MIZE, MS (WDAM) - "It's going to be an exciting year," said Mize senior linebacker Elijah Keyes. "I just want everybody to just know that the Mize Bulldogs, we're going to reclaim that name that we once had."
Adding a fifth state title to the school's trophy case is what Mize hopes for after enduring just the second losing season (4-8) in program history last year. In 2017, the Bulldogs have a senior leader in Keyes, who's relentless hard work motivates the entire Mize locker room.
"I think he influences them a great deal," said Mize head coach Kenny Robinson. "He's just, like I said, a natural leader. And he doesn't do it by talking, he does it by example. He's always working hard. He's always the first one here, last one to leave."
"The love for it, the passion for it is just too deep," Keyes said. "So if it's hit the weight room early in the morning, run afterwards, do it again late afternoon, then so be it. If that's what it takes to succeed in this sport, then I'll do it."
All the reps Keyes put in in the weight room helped him break the class 2A state powerlifting record last season with a 335 pound bench press in the 220-pound class. Even the thrill of weightlifting doesn't compare to the rush Keyes gets laying down hits on the football field.
"I lift the weights so I can hit someone harder," Keyes said.
Keyes recorded 95 tackles last season, earning a class 2A first-team defense selection. Though he stands at just 5-foot-7, the 225-pound linebacker isn't to be taken lightly by opponents.
"I love adversity," Keyes said. "I love it because all my life I hear the same thing: 'You're going to be too short to play this game.' I feel like a Rocky sometimes and I love that. I love the underdog feeling because I just love proving people wrong."
Though some college programs may overlook Keyes because of his size, there will be others that see his 3.0 grade point-average and the passion he plays with. Others might pass over the small town of Mize altogether.
But there's been players before Keyes that have shattered that stereotype. Those are the players Keyes looks up to most.
"I'm going to have to go with my man Eugene Sims, Mize native," Keyes said. "A lot of people coming from this small town, they're like nobody's going to make it up out of here. I mean, Mize, Mississippi where everybody's doubting you already cause you're not in the inner city. So for [Sims] to just make it, that's really big and that's an inspiration right there."
After helping Mize win the 2004 state championship, Sims would eventually be selected by the St. Louis Rams in the 2010 NFL Draft.
It was a humbling moment for Keyes when Sims, the player he grew up watching, wanted to see Elijah Keyes play.
"I haven't told nobody this story but I had broke [Sims'] cousin's collarbone in junior high and he was like, 'I want to see him,'" Keyes said. "He always tells me, 'Just keep working. As long as you keep working, the door's going to open up.' Just got to keep working and keep God first, always. Pray, gotta hit them knees. If you want it, then you got to put God ahead of it too."