NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- At 20 years old, DK Metcalf lay in a hospital bed, facing the end of his college career.
The redshirt sophomore wide receiver suffered a neck injury in October 2018 that required season-ending surgery. His family surrounded him, along with Ole Miss coach Matt Luke, position coach Jacob Peeler and fellow receiver A.J. Brown.
"When they told us he was hurt and out for the year, I went to the hospital with him and it just crumbled me," Brown said. "I felt like it happened to me. Man, it definitely brought us closer. We were already close, but after that, it just went to a whole different level."
Added Metcalf, "I looked over and he was crying. For him to put himself in my shoes and feel my emotion at that time, you couldn't have asked for anything better."
Once high school rivals, Brown and Metcalf grew as college teammates to be like brothers. The two have pushed each other since their high school days all the way to the NFL, where -- as rookies in 2019, Brown with the Titans and Metcalf with the Seahawks -- they established themselves. Brown led the Titans in receiving, and Metcalf trailed only Tyler Lockett on the Seahawks.
And they aren't done pushing each other to reach new heights.
But that's a far cry from where their relationship started.
The 'not too fond' rivalry
During their high school days, Brown (from Starkville) and Metcalf (from Oxford) jockeyed for top-receiver honors in Mississippi. The two standouts faced each other three times, with Brown's team winning two of three.
"They both came out from rival high schools," Peeler said. "They played each other and were always compared to each other in high school. Social media kind of created this rivalry."
The constant comparisons started to make it personal. "We weren't too fond of each other at the time," Brown said.
Then the two joined forces in the 2015 Mississippi vs. Alabama All-Star game. They hauled in two touchdowns apiece and were named co-MVPs.
Metcalf was committed to Mississippi while Brown was mulling offers; including an intense effort by Jalen Hurts to get him to go to Alabama.
Shortly after the all-star game, Brown received a text from Metcalf that included an invitation:
Hey, bruh. You might as well just go ahead and join me at Ole Miss.
"We talked about the WRs that were there," Brown said. "Laquon Treadwell was about to come out. And really, Ole Miss had been pumping out some really good receivers. We knew we had a good chance of making an impact early."
Could we be teammates next year ...mhmm🤔 who knows 😼😂 pic.twitter.com/TJbzEicZBB— AJ Brown (@Brown1arthur) December 10, 2015
If it weren't for the Mississippi vs. Alabama All-Star game, Brown might not have ended up at Ole Miss. But he saw how dangerous he and Metcalf could be together.
Added Peeler, "It all started when those two put their egos aside and decided to go do it together. It was kind of like this power team was created."
Their time as college teammates was the start of something big.
"Once we got to Ole Miss, it was all over," Brown said. "It was all she wrote. When we got there, we wanted to make each other better and just linked up. We didn't look back."
Brown and Metcalf lived together for two years at Ole Miss.
"We always talked about being on a three-year plan," Brown said of their plan to go from college to the NFL. They started "Film Fridays," where they would watch pro receivers instead of going out.
Peeler had a bank of cutups featuring NFL wide receivers that he shared with his players.
"They were film junkies, always in the office going down these wormholes of watching cutups and videos," Peeler said with a laugh.
Metcalf had his eyes on two receivers known for their amazing abilities.
"Randy Moss was the guy for me," Metcalf said, "how he just attacks the ball when he's double-covered but the QB would still trust him to throw the ball up. That's a dog. And Calvin [Johnson], he's just, like, other-world. That's what I am trying to be."
Brown and Metcalf pushed each other in different ways. The two balanced each other because they brought different strengths to the table.
"I was the weight-room guy," Metcalf said. "He was the football guy. Anything that I learned on the field, it was from watching A.J., being around him doing drills."
Added Brown: "DK really pushed me, man. Everything comes easy to him. Running, lifting weights, everything. He does it effortlessly. With him being around me, it raised my level of play because we always competed and worked out together, trying to uplift each other."
Peeler enjoyed coaching Brown and Metcalf because of their willingness to compete and desire to be great.
"There wasn't a lot of poking and prodding that went into coaching those guys. They pushed each other every day," Peeler said. "I don't think they could have done that without each other."
Peeler had a nickname for Brown, Metcalf and fellow receiver DaMarkus Lodge (now with the Bengals): Nasty wideouts. Brown and Metcalf liked that so much they each got an NWO tattoo.
Balancing each other out extended beyond their workouts, reaching football fields on game days. Defenses had to pick their poison defending Ole Miss' wideouts. Peeler pointed to Brown's ability to get yards after the catch across the middle and Metcalf's threat to take the top off of defenses.
Metcalf showcased his vertical skills in the first seven games of the 2018 season when he averaged 21.9 yards per reception. Things came to a screeching halt when he suffered the neck injury. But Metcalf never wavered. He knew the next time he put on a uniform, he was going to be a professional.
Once it was determined that Metcalf's season was done. Brown reeled off four straight games with more than 100 receiving yards. It was the end of Year 3, and both players set their sights on the NFL.
Draft prep and a viral tweet
To prepare for the combine, Metcalf went to EXOS in Arizona in early December 2018 to rehab from the neck surgery; Brown joined him a few weeks later. The two continued to push each other on the field and in the weight room.
"It was good to have them policing each other," trainer Nic Hill said. "I never had to worry about making sure they were putting everything out there because they were competing with each other. It's a perfect balance between the two."
Hill saw Metcalf was the jokester of the two while Brown locked in. Metcalf admittedly "plays around way too much" and can "get goofy at times" but says Brown is "straight business when we step in between the lines."
During weight-room sessions, the trainers at EXOS prepped the prospects for the 225-pound bench press test by doing bodybuilder pump-up workouts. They felt the results and wanted to show them off.
This about to bigger than Odell and Jarvis Landry when they entered the draft . Two potential 1st round draft picks from the same school. @nfl I hope you're ready . @olemissfb @exossports pic.twitter.com/UBEJDjZBNy— AJ Brown (@Brown1arthur) February 21, 2019
That's what led to the shirtless tweet of Brown and Metcalf that went viral.
"It was A.J.'s idea," Metcalf said. "I don't like taking pictures with my shirt off. That's really not me. I thought it was just a regular picture. I didn't know people were going to freak out like that."
Metcalf had another shirtless moment before meeting Seahawks coach Pete Carroll for the first time at the NFL combine. But Carroll joined in with him and took his shirt off, too.
There was a buzz around Metcalf and Brown. Next, the two wanted to be first-rounders.
DK Metcalf came into his pre-draft interview with Seattle with his shirt off after a scout talked him into it.— ESPN (@espn) April 27, 2019
Pete Carroll was shocked so he took his off too 😂
(via @Seahawks) pic.twitter.com/7dwBavQGhS
Both players impressed at the combine, with Brown showing off in the field drills while Metcalf blazed a 4.33 second time in the 40-yard dash. They had done enough to warrant first-round selections -- at least they thought they had.
Neither was picked on Day 1, and not hearing their names called was devastating. Brown said he went into his closet and cried as he called Metcalf, who stepped out to the hallway at the hotel to take the call. As they talked about being overlooked, their mission became clear.
"We know who we are and what we about to do," Metcalf (drafted 64th overall) told Brown. "When they let us in, that's where they F'd up."
"I was pissed off," said Brown, who was taken at No. 51. "I was supposed to have been picked. I knew I was about to prove the Titans right. I really had a big chip on my shoulder, and I still have it."
That chip still exists for both Brown and Metcalf, who want to take their games to the next level this season. But their careers are off to a strong start.
As rookies, Brown had 52 catches for 1,051 yards (20.2-yard average) and eight touchdowns during the regular season; Metcalf had 58 catches for 900 yards (15.5-yard average) and seven touchdowns.
According to ESPN Stats & Information research, Brown's five 100-yard receiving games in 2019 tied for the third most (Odell Beckham Jr. and Justin Jefferson had seven as rookies) by any rookie in the Super Bowl era. Metcalf posted 160 receiving yards against the Philadelphia Eagles in the playoffs in 2019, the most ever by a rookie, according to Elias Sports Bureau data.
Throughout their rookie seasons, Brown and Metcalf talked every week, giving scouting reports on defensive backs and updates on opponents.
"Whenever we played somebody that one of us already played, we always asked how is he, is he really that good as they say he is," Brown said.
The first time the Titans faced the Jacksonville Jaguars was an eye-opener for Brown. He finished with one catch for 4 yards. Brown rebounded with four receptions for 135 yards and a touchdown the next time he faced them. But he didn't get to face Jalen Ramsey a second time because Ramsey had been traded to the Rams.
"Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye, that was probably the worst game of my career. I was questioning myself so much. It was wet; I couldn't start and stop; and this dude was everywhere. When we played them [the Jaguars] again, I was ready for A.J.; I wish I could have got Jalen again," Brown said.
Ramsey was the first player Metcalf mentioned when asked about defensive backs he and Brown discussed. Metcalf faced Ramsey in December 2019 after the cornerback was traded. Metcalf had six receptions for 78 yards.
Many of Brown and Metcalf's conversations in 2019 included words of encouragement -- especially when the Titans lost four out of five games early in the season.
"They were going through a rough patch," Metcalf said, "and [Brown] was questioning if they'd make the playoffs. I told him, 'You're going to make it. Just continue to do you and ball out.' It was like, after that conversation they went on a winning streak."
Now entering their third seasons, the two receivers are looking to get back to the playoffs and make even deeper run with their respective teams. They will keep pushing each other -- just like brothers do.
"You can tell that they know each other to the point that they're like brothers," Hill said. "It's on a deeper level."