willing to back down from the steepest of challenges? Playing the game he loves with a chip on his shoulder? (Insert other popular sports leadership trait here).
Yep, Nettles is all of those. And he wants success, but he’d rather get it by doing it the hard way. He doesn’t mind being in the limelight, except that he would rather shine that light in darker places — in places where sources of illumination aren’t as readily seen.
Hence his transfer to Morrow from Jonesboro after his freshman year. That’s right. He left Jonesboro after the Cardinals’ baseball team had a much better-than-average season with far above average players graduating.
He could’ve stayed on and been an emerging star at what some considered an emerging baseball program in a county — Clayton — that is often ridiculed for its lack of baseball title contenders.
Yet he chose to leave. He chose to leave the comfortable and familiar confines of the place where his brother Cedric Nettles — now a starting safety at Chattanooga — was the star quarterback– and some would argue that the pastures wherein the younger Nettles now grazes are in no way greener.
Yet it was two shadows that precipitated his departure. The shadow of greatness and the shadow of chronic defeat.
“My brother went to Jonesboro,” Nettles said. “He was Cedric Nettles. Quarterback. He was that guy. But I wanted to make my own legacy.”
That’s the first shadow. A.J. didn’t want the constant comparisons to Cedric. He respected the elder Nettles’ talent simply for what it was, not because of who came before him. That’s what the younger Nettles brother wanted for himself.
But then there’s that second shadow.
“I came from Jonesboro because I felt like, you know, Jonesboro had it a little too easy,” Nettles said. “I came to Morrow after they won just one game when I wasn’t there, and last year during my sophomore year, we won five games.”
So you chose Morrow because they were best known for having a bad baseball team?
“Well, it’s more to it, but basically, yes,” he said. “I think of Jonesboro as, you know, that great school you see on TV and in the news all the time, and Morrow as that school no one cares about. I wanted to go there and help change that and put us on the map.”
And the Mustangs, with their new do-everything player, have shown signs the past two seasons of being a program that’s on the come up. With a 6-9 record and 3-5 mark in Region 4-AAAAA, Morrow has already eclipsed its 2014 season win total with five regular season games remaining.
And the ones they’ve lost this year haven’t all been run-rule blow outs, either. Morrow has looked competitive at times in losses to Starr’s Mill, Mundy’s Mill and McIntosh — a fairly close 9-4 loss to the Chiefs back on March 30 was particularly eyebrow raising.
Despite a young team — only one truly standout senior — Dunlap said Nettles’ influence has had a lifting and gelling affect on the guys playing around him.
“As I said, he’s a truly phenomenal kid,” Dunlap said. “But athletically, I think it’s his work ethic that is probably where he separates himself. There are times when A.J.’s going to work when no one else will work. And that kind of attitude is contagious for a lot of them. His work ethic is so strong, it makes other kids look at themselves and say, ‘Hey, we’re not doing it, and we need to pick it up.'”
Nettles said the leadership role that’s been heaped upon him by his coach is something he gladly receives.
“(Dunlap) has seen my talent basically, and he told me he knew what I had to do to help this team win,” he said. “We didn’t have a lot of seniors to fall back on this year, so I had to step it up and provide the leadership we needed.”
Sometimes that leadership is verbal. He’s not above jawing at his teammates a little bit to help them get to raise their level of competition.
Sometimes it’s a collaborative thing. Nettles calls Morrow catcher Jonathan McKnight “my favorite catcher,” and states his bond with McKnight is a huge reason why Nettles came to Morrow in the first place.
But then at other moments, Nettles will show his leadership by making colossal plays on the field. Like last Friday in Morrow’s 13-3 win at Forest Park.
In that game, a Forest Park hitter knocked a screamer out to centerfield where Nettles was playing that game, and as the runner was rounding third base on his way home, Nettles scooped up the ball and gunned it from near the back fence to home plate where McKnight caught it and tagged out the runner at home.
It was a play that left Forest Park fans, sure that a run would score, in a bit of awe. But as for Dunlap and Nettles, no big deal.
“It’s pretty standard for A.J. to make those kinds of plays,” Dunlap said. “We’ve gone to a couple of camps, and each time we’ve gone, he does things like that to make people’s ears perk up every time. He has a big harm. he can just about stand at the fence and throw it home flat footed. He’s got a strong arm. That’s no surprise.”
And Nettles said he enjoys using that arm to shatter the hopes of a home plate bound runner.
“See, where other people are shocked at that, I’m kind of used to it,” Nettles said. “Every day of the week I’m out with my mentor Jerome Watson and we work on things like. One hundred balls a day. Keep it straight and throw it hard. I love seeing people come around third base, expecting me not to throw it, and I love the fact that I’ve got a catcher like Jonathan that can make that play.”
Dunlap says Nettles can start and excel for any team in the area. Nettles believes it too, and one better. His goal now is to play Major League Baseball. He’d love to attend Mississippi State, Clemson, Alabama State or any school that wants him, simply because “I wanna play ball somewhere, anywhere I can.”
He’s so sure of his next-level upside that he ceased playing other sports — basketball, football, swimming, etc. to focus and hone in on baseball.
“I did it all,” he said. “But once I knew I was one of those people who could actually make it in baseball, I had to let all that go to dedicate the time on what I want to be when I grow up.”
Ask him who are the players he patterns his game after, and he rattles off names of his own teammates at Morrow, and guys like Chaz Walker (Fayette County), Patrick Crutchfield (Mundy’s Mill) and Antonio Gamble (Drew) who he plays travel ball with on the Marquis Grissom Baseball Association.
A standout pitcher, who, as Dunlap says, “has all the pitches and has been clocked between 81 and 84 miles per hour,” an improving hitter — Dunlap said he’s hitting close to .300 this season, a big jump from last year — and stellar center fielder, Nettles said he purposefully denies himself the privilege of tracking his play statistically.
But request a rundown of his stats — an area where most young high school athletes are fluent — and Nettles will tell you, “Nah.”
“I try not to look at that,” he said, although he did point . “It may get me too caught up and I don’t want to get big headed and distract myself, so I just keep playing from one game to the next. Maybe after the season is over, I’ll look at them.”
He’d rather just focus on getting rid of that losing shadow that’s hovered over Morrow’s baseball program for quite some time.
“We’re better than the previous years, definitely,” Nettles said. “We just want to be competitive, and I just like to play baseball. I’m glad to have the honor of assuming a leadership role and helping this team get better. By my senior year, you’ll see us making it to the state tournament.
“Don’t even worry about it.”