By Rick Atkinson

For the Anna-Melissa Tribune

MELISSA – Melissa senior Ja’Bray Young, the Cardinals’ all-time leading rusher, signed his National Letter of Intent to play football for Stephen F. Austin University Feb. 5 in the Lecture Hall at Melissa High School.

A large group of friends, teammates, coaches and family filled the room for the noon-hour celebration.

“It feels real good,” Young said after officially signing. “It feels like I accomplished something. The first part of my life, right here. It begins. … Once I got on the [SFA] campus and started looking around, I felt like I was already home. I felt like the classroom size was great for me. I felt I was close to the coaches already.” Young added that the Science department really got his attention.

SFA is located in Nacogdoches, in the piney woods of East Texas. The NCAA Division I FCS Lumberjacks compete in the Southland Conference.

Young rushed for 5,203 yards and 54 touchdowns during his stellar four seasons at Melissa, and also grabbed 27 passes for 739 yards and 10 TDs. He earned two First-Team All-District picks as a running back, but was also a two-time All-District linebacker as well – and was the district’s Defensive Newcomer of the Year as a freshman.

Young is also a two-time state-qualifying sprinter for Cardinals track, with another season still to go.

Melissa Athletic Director Seth Stinton was Young’s head football coach through his junior season. In remarks to Young before the assembled crowd, Stinton said what he most appreciates about Young is that he loves everybody.

“And it’s pretty evident that everybody loves you. I think Stephen F. Austin is lucky to have you. I know you’re going to go be a star there and hopefully you get to play on Sundays one day. … I’m proud of you. I want you to know just how special you are to our school - and not just because of football and athletics. It’s because of who you are and what kind of heart you have.”

Melissa head football coach Matt Nally was Young’s offensive coordinator before taking the Cards’ reins last year.

“Ja’Bray was the poster child of what you’re looking for as a player,” Nally said. “This is the all-time leading rusher in Melissa High School history. I want you to think about that. The guy’s playing both sides of the ball. He had to play special teams as well. The greatest teammate I’ve ever been around is Ja’Bray Young.”

Young’s uncle is Melissa assistant football coach Lawrence Williams. Williams and his wife, Tammy Williams, raised the future Cardinal star since he was seven years old.

“I didn’t know if this day would come,” Lawrence Williams told the gathering. “I remember when he came to us. To see where he’s evolved to, and the challenges he was able to overcome, it really touched me in a special way. … Not only did his teachers give him tough love, but they pushed him and they didn’t allow him to be average. His teammates, the way you guys loved him, pushed him to be great. This is a celebration not just for Ja’Bray and us as a family, but us as a community.”

Williams handed out purple SFA T-shirts to all those gathered. Stinton said while he doesn’t often wear purple - Anna’s team color - he’d make an exception when he goes to watch Young play at SFA.

“It’s been phenomenal,” Tammy Williams said of Young’s big day. “It has been one of the proudest moments of my life to know that I have been able to take him in and raise him and see him grow and mature as a young man.”

She said Young has always been a kind and loving kid. “I noticed that in him from Day 1. He’s always been nice, funny, just a pleasure to be around. … We’ve always wanted him to focus on academics. We feel like [SFA] is going to be the best place for him to go and be able to grow, not only as an athlete but also as a student.”

Barbara Williams, Coach Williams’ mother, recalled that her son signed his college papers to play for then-West Texas State University on the same date as Young.

Young’s mother, Marjorie Young of Sherman, was also on hand. She called her son’s accomplishment “very amazing and powerful,” adding, “God blessed me with somebody that would step up and help me with my son.”

Young said his favorite memories of Cardinal football are bus rides home and team dinners. “And also before the games, we’d get crazy, make memories with each other that I won’t forget.”

As for his upcoming final track season, Young said, “I’m trying to get my track team back to state one last time.” He also noted that he’s shooting for a personal-record time of 10.4 seconds in the 100-meter dash.

What will Young miss most about Melissa? “The love they have for each other,” he said.