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Malachi Corley’s inspirational rise to New York Jets wide receiver

Malachi Corley, NY Jets, Interview, High School, Jets X-Factor
Malachi Corley, New York Jets, Getty Images

Latanya Bridgewater was frantic.

Her 4-year-old son had disappeared. It hadn’t been 15 minutes since she’d put him down for a nap and left to pick up his sister from school around the corner, but in that time, the young Malachi Corley had somehow managed to disappear.

“We’re running around the house trying to find him, no idea where he could’ve possibly gone,” Bridgewater recalled in a recent conversation with Jets X-Factor. “We’re looking and looking, when finally we noticed the gate outside was open and realized our little black poodle Chico was gone too.”

Little Malachi had woken up from his nap and decided to take Chico for a walk all by himself.

“We’re in Florida, so you’re looking at like 90 degrees by now,” she said. “So now we’re frantically running around the neighborhood, knocking on doors, trying to see if anyone has seen him, when lo and behold, I see a lady coming toward us.”

Bridgewater describes her as the palest lady she’s ever seen, with her hand on Malachi’s back, guiding him home.

“There he was. He had the dog, still in his hand on a leash, and he was drenched with sweat,” she recounted. The pale lady, according to Bridgewater, only said one thing to her before walking off: “Next time, teach him his phone number.”

“When I look back over this story – we still talk about it as a family today – I truly believe that woman was an angel. And that was the moment from where I knew that God had his hand on Malachi’s life.”

Corley’s ascension

While Malachi Corley, the youngest of four kids, spent his earliest years in Orange City, Fla., his mother moved the family to smalltown Campbellsville, Ky. when Corley was in the fourth grade. She wanted them to be closer to his older sister, who attended the local university on a volleyball scholarship.

Latanya Bridgewater worked incredibly hard to support her children, regularly working 12-hour shifts on top of her already-taxing motherly duties. It’s important to note the example she set, as there can be no question that her work ethic rubbed off on Corley.

Fast forward to high school. Corley established himself very early on as a superstar multi-sport athlete. He started all four years at point guard for the basketball team at Campbellsville High School and ran track as well, but football, according to his mom, “was always his one true love.”

Keep in mind that Campbellsville is a very small town, with a population of just over 11,000.

“You can count on one hand the number of people who’ve left this place and gone to a D-1 school,” Bridgewater said of her home.

But that’s also why young Corley was such a rare weapon for Campbellsville High School head football coach Dale Estes.

“I’ve never had another player like him,” Estes said in a recent conversation with Jets X-Factor.

Right from the jump as a freshman, Estes used Corley everywhere. He played a do-everything role on offense (receiver and wildcat quarterback), as well as cornerback on defense and return man on special teams.

But even while excelling with all of that on his plate, the ever-humble Corley didn’t originally know if his talent was Division-I good. After all, playing in Campbellsville, he was more athletic and talented than almost any competition he faced, so dominating them didn’t exactly guarantee he could hang with the nation’s best.

“But some sort of switch flipped for him between his sophomore and junior year,” said Estes, who remembers a mindset shift following Corley’s first national camp that summer.

“Once he started seeing some competition out there, and seeing major D-1 athletes, it kinda flipped that switch in him,” he said. “Going into that summer before his junior year, we could just tell Malachi was a different person. A different man, a different football player… His work ethic went to another level.”

“As a mom, I could see the switch was always there,” said Bridgewater. “But I think what ultimately flipped that switch was when he was invited to all those camps. He saw then that maybe he could make it out of Campbellsville. He could go D-1. He could go pro. Because he finally saw the competition and realized he could be as good, if not better than them.”

And so he got to work.

Driving by the local football field in Campbellsville at any point in the day, it became a town fixture that you’d see the teenage Corley out there, working out alone – bags or a parachute harnessed to his back as he ran sprints.

And hard work, as it so often does, paid off. As a junior, Corley was named District Player of the Year with 2,500 all-purpose yards and 94 tackles. Then as a senior, he did it again, accounting for 21 total touchdowns and earning District POY honors for the second straight season.

Even despite the numbers and accolades, Corley wasn’t satisfied. The switch had been flipped and it sure wasn’t flipping back.

In the state of Kentucky, football teams are allowed three hours of practice time per day, but are not legally allowed to exceed that. According to Estes, Corley would tack on hours of extra personal training when everyone else had left.

“We’d have to run him out of the weight room,” he recalled, laughing. “And I remember the first time I visited him at Western Kentucky, the coaches told me they were having to do the same thing.”

Corley and Estes embrace - Credit Josh Claywell - Paxton Media Group
Josh Claywell – Paxton Media Group

College career

Despite his high school success, Corley was largely overlooked as a two-star recruit. Western Kentucky was his lone FBS offer. Again, it’s important to remember that he was coming out of teeny-tiny Campbellsville and attended a 250-student high school. But an FBS offer that would allow him to stay close to home? Of course he jumped at it.

On signing day, he became the first player in Campbellsville HS history to sign with a Division-I program. Funnily enough, WKU originally wanted him as a cornerback recruit, but they quickly flipped him to receiver during preseason practices once they saw him with the ball in his hands. Genius.

Corley’s college career at WKU got off to a weird start with the pandemic-shortened 2020 season being his true freshman year. His sophomore season saw him record modest production as he readjusted, but his junior year in 2022, with a full season’s workload, was where he really asserted himself onto NFL radars. He caught 101 passes for 1,293 yards and 11 touchdowns, leading the entire FBS in forced missed tackles and yards after catch (hence earning his “YAC King” nickname). His senior year was similarly impressive as he repeated as First Team All-Conference and caught 11 more touchdowns.

Corley was widely lauded for his loyalty to WKU, as he turned down lucrative NIL deals at bigger-name schools to remain with the Hilltoppers.

Finally leaving Western Kentucky for the Jets, Corley sits top three in every receiving category in school history.

Draft day

Learning the type of player, person and worker Corley is, it’s not at all hard to see why the New York Jets fell in love with the 22-year-old leading up to the draft. It’s certainly easier to understand Robert Saleh and Joe Douglas’ viral “no matter what” text exchange the morning they drafted him.

“He told me the Jets and Bucs had been calling him a lot in the days leading up, so he definitely had some sort of idea they liked him,” said Estes, who sat just feet from Corley at his draft party. His mother, of course, was right by her son’s side.

“Malachi thought he was going first round,” said Bridgewater. “So we’re sitting there, but then comes the second round, and now that’s going by quickly… But the thing about Malachi is he’s just chill… He knew in his heart it was gonna happen, we just didn’t know when.”

Still, when the moment finally came at the 65th overall pick, it was pure ecstasy.

“We were sitting there, and we heard on the TV that the Jets traded up,” Estes recounted. “And then it was just like ‘boom,’ and his phone rang.”

“When he got the call, he was smiling so big, I was smiling big, and we just looked at each other like, ‘Thank God, it is finished,’” Bridgewater said. “He made it… He did it.”

Ian Roddy is on Twitter @IanRoddy_

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