As the best prep football players in the country walked off the field Friday night, Leon McQuay III hung around.
He looked happy and relieved, and darn it all if he didn’t even seem a little chatty.
Vernon Hargreaves III may have been MVP, and Alvin Bailey may have almost broken two long touchdown plays, and Sean Covington’s left foot was once again strong and true, but the night belonged to him.
The Armwood safety didn’t make any big plays — he nearly had two interceptions, roaming the defensive backfield like a Hawk — and he virtually disappeared from the Under Armour All-America Game at Tropicana Field at times.
But it was in those moments when he was nowhere to be found that McQuay showed what makes him exceptional.
The first time, he was presented at midfield as a finalist for the Franklin D. Watkins Memorial Trophy, which goes to a talented African-American athlete and scholar.
The second, he concluded a long and arduous recruiting process — that started in the eighth grade — by verbally committing to Southern Cal live on ESPN.
“When he came back to the sideline after that, he looked like he was feeling much better,” Armwood coach Sean Callahan said. “A major load was lifted.”
So yeah, it was a pretty good night for McQuay, the grandson of University of Tampa football legend Leon McQuay, playing in his final high school football game, punctuated by emphatically putting the student in student-athlete.
He’s a five-star player who had one goal his last year in school: to be a 5.0 grade-point average student, too, a task he achieved despite taking three honors classes and two dual-enrollment courses.
“Man, he’s a smart dude,” said Armwood teammate Alvin Bailey, one of his closest friends.
“He’s a special kid,” said his father, Leon Jr.
When McQuay said it was about the academics — in his case the music program at USC — he meant it.
“Getting out there and visiting and seeing the academic part, the music part, and going in the studio and working on some stuff,” said McQuay, “I was like, ‘I’m coming here, man. I’m coming here.’ ”
On Jan. 9, he’s going there, to lay out wide receivers and lay down beats.
As one of the highest-profile recruits in the country, and rated as one of the top three safeties, the glare has been blinding for the quiet player who never seemed all that comfortable in the spotlight.
He got his first letter in the eighth grade from Vanderbilt, after excelling at a combine for older kids.
Other offers soon followed. And the phone calls from recruiting analysts. And the interviews.
Oh, those interviews, many of which the shy McQuay preferred to do with his helmet on.
“He takes in more than he gives out,” Leon Jr. said. “I’ll ask him a question, and end up asking him five more questions before he answers the first one.”
Never did a kid who smiles so much say so little. If you don’t remember the headband he always wore, or the afro he grew to 1970 proportions, you’ll always remember the braces.
But in the end, he didn’t really need to say much.
He just did what he was supposed to do.
He played hard — always for his teammates, never for himself. He never let up in the classroom. He conducted himself like an adult.
And he picked a college with his long-term future in mind.
On his last night as a high school football player, Leon McQuay III reminded everyone how it’s supposed to be done.
John C. Cotey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.