(Editor’s note: This is the first part in a multi-part series chronicling past Scotland High School student athletes)
It was nearly a year ago when former Scotland all-conference/all-region running back Tony McRae was informed of what position he would be expected to play as a member of the North Carolina A&T football squad.
This past fall, McRae fulfilled the role of cornerback for the Aggies.
Aside from gaining some experience at safety for the Fighting Scots as a freshman, McRae had spent the majority of his Scotland playing days in the backfield, so learning how to cover opposing wide receivers was largely a new experience for the one-time standout offensive player.
However, in what has become a recurring a theme for the A&T freshman throughout his young career, McRae utilized the tutelage from his surrounding players and coaches to maximize his potential. Couple that with the confidence he has in his athletic ability, and McRae is now primed to add to his already-decorated mantle as he continues pursuing his college education.
“I was fine with my new role at North Carolina A&T, because aside from some tougher competition it wasn’t as big an adjustment as you think it would be,” McRae said. “I didn’t mind not being a starter right away this season, because it gave me a chance to learn how to play cornerback by watching the guys ahead of me and taking advice from my coaches.”
In his final season at Scotland High School, McRae enjoyed a huge season with the Scots, establishing himself as one of the key components for a team that went a perfect 15-0 en route to a 4-A state championship. McRae rushed for more than 1,300 yards on 173 carries (averaging nearly eight yards per carry) and added 21 rushing touchdowns as well.
But like his first season with the Aggies, the running back position was also new to McRae at one time. And entering SHS as a freshman, the sport of football in general was something that McRae didn’t truly pursue until his prep sports career.
“I didn’t play football at all in middle school,” said McRae, who attended Sycamore Lane Middle School. “I was a basketball guy until my freshman year at Scotland High School.”
When he first joined the Scots’ football squad in ninth grade, McRae split time between safety and wide receiver. He didn’t make the transition to running back until his sophomore season with the varsity team, where his combination of speed and power earned him the starting nod three weeks into the season, which he would hold until his final snap with the Fighting Scots in 2011.
Looking back, McRae remembers one upperclassman in particular who helped mentor him and set up the tenth-grader for the success he would eventually obtain.
“When I first started playing running back I was always really nervous because I didn’t want to be a disappointment, but Malcolm (Jones) made me feel comfortable back there,” said McRae, who played behind Jones and Travis Wall as a sophomore. Jones was a senior at the time.
“Most seniors who have a sophomore behind them wouldn’t want the younger guy to touch the field, but Malcolm wasn’t selfish at all. He was a really good character guy for the team, and he helped give me the confidence to step up when I was needed,” he said.
History repeated itself once again when McRae stepped foot on the A&T campus several months after earning a football scholarship to the university.
Once again tasked with learning a position unfamiliar to him, McRae found himself in the role of understudy as he observed the two starting junior defensive backs that were higher up the depth chart. They were D’Vonte Graham (a former All-American his sophomore season with A&T) and Ayodeji Olatoye, two players that couldn’t be more different in terms of playing style.
But the contrasting styles taught McRae valuable lessons in how to approach the position based on the opponent he would face off against.
“D’Vonte is a shorter player so he is forced to play smarter and more determined, while Deji is 6’2” so he is a more physical corner,” McRae said. “With both of them giving you tips on how to play the position, it gives you more options depending on who you play.”
McRae started the season backing up both Graham and Olatoye, but would eventually get a chance to start at cornerback against Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) foe Bethune-Cookman. Eventually starting three total games for the Aggies at corner (with his team winning two of those three games), McRae earned five defended passes in his limited role as A&T finished the season with a 7-4 combined record.
It was a season admittedly filled with challenges for McRae, who had to unlearn many of the instincts that made him such a productive offensive player at the high school level.
“The physical part was easy for me, but the hard part was no longer having the football given to me,” McRae said. “I was always used to getting a lot of touches, but now if I want to get the football I have to take it from the other guy. On offense it’s way easier to get away from players than it is to keep up with those guys as a defensive player.”
In addition to seeing ample time in the defensive backfield, McRae also started on the Aggies’ kickoff and return teams, which produced his favorite highlight of his seminal season. In a Nov. 10 game against South Carolina State University, a muffed punt was recovered by McRae to give the Aggies possession in Bulldogs’ territory.
With his A&T career ahead of him, McRae hopes to earn a full-time starting position with the Aggies while simultaneously averaging a 3.0 grade-point-average at the university.
But even with his ambitions, McRae still maintains his strong ties with the coaches and community that helped get him to his current position. McRae keeps in constant contact with many of his former SHS coaches, including football coaches Will Clark and Norman Quick, as well as former Scots’ head basketball coach Michael Dease. And all of them say the same thing to McRae: Focus on getting your education.
“I can’t give myself all the credit for how I’m doing now, because I had so many great coaches and teachers pushing me all the way through school,” McRae said. “They’ve been like father figures to me, and it almost feels like I still go to school in Scotland County.”
“The biggest thing to understand now is that football isn’t forever and that nothing will just be given to you,” McRae added. “You have to earn everything you want in life, and you won’t get anywhere if you don’t have the grades.”