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TAMPA — His incremental ascension begins as the west Tampa sun descends. First, Leon McQuay III — Armwood free safety extraordinaire — accelerates at a slight curve toward the high jump bar and elevates.
While airborne, he contorts his angular frame so it just clears the lime green bar set 5 feet, 10 inches off the ground. As this competition at the county track championships progresses, he’ll clear 6 feet. Then 6-2.
When it’s raised to 6-4, McQuay clears it on his first try, beating out USF-bound receiver Andre Davis of Jefferson, who needs more than one attempt to navigate the height. Dragons two-way junior Tyriq McCord, a daunting 6-foot-3 package of fleetness and ferocity, leaps only 6-2.
McQuay, whom coaches insist probably could excel at any event to which he sets his 16-year-old mind, exits Jefferson High with a medal.
Before this high-profile encounter, he hadn’t high-jumped in roughly six weeks.
He almost didn’t jump in this one, courtesy of knee tendonitis and nagging congestion.
“I could barely breathe,” McQuay said. “I was tired as heck. I’m still a little sick now, coughing and my nose is running a lot.”
What can a healthy McQuay achieve? Seffner is still learning, meet by meet and snap by snap. When University of Florida-bound tailback Matt Jones exits after the 2011 season, McQuay will be the Hawks’ most prized football recruit.
He may hold that distinction right now.
More than four months before the start of his junior year, McQuay already has football offers from Vanderbilt, Florida and USF. At 6-foot-1 ½, 179 pounds, his physical upside remains untapped. His potential appears unlimited.
“Oh, yeah,” Hawks defensive coordinator and track assistant Matt Thompson said when asked if McQuay is the best Armwood athlete currently on campus. “By far.”
“No question about that,” football coach Sean Callahan added.
At Tuesday’s county championships, McQuay also finished third in the 200 meters in 22.74 seconds, and ran a leg on the 4x100 relay team that placed second (43.43).
He has eclipsed 15 seconds in the 110 hurdles and run the 400 in 50.66. He can even throw with the brawniest of them.
“He threw the discus 100 feet and didn’t even know what he was doing,” Thompson said as he watches McQuay jump.
“And on the football field, he could play anything he wants, too. I mean, he can play defensive end, outside linebacker, safety, corner.
Shoot, he could probably play receiver pretty good. Heck, when he comes off the edge, nobody can block him. He’s got good moves, great hips.”
When spring drills commence in May, McQuay — grandson of the former Blake, University of Tampa and NFL tailback of the same name — will line up at a safety spot. In 2010, he had 51 tackles and five picks.
If his hands were as soft as his hits jarring, Callahan swears he would have had a dozen picks. His speed enabled him to run down more than one receiver from behind (see playoff games vs. Charlotte, Dwyer).
Then he joined the soccer team. Even recorded a goal late in the year. Before that, he had played some AAU hoops.
“I think I need to start cutting down now, actually,” he said.
Callahan concurred, suggesting McQuay will struggle to add weight as long as he hops from sport to sport. At last, the slender sophomore has discovered his limits: Only 24 hours to a day.
“Clearly,” Callahan said, “he is an extremely gifted raw athlete.”