NEW MADRID, MO (KFVS) - Before the Carolina Panthers defensive end Kony Ealy was playing in Super Bowl 50, he was a standout student athlete at New Madrid County Central High School.
"Well when you first saw him you knew he had talent," New Madrid head basketball coach Travis Day said.
Ealy transferred to New Madrid County Central in 2007 as a sophomore after attending Portageville High School his freshman year.
"He played football and basketball and ran a little track, so he did a little bit of everything for us," Day said.
But it was on the football field that Day, then an assistant coach, first saw his potential.
"You see talent and then you wonder if this kid works hard, buys into the weight room, something good is going to happen for him."
Work hard he did.
Ealy would earn all-state, all-district and all-conference honors in both football and basketball - but his dominance on the field made him a fan favorite.
"I was here every Friday night," current New Madrid senior Deondray Jenkins said.
As a student athlete himself, Jenkins, made it point to watch Ealy play under the lights.
"As a kid, I looked up to him as an older brother," he said. "It's just kind of amazing to see someone else on TV that's come from where you've come from."
Off the field, Ealy was a competitor in the classroom.
New Madrid math teacher Chrisi Hodges had Ealy as a student his junior and senior years.
Hodges remembers him as a student eager to learn.
"He was just excited to get started," she said "He was always ready to work."
And when it came time for the ACT test, Ealy's last academic hurdle before graduating, Hodges said Ealy's determination became clear.
"He got those scores back and he cried. I mean a big high school senior cried, because he knew he was going on to the next level."
Ealy graduated in 2010 as a 6'5," 230-pound senior headed to the University of Missouri on a football scholarship and eventually the NFL.
Even now, Ealy makes it point to stop in and say "hi" often.
"That's what we like about him, that he's coming back and sharing his story where these kids are like, 'hey if he can do it and he's from here, maybe I can do it too,'" Day said.
A message heard loud and clear.
"It makes you feel like you can do anything coming from a small town," Jenkins said as gets ready to graduate in May.
"Kony had a dream, he told us here his dream," Day said. "His dream was to become a professional. And his dream is coming true."