Among the most improbable storylines of this year’s NFL draft is that one of the big winners was a tiny, private high school in the Houston suburb of Bellaire. Who needs Nietzsche and Yeats when you can have Mel Kiper’s Big Board?
Until now, Episcopal High School (enrollment 790) had been most well-known for producing neuroscientists and engineers, the best and the brightest. The school has also produced some notable sports figures, but as head football coach Steve Leisz says, “We’re an academic school. That’s why you come to Episcopal. Football’s the backup plan.”
Some backup plan. Leisz is bursting with pride after three of his former players—Alabama receiver Jaylen Waddle, Stanford offensive lineman Walker Little, and Florida State defensive tackle Marvin Wilson—closed in on NFL careers. In Episcopal’s 38 years of existence, only two of its alumni had played in the NFL: offensive lineman Daniel Loper and quarterback Spergon Wynn. (Quarterback Shane Carden signed with the Chicago Bears in 2015 but was released before he had a chance to play.) Between them, they started a dozen games for six teams between 2001 and 2010.
“To have it happen for all these guys like that, it’s unbelievable,” Leisz says. Two of them seem virtually certain to play in the NFL this season. The Miami Dolphins chose Waddle with the sixth overall pick, and Little went to the Jacksonville Jaguars in the second round, with the forty-fifth overall pick. Although Wilson was not among the 259 players drafted, the Cleveland Browns won a bidding war for his services by agreeing to a deal that’ll pay Wilson a $30,000 signing bonus and an additional $162,000 in guaranteed base salary, according to Tom Pelissero of the NFL Network.
“These three guys, they deserve this,” Leisz says. “They worked hard; were never bigger than the team. They wanted to be pushed, and this is their reward.” Leisz is familiar with success—just not this kind. He’s 127–42–1 in sixteen years as Episcopal’s head coach, a four-time state champion and three-time runner-up in the eighteen-member Southwest Preparatory Conference.
He’s also 55 years old, and in a lifetime of coaching, he had never sent a player to the NFL. He probably never expected to. Dozens of Leisz’s players have gone on to fine college careers and successful professional lives outside of football, and isn’t that the bottom line? Coaches like Leisz, who is also Episcopal’s wrestling coach and a wellness teacher, know they’re fortunate if they cross paths with one elite player. To have three of them in a single NFL draft after having watched them grow and mature and thrive has been a thrill. He may never have another moment like this, and that’s okay, too.
“We tell our kids football is a tool to get you to a school that will take you to another level,” Leisz says.
He doesn’t speak of Waddle, Little, and Wilson as football players, at least not at the beginning of conversations. He figures pretty much anyone can figure out that part of the story. Instead, he wants people to know that they were great teammates and accomplished students and that they took pride in everything, including academics.
Leisz would like the world to know they didn’t come to Episcopal with an eye on the NFL. He jokes that Waddle, who would become one of the most explosive players in college football, weighed “maybe 95 pounds” as a freshman. But the wide receiver’s speed separated him—literally—from almost every other player. That gift defined his greatness at Alabama, and at five-foot-ten, he’s most often compared to Chiefs playmaker Tyreek Hill.
“Jaylen is quiet,” Leisz says, “but he doesn’t shy away from competition. He’s so quiet you might wonder [if he cares enough]. It’s just the opposite. He lives for competition.
“There was one game when our quarterback was hurt, and he moved in there and scored six touchdowns. Afterwards, he was like, ‘Quarterback is not my thing.’ He’s just a really special young man that has the biggest heart of gold.”
Leisz will remember the punt returns and big catches and all of that. But when people ask him about Waddle, he begins with stories of the student athlete assisting kids with special needs and delivering meals to families. “That’s where Jaylen shines,” Leisz says. “You can’t fake that. You’ll see a timid kid, and Jaylen just shines with a kid like that.”
Alabama appealed to Waddle because, Leisz says, Nick Saban was the only coach who promised nothing. “He just said, `You’re a four-star [player], and everybody on campus is a four- and five-star, and the best players are gonna play.’
“Going into his first game his freshman year,” Leisz recalls, “Jaylen didn’t even know if he’d play. Saban doesn’t tell you.”
There was something else appealing about Alabama, Leisz says; something that spoke to Waddle’s core beliefs. “He visits there and sees [former Tide quarterback] Jalen Hurts is holding guys accountable,” Leisz says. “Jaylen loved that. Coaches don’t hold players accountable at Alabama. Players hold each other accountable.”
Waddle averaged 44.5 yards in his seventeen touchdown catches at Alabama and returned a total of three punts and kickoffs for touchdowns. What Leisz remembers most is how he recovered from a gruesome ankle injury last October. Waddle spoke to Leisz by phone as Waddle was in an ambulance on the way to the hospital. “I let my teammates down,” Leisz remembers Waddle telling him.
He also said he would be back for the national championship game.
“I saw all these guys—big-name guys, some of them—on social media telling Jaylen he was making a mistake playing in the [championship] game,” Leisz says. “They just didn’t understand this guy. This is what he wanted. This was his challenge—to come back and play in the national championship game. Jaylen went to Alabama to play for a national championship. It was never about the next level at that point. He was mostly a decoy for DeVonta Smith in that game, and he was happy to do that if that’s what it took to win. That’s just who this young man is.”
To Leisz, Walker Little and Marvin Wilson are bookend players. Their practices against one another—Little, the six-foot-seven, 320-pound offensive lineman, versus Wilson, the six-five, 305-pound defensive lineman—attracted coaches and scouts from all over the country. “We had to control their snaps in practice because we didn’t want them to physically beat each other up,” Leisz says. “They pushed each other and made each other better. That’s was a great thing. They had fun with it and built each other up. They were close friends, and as much as they want to battle on the field and push one another, they were close.”
Their personalities could hardly have been more different. “Marvin is so happy-go-lucky; loves to have fun,” Leisz says. “If Walker and Marvin are in the same room, you’ll know where Marvin is. He’s going to be holding court. Walker’s pretty quiet. They both have big personalities, but they’re different.”
Both dealt with adversity in college. Little started at left tackle as a freshman and sophomore before suffering a season-ending knee injury in Stanford’s 2019 opener. He opted out of the 2020 season because of the COVID-19 pandemic. “He was on top of the world; named an All-American,” Leisz says. “Then he had the knee [injury]. The thing about Walker is he never made an excuse. He was here on campus visiting two weeks ago and said, ‘I just want to go to camp. I just want to get out there and play.’ He’ll never say anything about what he’s been through.”
Wilson, widely regarded as the number-one high school prospect in Texas in 2017, was one of current Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher’s biggest recruiting coups at Florida State. Wilson fulfilled a lot of his promise in dominating freshman and sophomore seasons, before injuries limited him to fifteen games his final two seasons.
“Marvin was a basketball player when he got here and ended up playing both,” Leisz says. “He absolutely blew up as a player his junior year and ended up being Rivals’ number one player in the country. Only two other Texas kids have been number one—Adrian Peterson and Vince Young. He became a team leader—a captain—at Florida State. He has dealt with adversity, but he also did everything he could to bring the team together. He feels that responsibility.”
Waddle, Little, and Wilson haven’t redefined what Episcopal hopes to represent. Sports have always been a significant part of the school’s identity. NBA veteran DeAndre Jordan is an alum. So is figure skater Becky Bereswill. Los Angeles Dodgers team president Andrew Friedman played baseball at Episcopal before beginning a climb that would take him from Wall Street to the front offices of the Tampa Bay Rays and the Dodgers. These days, as the man behind the reigning World Series champions, Friedman is considered one of Major League Baseball’s best and brightest team architects.
But three potential NFL rookies in 2021—that feels special. The achievements of Waddle, Little, and Wilson have become a moment of celebration for the school.
“It’s exciting for the three of them, for our school, our community,” Leisz says. “We’re so proud of these guys, and they’re going to represent our school in the NFL.”