GREENWOOD — Titus McCoy is at the 40, the 35, the 30. He’s headed for the end zone, a place the senior fullback visited 28 times a year ago when he ran for 1,912 yards and led Center Grove to the Class 6A state championship. Next year he will visit the end zone for Indiana State, but tonight his Trojans have a game to win against Cathedral.
McCoy is at the 25, at the 20. In the crowd are parents with children wearing pint-sized replicas of McCoy’s No. 30 jersey. Friday night is family night in Center Grove, Ray Skillman Stadium is the gathering place, and Titus McCoy – the preseason favorite to win IndyStar Mr. Football – is the area’s favorite son.
McCoy is at the 15, the 10. On the track surrounding the field, 11-year-old Jasper Lenglade is wearing another number. He’s a lineman in the Center Grove Bantam Football League, he wears No. 77, and his favorite player is Titus McCoy. After Jasper was diagnosed March 3 with leukemia, his father reached out to Titus. When Jasper came home after three weeks in the hospital, bald from chemotherapy, Titus was there with the No. 30 jersey he wore when he ran for 193 yards and three touchdowns in the state championship game against Penn. Titus gave the jersey to Jasper.
McCoy is at the 5. In the press box, announcer Jason Mueller is describing the action. Mueller taught Titus in fifth grade, and these days Titus returns to work with Mr. Mueller’s kids. “Every student that walks through my door is special to me in their own way,” Mueller says, “but if I were to have my own Mr. Mueller Hall of Fame, Titus would be a first-ballot kid.”
McCoy is high-stepping into the end zone, and he is feeling no pain. The 12-inch incision in his lower left leg is still healing, and it’s the reason he isn’t playing tonight. But Center Grove is playing, and those are his teammates, his “brothers,” he calls them.
McCoy is on the sideline in sweat pants, his red No. 30 jersey over a black hoodie, and he’s motionless until running back Russ Yeast catches a pass behind the Cathedral secondary. McCoy sprints with Yeast into the end zone, then greets five or six teammates coming off the field. McCoy throws an arm over Yeast’s shoulder and screams happiness into his ear.
High up in the crowd, Scott and Amber McCoy are watching. It is Center Grove’s last regular-season game, senior night, but this isn’t how it was supposed to go. Their son will not play tonight. He will not win Mr. Football, his senior season gutted by a high ankle sprain in the first quarter of the first game. He missed the better part of six games, then suffered another injury that cost him two more games. All told, he has 39 carries, 148 yards, five touchdowns.
In the last row of the stadium, Scott McCoy tells me what happened before the game, when Titus was waiting to escort his parents onto the field on senior night. Titus leaned to his dad and said: “I live for nights like tonight.”
“And did you see his tweet earlier today?” Scott McCoy asks me. “He wrote something like, ‘Time to go to war tonight.’ As if he’s playing!”
Amber McCoy, sitting on my other side, hears what her husband just said. She’s a boisterous woman, cheering loudly for her injured son’s teammates – cheering for Center Grove – but now Titus’ mom is talking quietly to herself. In the din after Yeast’s electrifying 60-yard touchdown, I’m the only one who hears her.
“He is playing,” Amber McCoy says of her son. “Titus is out there with his brothers.”
* * *
Three carries into the season, the Mr. Football trophy was gone.
It was a handoff up the middle, where Titus McCoy does most of his work. He ran the third leg on Center Grove’s 400-meter relay that finished seventh at state in June, but he’s tougher than he is fast, the fullback in coach Eric Moore’s wing-T. Against the roughest competition in Indiana, running almost exclusively between the tackles, Titus McCoy has gained 3,428 career yards.
But this hit Aug. 19 against Warren Central, it was different. It was a fluke, crazy karmic payback for all the hits McCoy has delivered over the years, including a memorable hit last year against this same Warren Central team.
McCoy lives happy, but man does he run angry. His dad played and coached college football in Missouri. He’s not prone to brag on his boy, but when I ask Scott McCoy to describe Titus’ running style, he says: “You put a football in his hands, the dude likes to punish people and he likes to score touchdowns.”
So, that hit McCoy delivered against Warren Central in 2015: He takes a handoff at the Warren Central 38, cuts left, and he’s gone. At the 10-yard line he slows down and attacks the nearest defender like a bull, goring the poor kid to the ground and continuing into the end zone. (Watch it here, at the 2:03 mark.)
Now, one year later. Warren Central again. First game of the 2016 season. Third carry, and McCoy bursts through the line of scrimmage. He plants his right foot to make a cut just as a cornerback buries his helmet into McCoy’s ankle.
McCoy spends the rest of the game, a 21-16 loss, on crutches. The ankle is a blue balloon, and an MRI the next day reveals the high ankle sprain. An IU Health doctor tells McCoy he’ll miss four or five weeks, but Titus McCoy has never listened to doctors. He was diagnosed in second grade with Juvenile X-linked Retinoschisis, an uncorrectable eye disease that limits vision – teachers give McCoy enlarged copies of tests so he can see the questions – and leaves the retina vulnerable. Doctors told him he shouldn’t play contact sports. You see how that went.
Four or five weeks with a sprained ankle? The Carmel game – they play every year for the Copper Kettle – is in two weeks. And Titus McCoy isn’t missing it.
“I’ll be ready for Carmel,” he tells himself.
Two weeks later he’s on the field. He carries it five times. He gains 9 yards. Center Grove wins the Copper Kettle 19-6, but McCoy misses the next game against Ben Davis. Two weeks later against North Central he tries again. Six carries this time, 22 yards. A week later against Lawrence Central he gets 19 carries for 69 yards. He’s getting closer.
Then comes Pike. After missing the better part of six games with the high ankle sprain, Titus McCoy is feeling good for the seventh – no, he’s feeling great. Pregame he’s testing the ankle with cuts and bursts, and he’s back. He feels it. First carry, Titus McCoy goes for 30 yards.
Then comes the second carry.
* * *
Before we get to that second carry against Pike, let’s check in on Titus in fifth grade. He’s the biggest kid in class, coordinated and well coached by his father. He’s a stud, is what he is, and in fifth grade he knows it.
Back then Titus is playing for the Junior Trojans, coached by his dad, and he’s about to learn a lesson in humility. It’s practice and he’s bored at cornerback. His dad keeps calling runs up the middle. Out there at corner, Titus is grumbling and getting cocky.
“Can you guys run the ball to me?” he says. “Please?”
Scott McCoy hears it. The offense has a sixth-grade tailback named Jackson Sodrel – “best running back in the league,” Titus calls him – and Sodrel is bigger by 20 pounds. Scott McCoy calls for a toss sweep to his son’s side. These are full-contact drills, but Titus sees the giant sixth-grader bearing down on him and has another idea. He taps Sodrel on the hip and runs past. “Tapping off,” it’s called.
Scott McCoy threw his son out of practice.
“He made me call my mom,” Titus was telling me last week. “I can’t even drive home with him. He made me call my mom to get me.”
Lesson learned. One of many.
“Two Type-A personalities – you think we butted heads much?” Scott McCoy muses. “If a kid ever thinks he has it hard, I’m thinking: ‘You just better be glad your name isn’t Titus McCoy.’ ”
McCoy is all about the team now. He and his other running backs, an all-senior crew featuring Yeast, Triston Clark and Trevor Hohlt, bring doughnuts to weekly film sessions for their offensive linemen. Out with the ankle sprain earlier this season, McCoy waved his towel on the sideline, limping back and forth in a walking boot.
“I sometimes have to get him away from me – ‘Get behind me, Titus’ – to make sure I don’t hear him,” Moore says. “I call my own plays, and I’m talking to coaches on the headphones. I can’t hear them. I hear Titus.”
So where were we? Oh, right. The second carry at Pike. That injury in the first game, against Warren Central, cost him a shot at Mr. Football.
The injury at Pike could have cost him a leg.
* * *
It was another fluke hit, another helmet, to his left leg this time. Titus McCoy went to the sideline with what he thought was a cramp, and tried to hide his limp as he went back into the game.
In the huddle, McCoy told teammates he couldn’t cut. Carries up the middle were doable – he scored against Pike on bullish plunges of 1 and 3 yards – but he couldn’t go left or right.
After the game McCoy was vomiting from the pain. He was in the emergency room at Community Hospital South by midnight. He was on an operating table at 2:40 a.m.
It’s called compartment syndrome, and it happens most commonly in a car crash when the trauma causes an arm or leg to fill with fluid, cutting off the blood supply and threatening muscles and nerves nearby. Former Colts running back Tyler Varga suffered a similar injury in 2010 and nearly lost his leg. In Greenwood on Sept. 3, surgeons cut a 12-inch seam in McCoy’s leg and drained the blood and other fluid.
His coach was with him at the hospital, covering Titus’ face with a towel before surgery. Turns out, Center Grove’s Superman doesn’t like needles. But Titus didn’t mind that morphine.
“You think he has energy normally?” Eric Moore says. “Titus sang every fight song he knew that night, he rubbed my head, told me he loved me, said I was a good coach. He asked the nurse, ‘Were you in the surgery room?’ She said no, and Titus goes, ‘That’s OK, you’re on the team. Coach Moore says everyone on the team is important.’ ”
Titus hasn’t played since the Pike game. But he goes to practice and drives his coach nuts.
“At practice, my butt gets slapped maybe 10 times a day by him,” Moore says. “Just to make sure I know he’s still there.”
McCoy jogs at practice, trying to get his wind back – “Look, coach Moore, I’m running!” – and says he’ll play again this season. As soon as the 12-inch surgical incision heals.
“Whether that’s the sectional championship (on Oct. 28 against Jeffersonville) or the regional, I don’t know,” he says. “But I’m coming back and playing hard for my brothers. It was never in my mindset: I’m going to win Mr. Football. It was: I’m going to run as hard as I can. And we’re going to win state.”
“The most motivated kid I’ve ever coached,” Moore calls Titus McCoy, a preseason Mr. Football favorite whose senior season dissolved in a pool of injuries, revealing the brilliance below.