It's a Brunswick, Ga., to Detroit pipeline for three Lions defensive backs

Darius Slay is among the three Brunswick, Georgia, natives in Detroit's secondary. Photo by Ian Johnson/Icon Sportswire

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Darius Slay, Justin Coleman and Tracy Walker posed for a picture last year. The Detroit Lions and Seattle Seahawks had just finished playing in October and this was all so improbable they needed to commemorate it.

Three men, all defensive backs, from the north side of Brunswick, Georgia, on two NFL teams. Now, a thousand miles from their hometown, they were reunited. They reminisced about the old days. Coleman, then with the Seahawks, joked that "maybe one day we'll end up playing together on the same team."

Walker responded: "Yeah, that s--- would be crazy."

They finished their seasons and Coleman became a free agent. Knowing this, the Lions approached Slay and told him they were interested. The two spoke after his visit to Detroit in March.

Two days later, what seemed crazy on the Ford Field turf had become reality.

"I didn't think it would actually happen," Coleman said. "... But it's definitely pretty cool to be able to go to war with these guys seeing they're from the same city and pretty much the same background as I have and we can kind of think alike."

Sixty percent of the Lions' secondary this year comprises players from the football-focused Georgia beach town of 16,357. A combination of age difference and sports played kept them from all being teammates together at Brunswick High. Slay and Coleman were football teammates, but Walker was a basketball player -- and in middle school anyway.

Yet they consider one another to be family, growing up a neighborhood apart. Another common thread was the man who influenced their lives there, former Brunswick coach Victor Floyd, with whom the three have remained in contact.

"They are pretty big deals, all three of them," Floyd said. "I got a couple of calls [in March], people talking about it from down there. It's a pretty big deal. A pretty big deal. Before I got there, Brunswick was known for talent, but kids weren't [playing college football].

"And they got some talent."

Slay, Coleman and Walker all knew people just as talented as them who for one reason or another -- poor grades, no motivation, the draw of the street life -- were unable to pull off what they did, making their reunion all the more improbable.

Their college jerseys hang in the Brunswick High Fieldhouse: Louisiana for Walker, Tennessee for Coleman and Mississippi State for Slay.

Even though they don't go back often and have never returned together, they provide an inspiration of what is possible for a new generation in Brunswick.

"Now, on that level, all of [the high school players] want to be like them," said Johnny Butts, an assistant football coach at Brunswick. "We have the opportunity to do it too. We're just as talented, this and that. So it's a bit of a competition thing.

"... They do recognize those guys and they do somewhat idolize them, because they do come from Brunswick. ... There's a lot of Brunswick pride."

But Brunswick is a small town with deep roots and challenges of apathy. Slay says Fans can be very bandwagon and not everyone roots for your success. Slay recognized this early on, one of the reasons he went to Mississippi State.

If he went to school in Georgia, he said he would have been too tempted to go home all the time. He knew what could happen then, from running with the wrong crowd to complacency.

"You're like a whole other person. It's just, we call it 'The Sunken Place' because like if you get there, you're stuck there," Slay said in a reference to the movie "Get Out," which was released in 2017. "When people come back, it's like, most people get stuck. It's why I rarely go.

"Now, I don't really care about that, I ain't getting stuck there. But when I was young, that's how I felt. Like, everybody know, man. Everybody, all us know, man. Brunswick can be a good place, but then again, it's just too many people around there that just want bad for you, too much bad for you."

The players love the city. When they go back, they do what they can to help. Coleman, when he speaks to students, stresses the importance of hard work because whether someone stays in Brunswick or leaves, that's what matters the most.

Floyd, who took the coaching job when Slay was in high school, pushed the players hard. The three of them are loyal to Floyd -- even after Brunswick fired him in 2014 because of a subpar record.

Floyd was hard on them -- instilling discipline in Slay after not letting him participate in a 7-on-7 tournament because of a missed physical and using Coleman's work ethic, where he had to always be first, to push Slay to be even better.

"Floyd, shoot, he came there, changed my whole life, changed my attitude, gave me a different type of drive, different type of motor," Slay said. "He's the one that really put the vision in my eyes that I could be a great player."

In such a small community as "The Wick," as Coleman calls it, everyone is like family -- which can lead to some confusion. A suggestion by Slay on Twitter made it seem as if they were blood relatives. They are not -- at least not to their knowledge.

Slay and Walker are cousins and Slay said he's related to Coleman through his stepfather -- he believes they are step-second cousins -- but no one was 100% positive. In a place like Brunswick, your ties are thicker than what a blood test might tell you. Slay and Coleman grew up together -- Coleman's older brother, Josh, was one of Slay's friends. Sometimes they'd let Justin hang out, too.

"Just because you blood doesn't make you family," Walker said. "If you my family, I'm treating you like family. You could be my best friend. If me and you were hanging out and you were my best friend, I'm going to look at you like you're my brother.

"That blood stuff, I got a lot of blood family members that ain't my family."

To Walker, Coleman is family. Coleman feels the same -- even if they were not particularly close growing up due to the age gap: Slay is 28, Coleman 26 and Walker 24.

Yet there was always some sort of bond. They all lived less than 10 minutes by car from one another -- Slay and Walker in the Magnolia Park section of town and Coleman in Beverly Shores, a neighborhood over. They played pickup basketball together and were competitive at everything. But organized sports as a trio didn't happen until this year.

When debates start in the locker room, the ties immediately show. The men from Brunswick stick together if they are debating somebody else about anything -- and in an NFL locker room, debates are frequent. Brunswick slang, which is what the three call it when one of them says something teammates don't quite understand, is common.

"We're going to team up and go against everybody else," Walker said. "I mean, think about it. It's us three versus everybody else and whoever else wants to join that conversation. So that's how we look at it, you know."

Slay's and Coleman's lockers are less than five apart in the Lions locker room. Walker is on the other side of the bathroom, along the same wall. They are closer than ever on the field and off of it. There's pride in what they accomplished, and on Sunday, it will come from everywhere.

It will come from Brunswick, where Kregg Richardson, Brunswick's running backs coach, said "it will almost be like a proud father-type moment, just being able to see the young men on the field together." It will come from South Carolina, where Floyd is coaching and briefly thought what it would have been like to have all three on the same team at once.

"That would have been pretty special," Floyd said.

The three Brunswick Lions talked about the same thing recently. They go back 20 years, and against the Arizona Cardinals, when the Lions line up in nickel, Slay, Walker and Coleman should all be on the field. Together. In Lions uniforms. You better believe they are going to take a picture of that.

"We can't wait for that moment," Slay said. "It's going to be a good day. Blessed day. Going to be a good thing to do for our city."