TORONTO - In an era where star players are loud and self-promoting, it's refreshing when you come across a young man that combines on-field production with a humble demeanor off it.
That is exactly the combination the Toronto Red Knights' football team had this season with senior tailback and linebacker DeVonte McGhee.
"The thing about DeVonte is the way he practices which is something people don't see," said Toronto head coach Eric Meek. "Very humble, practices very hard, never misses a day.
BIG YEAR — Toronto’s DeVonte McGhee fights off a Valley defender during the Red Knights' 25-3, Week 5 win over the Lumberjacks. McGhee had a breakout year, rushing for 1,463 and 12 touchdowns.
-- Staff photo
"He's a soft-spoken kid, but he's a football player."
The Red Knights ended the year as quite possibly the most improved team in the valley. They went from 0-4 and scoring only two offensive touchdowns to winning four of their last six games, matching their win total from the previous three years combined and featuring one of the most potent running games in the area.
"At the beginning of the year we were pretty young, so our guys didn't really know how to come out and play," said McGhee. "As the year went on they started to look up to the seniors to see how to play and they started reacting and playing with us."
The most noticeable reason for that turnaround is the play of McGhee who led the team both offensively and defensively with his play and his work ethic.
McGhee toted the ball 189 times this year for 1,463 yards and 12 touchdowns. For you math majors out there that's 18.9 carries for 146.3 yards a game at a staggering 7.7 yards per carry.
"I give credit for every yard I've gained this year and everything I've accomplished to the offensive line," said McGhee. "Without them I wouldn't have gained one yard."
Meek was fully aware of who McGhee credited with his success.
"I'm sure he thanked the line," said Meek. "That's the kind of kid he is."
Defensively, he was in on seemingly every tackle for a defense that went from giving up 28.8 points a game through its first four games to giving up 16 points a game in its final six and pitching two shutouts. McGhee led that defense with 116 tackles while picking off one pass and recovering a fumble.
"I like offense better," said McGhee. "I can play defense and I play hard but I really love to run the ball."
In a sport that is fond of overstating the sizes of its players, all you have to do is speak one-on-one with McGhee to realize he is every bit of the 6-foot-2, 220 pounds he is listed as in the program.
As a team, it could have been easy for McGhee and the entire Red Knights team to give up on the season early with a heartbreaking Week 1 loss to Wellsville, followed by two lopsided shutout losses to Bridgeport and Southern and quite possibly the low point of the season when they lost 26-6 to Catholic Central in a game they came in fully expecting to win.
That last loss ended with some players being removed from the team and others being suspended after a performance that saw Toronto get called for three unsportsmanlike conduct penalties among the many mistakes that plagued them.
"I just kept running hard and I knew that if I kept doing that my team would help me out and they did," said McGhee. "Coach Meek affected me a lot, especially early. He kept talking to me and kept me up and motivated.
"He's a big inspiration."
Meek credits his six seniors for the turnaround that occurred after that game as they led by example and brought the younger players where they needed to be to move the program to where they want it to be.
"They were all leaders, including DeVonte," said Meek. "He was definitely a great role model for the younger kids.
"He was unselfish too. He came in here a few times and said, 'Coach, don't be afraid to give carries to some of the other backs' and the other kids don't know that.
"He doesn't want it all to be about him and that's what we want. You can be a good person and a good football player. We've got a lot of them out there and DeVonte is one of them."
For McGhee the Central game could have easily been a breaking point for the season. He ended the game with 188 yards rushing, but could only look on as each time he helped put his team across midfield another penalty sent them back. Many other star players would have thrown a tantrum and added to the problem.
Not McGhee, who turned around the next week, worked hard in practice to keep getting better and rushed for 120 yards and two scores in helping his team get its first win of the season, a 25-3 win over Valley.
"He never became frustrated with teammates," said Meek. He's a team player."
The next week he put up even bigger rushing numbers in a 34-0 win over Bellaire St. John when he had 214 yards and a touchdown. This was only a glimpse of what this young man was capable of.
Toronto beat Beallsville in Week 7 by a score of 54-30 to give the school its first three-game win streak since 2003. That was overshadowed in the public eye by the display that McGhee put on in that game. He broke the school record by almost 20 yards with an eye-popping 328 yards. To make the night even more impressive, he had four rushing touchdowns, all over 40 yards with two over 70 yards.
"My biggest memory of the season was breaking the (school) single-game rushing record," said McGhee. "I felt like I was putting up yards but not that many yards."
Toronto dropped its next two games after that to Shadyside and Weirton Madonna, but McGhee displayed his skills, combining for 199 yards against the two playoff bound teams.
Ask a banged up Shadyside team just how tough McGhee and that Red Knight offensive line are.
McGhee and the Red Knights went out on a bright spot, securing a 30-0 win over the Cleveland Knights in their finale with McGhee rushing for 144 yards and two scores.
McGhee also had what had to be one of the highlight hits of the year when athletic Knights' quarterback Treshawn McCullough made several Toronto players miss until McGhee, both literally and figuratively, ran through the ballcarrier. The young man got up slowly but he most assuredly had his head on a swivel looking for McGhee from that moment on.
"That felt good," said McGhee. "Knowing someone gets up slow from one of your hits fires you up."
Though Toronto fans will most likely be saddened by the loss of their stud running back and all the things he brought on and off the field they did get a potential glimpse of the future when a freshman running back ran for 128 yards and a touchdown in that same game.
The name of that freshman is Tony McGhee, DeVonte's little brother.
"It was special," said McGhee. "I never thought I'd get a chance to play on the same field with my brother."
Meek sees a bright future for the younger McGhee.
"We like to run the ball at Toronto and this coaching staff has had thousand yard rushers in 12 of the 15 years we've been together and we hope to have more thousand yard backs in the future," said Meek.
As talented as he is, DeVonte is unsure of his playing future.
"I don't think I really want to play college football, but I'll look into it now that the season is over," said McGhee.
There's most likely a few coaches out there that would like to change his mind.