FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla — Zay Flowers always knew he would be here: a first-round pick in the NFL, a millionaire at 22, a spokesman for billion-dollar brands. But for much of his football career, Flowers felt like the only one with the vision.

In high school, at the University School in South Florida, Flowers had the stats — 26 touchdowns and 1,773 yards over his four years — and the highlights to go with them: leaping catches and massive gains after receptions.

But Division I coaches looked past the 5-foot-something Flowers each year, focusing instead on his close friends with ideal football size.

In college, Flowers was a two-time All-Atlantic Coast Conference selection by the end of his junior season at Boston College. He felt he’d done enough to be a Day 1 pick. But most draft evaluations said otherwise, rating Flowers a third- to fourth-round talent. So he returned to school and watched as his teammate, guard Zion Johnson, was selected in the first round.

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Now, though, the paradigm has shifted.

For the first time since he played Pop Warner football — before puberty, when nobody cared about his size — Flowers is no longer the underdog. He was the Ravens’ No. 22 overall pick in April, chosen by general manager Eric DeCosta and Coach John Harbaugh to break the Ravens’ long streak of disappointing first-round wide receivers.

“I still feel like I got that same chip on my shoulder,” Flowers said in a recent interview. “Every level I’ve been on so far, I feel like I’ve had to prove myself, and I’m gonna do that again.”

“I always had this dream as a kid, so I just want to live it to the best,” Flowers continued, “and do everything possible to be the best player I can be. So one day, I look back and just shake my head and say, ‘Yeah, I did it. I did it right.”

Willie Flowers stands next to the TV featuring his son, Zay, on the box. (Photo by Kris Rhim/The Baltimore Banner)

Willie Flowers isn’t sure where to place the television or much of his son’s football memorabilia that now crowds his home living room.

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On a recent afternoon, Willie looked around at the walls in his dimly lit home; there wasn’t any way he could fit the 98-inch TV that had recently arrived, the one with his son Zay’s face on the cover (he received it after agreeing to do a red carpet interview at the draft with TCL). “I’m thinking of a man cave in the garage,” he said with a smile.

But the garage is damaged from a recent flood, which warped some of the wood. Willie said he has been “fighting” with his insurance company to pay for repairs before he begins creating the man cave, but said he might have to foot the bill himself. The thought of asking Zay, who signed a four-year, $14 million deal in June, hadn’t crossed his mind.

“He’s 22, and I want him to be able to provide for when he has kids and stuff,” said Willie, 57, who provided for Zay and his 13 siblings as a driver for a medical supply company. “I don’t want him struggling. So if it’s going to happen, it’ll happen in time. I just want him to focus on putting his money in the right place, so when he gets my age, he’s not working. I don’t want him to ever have to work.”

Sacrificing for his children has always been in Willie’s nature; it’s why Zay calls him his “motivation,” and why his first instinct after becoming a multimillionaire was to reward his father with a Mercedes-Benz SUV.

Zay’s mother, Jackie, died after suffering a head injury from a fall when he was 5. He carries his mom and his brother Martin, who was shot and killed when Zay was 17, wherever he goes, on tattoos that run up and down his arms, chest and stomach. Zay’s first two tattoos were on the inside of his wrists; his right wrist reads “Jackie,” with a queen’s crown above, and on the left, he has “Martin” tattooed with crosses and clouds. Martin’s face covers his left rib cage.

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“We’re all each other’s best friends and biggest fans,” Zay said of his family. “So losing them just hit home, like you could be gone at any time. And so it just taught me to appreciate life. Smile more, just do what I love and do it my hardest.”

Zay Flowers got a tattoo on his wrist to honor his brother, Martin, who was shot and killed. (Photo by Kris Rhim/The Baltimore Banner)

Flowers’ high school looks like something out of a “High School Musical” movie: palm trees, college-level athletic facilities, lakes dotting the campus.

But Flowers was never the Troy Bolton of University School. He played more of a supporting role to his friends and teammates. On the basketball court, Flowers came off the bench on a team that lost in the final of the Geico Nationals tournament and featured future NBA first-round picks Vernon Carey Jr. and Scottie Barnes, the 2022 NBA Rookie of the Year.

Flowers was a two-way standout on the school’s football team, but he played in the shadows of two close friends. Kenny McIntosh was a bruising 6-0, 200-pound running back. Josh Sanguinetti was a 6-1 defensive back with double-digit interceptions. Both had scholarship offers from perennial powers as sophomores.

Then there was Flowers, a 5-8, 160-pound wide receiver and defensive back. Entering his senior season, the only Power Five conference program to offer him was Boston College, a school that had never had a wide receiver drafted in the first round.

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“That motivated me,” Flowers said, adding: “I knew I was that type of player to get those offers and go somewhere big, but nobody else saw it.”

The summer after his sophomore year, Flowers committed himself to adding muscle. He attacked the weight room with a different level of focus than he’d had as a 125-pound freshman, his coach Daniel Luque remembered. “He had that ‘I have just got to keep proving me right, proving them wrong’ mentality,” Luque said. “He was so fixated on himself.”

Flowers’ 165-pound hang clean is still the second-best mark in program history in the lifting group the University School classifies as “light weights,” which includes receivers, kickers, defensive backs, kickers, punters, and quarterbacks.

By the time he was a senior, the extra lifting and practice sessions had paid dividends. He had a lengthy highlight tape with interceptions and receiving touchdowns. More scholarship offers began rolling in.

But Flowers stuck with Boston College because they were the first Power Five school to choose him.

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CHESTNUT HILL, MASSACHUSETTS - NOVEMBER 20: Zay Flowers #4 of the Boston College Eagles reacts after scoring a touchdown during the third quarter against the Florida State Seminoles at Alumni Stadium on November 20, 2021 in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts.
CHESTNUT HILL, MASSACHUSETTS - NOVEMBER 20: Zay Flowers #4 of the Boston College Eagles reacts after scoring a touchdown during the third quarter against the Florida State Seminoles at Alumni Stadium on November 20, 2021 in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts. (Maddie Malhotra/Getty Images)

It took a few practices during Flowers’ sophomore season for Boston College offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti Jr. to realize he needed to get Flowers the ball in as many ways as possible.

Cignetti had joined the Eagles’ staff in 2020, after a promising true-freshman year from Flowers. In their first game together, a 26-6 win over Duke, Flowers had one of the best games of his career: five catches, 162 yards, one touchdown and some of the best routes Cignetti can ever remember a receiver executing.

“It was special,” Cignetti, now the offensive coordinator at Pittsburgh, said in a recent interview. “You don’t know until you play a game with these guys, but you could see it after that.”

Flowers finished the season with 892 yards and nine touchdowns, becoming just the second receiver in school history to be named first-team all-conference. After the Eagles opted out of a bowl game amid COVID-19 concerns, Flowers went back home to South Florida.

Cignetti, who’d coached for six NFL teams before moving to Boston College, had built a close relationship with quarterback Geno Smith as the New York Giants’ quarterbacks coach. Smith was working out in South Florida with former Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Antonio Brown, and Cignetti got Flowers an invite to their session.

“Geno called me back and said, ‘He is unbelievable,’” Cignetti said with a laugh. “And I knew then because Geno is a pro, man. So for Zay to go down there and impress Geno and A.B., I knew he was gonna be something special.”

At Boston College, Flowers was a deep-shot dynamo. Nearly half of his career receiving yardage came on catches of at least 20 yards downfield, according to Pro Football Focus. In the win over Duke, Flowers ran a corner post — faking a diagonal path to the sideline before cutting back to the middle of the field — so convincingly that the defensive back guarding him was looking in the opposite direction as Flowers ran to the end zone by himself for a 61-yard touchdown.

If you ask Flowers’ coaches and trainers, corner post routes are his trademark. If you ask Flowers, he doesn’t have a marquee route. “I’m really nice at anything deep,” he said with a smile, adding that he could make plays anywhere.

“Go look at the tape at Boston College; every time it was a big play, it was the same thing over and over again,” said Tevin Allen, the CEO of Gold Feet Global and a trainer who works with Flowers and several star NFL receivers. “They couldn’t stop it. He literally mastered it.”

As a junior, Flowers averaged 17 yards per catch, the seventh highest in the ACC, and finished the year with 746 receiving yards and five touchdowns. Flowers expected to be a first-round pick, but NFL evaluators didn’t think so. Most draft projections ranked Flowers as a mid-round prospect. So he returned for his senior season.

“I wanted to go back and prove everything, prove everybody wrong,” Flowers said. “Not even just those people during that time — everybody from back in the day, since high school, since my ninth-grade year. I just wanted to prove everybody wrong.”

Any doubts NFL evaluators had about Flowers as a senior were put to rest. Flowers had the best year of his career: 78 receptions, 1,077 yards and 12 touchdowns. He was named an All-American, and this spring, he became the first receiver in Boston College history selected in the first round.

“His mindset, his mentality is totally different than a lot of people,” said Joe Dailey, his former wide receivers coach at Boston College. “People look at his measurables, like, ‘He’s small.’ But in his eyes, Zay Flowers is 6-foot-4, 215 [pounds], and looking at the rest of the world like, ‘I’m above and beyond you guys.’ And I think that’s what separated him. He doesn’t see himself through the same lens as everyone else.”

Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Zay Flowers (4) catches a pass and rushes forward in the first quarter of a preseason game against the Philadelphia Eagles at M&T Bank Stadium on Saturday, August 12, 2023. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

In his first NFL training camp, Flowers looked like the Ravens’ best receiver.

Everything Flowers does is fast. In warmups, 11-on-11 play and walk-throughs, Flowers is often moving at a different pace from everyone else.

Flowers’ speed has gotten him in trouble with teammates. On the opening day of camp, Flowers made All-Pro inside linebacker Roquan Smith fall after an open-field juke. Afterward, Smith said he wasn’t sure it should count.

“It was a walk-through,” Smith said before a reporter had finished a question about his fall. “But when you got a rookie like that, he’s going to hit the gas every time. So I’ve got to be conscious of that.”

Other defenders have fared no better. Flowers runs his routes unlike any player on the team, sometimes getting so low out of his breaks that he places one hand on the ground. In a one-on-one matchup against Washington Commanders cornerback Jartavious Martin during a joint practice last month, Flowers cut so quickly that Martin stumbled. A clip of the rep went viral.

“Zay is different,” Allen said. “You will think he’s falling on his route, but he’s not. It’s a crazy body control that you can’t teach.”

Flowers’ moves earned him the nickname “Joystick” from quarterback Lamar Jackson. But that moniker has come with some controversy in the Flowers household. “Joystick” was a nickname that Flowers’ brother, Marqueice, had growing up, and either way, it doesn’t feel fitting for Willie Flowers.

Zay’s full first name is Xavien, and Willie has always called him X — partly because it’s a convenient nickname but also because it captures his uniqueness. Zay told reporters early in camp that he hoped his nickname would be “Professor X,” after the Marvel character.

“I call him X because he’s always had that ‘it,’ that X factor,” Willie said as he wiped a tree leaf off his new Mercedes. “He was never the fastest, never the biggest kid, but he always made it happen.”

The Ravens are counting on it. Of the six wide receivers they’ve drafted in the first round, only Marquise “Hollywood” Brown, taken No. 25 overall in 2019, has eclipsed 1,000 yards in a single season.

“I think the biggest one to watch out for this year who could creep into everyone’s top five really could be Zay Flowers,” said receiver Odell Beckham Jr. on The Rich Eisen Show when asked to list his five best receivers in the NFL. “Just keep that name up there, every single week, showing up on Sportscenter.”

This is unusual territory for Flowers. He’s accustomed to being overlooked and overshadowed, always required to prove that he belongs. Now he’s one of the NFL’s most hyped rookies, with viral routes and touchdowns, a rich endorsement deal with Under Armour, and the expectations of becoming the first-round Ravens receiver who finally pans out.

DeCosta and Harbaugh hope Flowers proves them right and becomes a star. Flowers, meanwhile, has a Super Bowl and Offensive Rookie of the Year honors on his mind. He’s banking on doing more of what he’s done at every level.

“I still gotta prove them wrong,” Flowers said, somewhat dismissive of the idea that he is no longer overlooked. “It’s still going to be people out there that tell me I can’t do it. But I’m always the opposite. I believe I can do everything.”

Ravens wide receiver Zay Flowers, who was one of 14 children raised by his father Willie, poses with some of his siblings after being drafted by the Ravens. (Photo courtesy of Willie Flowers)

kris.rhim@thebaltimorebanner.com

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