Malachi Corley wasted no time. Minutes after he was drafted by the New York Jets with the No. 65 overall pick, he FaceTimed Aaron Rodgers — a rather audacious way for a rookie to introduce himself to a future Hall of Famer.

By the time they hung up, Corley had scored an invitation to stay at Rodgers’ eight-bedroom, $9.5 million New Jersey mansion during training camp.

The next day, Corley engaged in the old-fashioned kind of face time.

For five hours, the rugged wide receiver held court with more than 200 people at an upscale catering venue in his hometown, Campbellsville, Kentucky. Known in college as the “YAC King” — his total yards after catch from 2021 to 2023 led the FBS over that span — Corley posed for pictures, signed jerseys and footballs, hugged old coaches and former teachers and delighted in telling folks about his conversation with Rodgers.

Corley’s mother threw the party to give back to the community that embraced them 13 years ago. After a divorce, Latanya Bridgewater left Orange City, Florida, and settled in tiny Campbellsville (pop. 11,434), which bills itself as “The Heart of Kentucky.”

In her words, she went from “a land flowing with milk and honey to Mayberry” — a reference to the fictitious sleepy Southern town in the 1960s TV sitcom “The Andy Griffith Show.”

Her son rose to local celebrity status because of his Friday night exploits on the football field, and now Corley, 22, is on the verge of becoming the first from Taylor County — comprised of Campbellsville and Taylor High Schools — to play in the NFL, according to Pro Football Reference.

How did a lightly recruited kid from Campbellsville High, with a 2020 graduating class of 67 and a football roster of 19 players, become the all-time leading receiver at Western Kentucky and a third-round draft choice?

Better yet, how did he go from big fish, small pond to fast friends with a future Hall of Fame quarterback?

As his nickname suggests, the “YAC King” usually goes further than anyone expects.

WESTERN KENTUCKY HEAD coach Tyson Helton laughed to himself when he first learned that Corley had connected so quickly with Rodgers.

“When I heard that, I was like, ‘Yep, that’s Malachi right there,'” Helton said in a phone interview. “Just the fact that he found a way to get in the house, that says it all about Malachi Corley.”

Corley’s high school quarterback, Arren Hash (pronounced “Aaron”) wasn’t surprised, either. At Campbellsville, where they won two regional championships together, Hash said Corley was constantly in his ear: in the huddle, on the sideline, around school.

“He talked to me about how we could get the ball to him more and how we could win more games,” Hash said. “He looks at everything, honestly. He’s always in the film pretty much. He’s a quarterback’s best friend.”

From an early age, Corley displayed a singular focus, telling grown-ups he’d be in the NFL one day. When he arrived on the Western Kentucky campus in 2020, he told Helton his goal was to be drafted in the first three rounds. Sure enough, he was chosen at the top of Round 3 after the Jets traded away their No. 72 and No. 157 picks to the Carolina Panthers.

After a modest start to his college career — a two-star recruit who began as a running back — Corley forced his way into the national conversation by developing a super power at wide receiver.

He trucked people. Or evaded them.

Or did both on the same play.

Corley produced 2,070 yards after catch over the last three college seasons, almost 400 yards more than the next-closest player in the FBS, according to ESPN Stats & Information. He forced 77 missed tackles over that span, good for second in the FBS.

Corley said he’s “ready to punish somebody” every time he gets the ball in his hands. The team’s hope is he can provide a spark to an offense that scored a league-low 18 touchdowns.

“I’m hell to bring down,” said Corley, who has a smile that matches the size of his personality. “The lord has blessed me with some talents and some abilities and confidence that’s out of this world.”

He showed that confidence in a high school regional championship game when, after a rare fumble, he went up to Campbellsville coach Dale Estes on the sideline and demanded, “Coach, give me the ball.”

With redemption on his mind, Corley returned a kickoff for a 71-yard touchdown and, on the ensuing possession, ripped off a 47-yard run from scrimmage to give Campbellsville its second straight regional title. On the latter play, he bounced it outside, outran the entire defense down the sideline and punctuated it with a stiff arm that flattened the last would-be tackler.

“It’s the best high school run I’ve ever seen a kid make,” said Estes, who has coached Campbellsville for 12 years.

Too bad they didn’t keep YAC stats in high school: Corley’s numbers would have been off the charts. Hash recalled throwing a screen pass in which Corley … well, let the quarterback tell the story.

“He pretty much did one single spin move and, I swear, he made the whole team miss,” said Hash, a right-handed pitcher for Bellarmine University in Louisville. “He went cross-field for a 75-yard touchdown. It was pretty cool.”

Corley never came off the field. He played offense, defense and returned kickoffs and punts. He also did the holding for the placekicker.

His final year at Campbellsville was interrupted by a foot injury — an undiagnosed fracture, according to Estes. Corley refused to see a doctor out of fear that he’d be ruled out for the remainder of the season. He missed four games before returning for a playoff game in which they lost in overtime.

Hobbled on a swollen foot, Corley still scored two touchdowns. It wasn’t until he arrived at Western Kentucky months later that the fracture was detected in an X-ray.

“He knew it was broke,” Estes said, “but he was going to tough it out no matter what.”

LATANYA BRIDGEWATER NEVER intended to settle in Campbellsville, but her daughter matriculated at Campbellsville University and became pregnant. To support her, Latanya left Florida and moved in. Her sons, Malachi and Micah, soon joined them after living with their father, who had retired from the military, in Fort Polk, Louisiana.

Micah, three years older than Malachi, was an NAIA All-America at Campbellsville University after transferring from Kentucky State. A 6-foot-3, 250-pound defensive lineman, he recorded seven sacks in 2020, his final collegiate season.

The boys played a lot of knee football in the living room, banging walls, relocating furniture and testing their mother’s patience. But many believe those big brother-little brother battles instilled toughness in Malachi, who developed a chip on his shoulder.

“That comes from having older siblings and being the baby of the family,” Latanya said. “His older siblings always challenged him. He was like, ‘You think I’m the baby, but I’ll show you.'”

Corley soon became known around town for his indefatigable work ethic. On 98-degree days, with intense humidity, he’d be out on the practice field — alone — running cone drills or doing sprints with a parachute attached to his back. And this was after a three-hour football practice. Hash said he tried to do one of Corley’s workouts and, “I just about died.”

“In his eyes, in his mind, he still thinks people are doubting him,” Estes said. “He wants to prove them wrong.”

Campbellsville rallied around Corley. In return, he was fiercely loyal to his school, turning down an opportunity to play for crosstown rival Taylor High, a bigger school in a higher classification.

A comparable situation arose at Western Kentucky. Bigger schools recruited Corley after his 101-catch, 1,293-yard season in 2022. They tried to lure him into the transfer portal by offering as much as $400,000 in name, image and likeness deals. As he mulled the decision, his mother reminded him of the question she had posed in high school: “Do you want to be a spoke in the wheel or the whole wheel?”

Corley opted for the latter. He wound up putting his name in the record book as Western Kentucky’s all-time receptions leader with 259.

“He was smart enough to play the long game and not take the fast money,” Helton said. “We were proud of his maturity.”

Western Kentucky was the only FBS school to offer Corley a scholarship. In this era of high-tech recruiting, he’s the “rare gem” that slipped through the cracks, according to Helton, who still can’t believe that in-state rivals Louisville and Kentucky didn’t pursue Corley.

“Those Malachi Corleys don’t come around too often where it’s like, ‘Now tell me again why the whole world isn’t recruiting this guy,'” Helton said.

The Hilltoppers fell in love with him, just as the Campbellsville Eagles did before them and the Jets did during the scouting process.

Corley can’t wait to get started, which explains why he reached out to Rodgers so quickly. Since then, he’s been texting questions to the quarterback, picking his brain on everything from pass routes to conditioning tips.

“I’m just like a little kid,” Corley said. “He’s the adult, he’s the MVP, the Hall of Famer, all those types of things. I’m like a little kid talking to him all the time, trying to see what he’s done to stay consistent in the league.”


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here