JONESBORO, Ark — Arkansas State wide receiver Omar Bayless has had a senior year for the history books. The Sunbelt Conference Player of the Year set single-season program and conference records for receiving yards, touchdowns, and games with 100 or more yards.
Bayless is an All-American. He's an NFL Draft prospect. He's had the best season for a wide receiver in Arkansas State history. And it's a season that almost didn't happen.
Sitting behind his desk overlooking Centennial Bank Field, Arkansas State head football coach Blake Anderson reflects on the career that Omar Bayless has had. Earlier in the afternoon, he had been notified that Bayless been named a second-team Walter Camp All-American, the first player in program history to earn the honor.
“You know, I thought Omar just, little by little, every year just kind of matured. Kind of came into his own," Anderson said. “He went into this offseason on a mission, I think. To truly go and play the best ball he could possibly play.”
For Bayless, 2019 has been about winning. Helping Arkansas State win games while winning over his doubters. In doing both, he has won numerous awards.
But for Bayless, the emphasis on winning is because he knows all too well what it's like to lose.
“I think some of the things that happened off the field just really shaped his personality and kind of a toughness to him about how to deal with adversity because he’d had a lot of it," Anderson said, thinking back on the last year and a half that Bayless has been through.
Bayless grew up in Laurel, Mississippi. A small town nearly two hours southwest of Jackson.
“It’s rough. Growing up it’s just a small town. You know, it ain’t too much," Bayless said of his hometown. "It ain’t really much to do so it’s so easy to get caught up into a lot of things that go on. Basically everything you could think of in a negative aspect, that’s just the way it is down there.”
Bayless credits his family for helping him stay out of trouble. But even more than 300 miles away, Bayless couldn't stay away from tragedy.
In April 2018, Bayless' best friend from high school, Vincent McGill, was shot and killed in Laurel. Three months later, Bayless lost both his cousin and his uncle within a few weeks of one another due to unrelated medical issues. And in August, another friend from high school died in a car wreck.
For Bayless, it was loss upon loss upon loss.
“I was kind of numb to it. I lost all my feelings. It was hard to feel pain and suffering about it," he said. "But when I really sit down and come to reality, that’s when I really think about it. These people really gone, they’re not coming back.”
By his own admission, Bayless had almost quit football two times before. This time was different, and Blake Anderson could see that his wide receiver was at his breaking point.
“He’s had a lot of things going back home. I think he felt a tremendous responsibility to help," Anderson said. “It always made you hold your breath when he’d go home because it would be like, is he going to come back this time?”
Last January, following Arkansas State's loss to Nevada in the Arizona Bowl, Bayless went home to Laurel. Not knowing if he'd ever return.
“I was so close to not coming back, not playing football period. Just because there was so much going on back home." Bayless admitted. “It kind of got to the point where I wasn’t answering the calls or anything. And he was texting me, ‘like you going to make me come get you?"
"I would've gotten in the car and gone to find him if I had to," Anderson said. "I was just not going to let him throw this away. For him to have the career he's had, but for him to have opportunities along the way where it would've stopped short before he finished, it scares you."
“I was at a breaking point," Bayless said. "But Coach Anderson, being the man that he is. I’m really grateful for him. Because he really just sat down and talked to me man-to-man.”
“He was so close. Even if he didn’t play a down, he was so close to graduating, I wasn’t going to let him miss the opportunity to graduate,” said Anderson.
Still unsure, Bayless made the six-hour drive back to Jonesboro.
“We had a team meeting to be back here late at night. I got back here pretty early," Bayless remembered. "After the meeting, he texted me and he was like, ‘I’m happy to see that pretty mug you’ve always got on your face’. And I was like, ‘I’m happy to be back."
Anderson remembers the conversation they had once Bayless returned.
“Once he finally came back, we sat down and he said ‘Coach, I’m coming back. I’m going to play, I’m going to finish, we’re not going to have this conversation again. We’re not going to have to worry about this again." And we haven’t."
And then, on August 19th, Anderson's wife Wendy, with whom Bayless had been close, passed away after a battle with cancer.
“It meant the world to her that he called on a couple of different Saturdays when she was bed-ridden and couldn’t leave the house, and he’s supposed to be out hanging with the guys," Anderson said. "He’d say, ‘Hey coach, can I come see Mama Wendy? And he did and they’d sit there and talk for a couple of hours.”
The night she died, Bayless dedicated his season to Mama Wendy.
“The day she left," Bayless said. "He [Coach Anderson] texted me the night it was happening. He told me everything and from that point on, I just hit the ground running, doing it for her and the people that I've lost."
Anderson admitted that he was worried how Bayless would handle Wendy's death after already suffering so much loss. But Bayless told his head coach not to worry about him.
“It’s crazy because we were just kind of leaning on each other, me and Coach A. He’ll uplift me, I’ll uplift him. It was kind of a thing where we were just, ‘we in this together.'" Bayless said.
“I told him, don’t worry about me. I’m going to be good. I’m going to be okay. My main focus was to focus on him.”
When asked about their relationship and how proud he is of the man that Bayless has become, Anderson had to take a moment to regain his composure before answering.
“The relationship that we have is very unique," he said. "And him being in my home as much as he’s been. Having been the person that recruited him. To know what he fought through to get to this point, whether he ever catches another ball, he’s family to me.”
Omar Bayless has suffered tremendous personal loss. More than anyone his age should ever have to. But he carries those he's lost with him, honoring their memories with each and every victory.
“Every time before a game start, I got a little routine where I walk and I talk to all the people that I lost, mainly her, because she always made sure I was good.” Bayless said. "I know they're up there saying, 'go get ‘em.'”