CITRUS PARK — Ray Ray McCloud’s reputation outran him to Sickles High. For years, Gryphons coach Brian Turner had heard about the sleek tailback for the Town ’n Country Packers of the Tampa Bay Youth Football League.
“I had never seen him play,” Turner said, “but I had heard about him for years because you always hear about the little-league phenoms.”
To be sure, the tales of McCloud’s prepubescent feats were astounding, dazzling, even mesmerizing.
But they never were tall. He entered the school’s front door standing 5 feet 9 and weighing 150 pounds.
Clearly, McCloud hadn’t grown with his legend. Then again, that’s why he had evolved into a legend in the first place. Seems he had spent his entire prolific Packers career underweight and over-achieving.
“People just used to say I was too small,” McCloud said. “Or when I got to high school if I didn’t grow, I wasn’t going to be able to play football.”
Friday, when the Gryphons travel to Class 6A, District 8 foe Armwood with one of their best teams ever, McCloud will exit the bus weighing only about 12 pounds more than he did when he enrolled at the school.
But if he performs the way he has the first four games, he’ll once and for all cement his argument that size doesn’t matter. Though he has carried only 55 times, McCloud has 544 yards (9.9 yards per carry) and five TDs. That doesn’t count a 122-yard preseason effort against Gaither.
“It’s his vision, because he’s not that fast,” Turner said. “I mean, for a sophomore he’s fast and he’s going to be (faster), but right now, he just sees. I mean, it’s incredible.”
In a previous life, speed — forged with that vision, instinctiveness and a resolve to disprove skeptics — was McCloud’s calling card.
Throughout his youth career, he was coached by his dad, a punishing 225-pound Leto fullback in the early 1990s who also went by Ray Ray.
“Speed and power,” Turner said of the elder McCloud, whom he still considers one of the best backs ever produced by the county. “He had both. And determination.”
He also had control of the Packers’ depth chart, which some first presumed was the reason his son — the oldest of his five kids — was at the top of it. After all, Ray Ray entered the 9-10 Super Midget age group at 76 pounds; the weight limit was 115.
Wearing his dad’s No. 34 (inspired by Walter Payton), he scored 17 touchdowns that season, leading the Packers to the TBYFL Super Bowl. The next year, he scored even more. This time, the Packers won it.
“He was just faster than everybody,” said Gryphons junior defensive end Josh Black, Ray Ray’s cousin and former Packers teammate. “That’s one thing he knew how to do, avoid hits.”
The shiftiness belied McCloud’s surprising strength, which he has enhanced by six workouts a week in the offseason. To this day, he bench presses nearly 40 pounds more than his body weight and squats twice as much.
“During the summer, I just worked so hard,” McCloud said. “The night we played Gaither, I was just out there, I’m like, ‘I have to show it today.’ I did it and I was surprised, but I was like, ‘That’s what the weight room and working hard get you.’ ”
Six weeks later, the kid who has spent a childhood proving himself will try and do it again.
Though Armwood’s defense has proven vulnerable at times this season, it still stands as the most physically-imposing group Sickles will see all year. What’s more, the fiercer the opponent, the better Armwood usually plays.
For McCloud, it’s the latest in an order far taller than he is.
“Since he’s been a baby, some of the things he did …I’d be like, dang,” said the elder McCloud, who operates a child-care center in west Tampa. “I’ve seen him do some things that were shocking.”
Joey Knight can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @JoeyHomeTeam.