- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Antonio Gandy-Golden admits it: He’s got a chip on his shoulder.

When the Washington Redskins drafted him in the fourth round over the weekend, the 22-year-old Liberty University product was the 19th wideout off the board — despite the fact that he was fourth in the nation last fall in receiving yards.

But when Gandy-Golden saw or heard his name discussed, he noticed a recurring theme.

“The small school thing comes up a lot with me for some reason,” Gandy-Golden said, “even though I have produced.”

In the days following his selection, Gandy-Golden has been described as one of the biggest steals in the NFL draft — in large part because of how he was overlooked at Liberty. The school’s football program only moved up to the NCAA’s highest Division 1 level in 2018.

But athletes like the 6-foot-4, 223-pound Gandy-Golden have put a spotlight on the fast-growing evangelical Christian school.

The Lynchburg, Virginia, university is determined to build a program on par with some of college football’s powerhouses. The “evangelical Notre Dame” has become a common shorthand for the school’s ambitious goal.

Over the last three years, $70 million alone has been committed to the Liberty football program; from the campus stadium ($16 million in upgrades) to the indoor practice facility ($29 million) to a new football operations center ($25 million).

Liberty’s football success, however, will ultimately be measured by what the Flames, as the team is known, do on the field. That’s where Gandy-Golden excelled.

The wideout was just the school’s eighth NFL draftee, the first since 2014. Of the eight, the Flames’ most notable contribution to the pro game is either former Jacksonville Jaguars running back Rashad Jennings (2009) or two-time Pro Bowl tight end Eric Green (1990).

Liberty is also coming off its first bowl win. The Flames went 8-5 last year and defeated Georgia Southern in the Cure Bowl.

Gandy-Golden said he thinks his draft position can bring attention to the program.

“I feel like just me and our group as a whole kind of paved the way,” Gandy-Golden said. “We’re getting more recruits and hopefully we will win a lot more games and just bring more to Liberty as a whole.”

The Flames’ rise is not without controversy. Liberty President Jerry Falwell Jr. created a stir when he hired athletic director Ian McCaw and coach Hugh Freeze — two men who had very public falls from grace. The Flames first hired McCaw in November 2016, just months after he resigned from his post at Baylor amid a widespread sexual assault scandal.

Then in 2019, Liberty hired Freeze, the former Ole Miss coach who quit in July 2017 after it was discovered he violated multiple NCAA rules and used a university phone to call an escort service. Freeze rose to prominence for his ability to teach the spread offense and was known for his Christian faith.

Falwell told the Los Angeles Times he believed in second chances.

“Evangelical Christianity is all about forgiveness,” Falwell said. “It’s all about redemption.”

Redemption wasn’t the only factor. Winning football games is a priority. When McCaw was asked why the university did not avoid a coach with so much baggage, Falwell interrupted and told The Washington Post, “Because then you lose.”

Gandy-Golden said he enjoyed playing for Freeze. The wideout credited him and his staff for a year in which he racked up more than 1,000 yards.

Gandy-Golden’s NFL stock also rose when he cut down on his drops and he credited his position coach, Maurice Harris, for emphasizing the jugs machine, a tool used to help receivers practice catching passes.

Gandy-Golden said he realized a few years ago the NFL was a possibility.

“Anything that (Freeze) and his staff saw that I could work on, they were telling me, not in a way to demean me, but just to help me out,” Gandy-Golden said. “I really feel like, them just coming in and bringing their football IQ and their high intensity on field, really made me the guy I was this year.”

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