January 06, 2016
They never bothered asking for his age.
The baseball coaches for the neighborhood team that day just assumed the kid was the same age as the rest of the boys around him. The group of 7- and 8-year olds could all throw and catch. It was just that one kid they couldn’t tear their eyes away from that seemed to do it better than the rest. They didn’t find out until a little later that the kid was actually 5, when Roddy and Lena McIlwain presented their son Brandon’s birth certificate.
They sometimes come early, those thoughts that tickle the mind as to how special an athlete could be. It could manifest itself in how they throw a ball or the natural way they swing a bat.
It’s always been that mode with Brandon McIlwain. He’s constantly stood out. And not just in one sport, but two, baseball and football. Where some athletes plateau as teenagers, the 6-foot-1, 195-pound Council Rock North senior just kept improving, getting larger and stronger.
His first experience with baseball came against kids two and three years older. In his first football camp, former Clemson tailback Joe Henderson pulled Roddy, Brandon’s father, aside to tell him he never saw vision like Brandon’s before. He was six. Will Hewlett, a quarterbacks coach based in Northern California who’s known Brandon since he was 10, said he knew there was something singular about him when “a 10-year-old is outperforming 11- and 12-year-olds.”
Now, McIlwain, a Newtown resident, does indeed find himself on rare terrain. Some call him a modern-day high school version of Bo Jackson. Others, like former Penn State coach and current Houston Texans’ coach Bill O’Brien, say he’s more like Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson. Jackson, for those who don't recall, was an All-Star in Major League Baseball and an All-Pro in the NFL. Wilson is a Pro Bowl quarterback who is also in the Texas Rangers’ organization.
McIlwain was the only athlete in the country last summer to compete in the Elite 11, which is a camp for the nation’s top 18 high school quarterbacks and where ESPN’s Trent Dilfer referred to Brandon “as presidential” for the way he carries himself, and in the Area Code Games, as one of the best high school baseball players in the country. The recruiting website 247 Sports rates McIlwain as the No. 7 dual-threat quarterback in the country. Baseball America rates him as the No. 16 overall prospect in the 2016 high school class. He was expected to go within the first three rounds of the MLB Draft this coming June.
That won’t happen now, since new South Carolina football coach Will Muschamp secured McIlwain, who threw for 1,720 yards and 18 TDs, and rushed for 1,545 yards and 31 TDs this past season to earn him Pennsylvania’s Gatorade Player of the Year, the AP Class AAAA Player of the Year, a Mini Max Award from the prestigious Maxwell Club and Southeastern Pennsylvania Player of the Year by The Inquirer.
On Monday, McIlwain, who won’t turn 18 until May 31, will begin attending classes at South Carolina, his father’s alma mater and where he has family. He’ll be on the Gamecocks’ baseball team, and will need to find time for spring football practice. He could be a true freshman starter as the Gamecocks’ quarterback and centerfielder.
It wouldn’t surprise either Adam Collachi, Council Rock North’s football coach, or Matt Schram, the Indians’ baseball coach. Both let McIlwain start as a freshman for them. They also use the same identical adjectives to describe him: “once-in-a-lifetime talent,” “unforgettable,” “strong-willed competitor,” “selfless.”
In four years, McIlwain produced mind-boggling numbers that led to 10,427 total yards of offense and 124 touchdowns (6,545 yards and 54 TDs passing; 3,882 yards and 70 TDs rushing). He played this past season with a grade-one sprained AC joint in his right shoulder and a fractured right thumb; he missed one offensive snap. He led the Indians to a 7-4 record and the Suburban One League Continental Conference championship, their first title since 2006 and a berth in the PIAA District 1 Class AAAA playoffs, where they lost to Upper Darby in the first round.
“You don’t teach that. That comes from his parents, Roddy and Lena. By the end of the season, Children and Youth should have come after me. The kid was playing 150 snaps with a separated shoulder. I would have to yell at him for taking some of these hits. But that’s not in his nature to sidestep anything. There were a couple of games I had to take his helmet so he wouldn’t go out on the field. For a kid with all of these accolades, and you see the way star athletes act, that’s not him. He’s a fun-loving, down-to-earth kid that you’re proud to say he called you coach. It’s why that last game at Upper Darby was so emotional. It’s hard saying goodbye to someone special like that. He’s absolutely the best to ever come out of here.”
The athleticism may come from Lena. She’s cousins with Cameron and Aaron Maybin. Aaron was a former Penn State linebacker who was the 11th overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft. Cameron, Aaron’s cousin, was the 10th overall pick in the 2005 MLB Draft by the Detroit Tigers. It makes sense.
The fearlessness comes from both Roddy and Lena. Roddy, Lena says, is a risk taker and daredevil. And Lena calls herself a “worrywart,” yet she actually chased storms as a newscaster in Charleston, South Carolina, from 1992-98. When traffic clogged the outbound lanes to those escaping a hurricane coming up the coast, Lena, a broadcast journalism Georgia grad, was in the lone car driving in the opposite direction. They taught their son to appreciate everything and everyone that helped or coached him. Roddy remembers one instance when they were at an Eagles’ autograph session. Brian Dawkins was about to wrap up when he noticed Brandon, then 8, holding aloft a helmet. Dawkins had one more autograph to sign before he left — Brandon’s helmet.
“It’s something he’s never forgotten, to see someone like Brian Dawkins give a young kid the time of day,” Roddy said. “Sometimes you don’t know who you touch and how you touch someone’s life. Being appreciative is something we’ve always taught our children. I didn’t have good habits as an athlete and I wasn’t going to impart that to Brandon. So we got him involved with camps because I wanted him to learn the right way. I’ve noticed this through the years. Nothing affects him. If there is pressure or a tense moment, you can’t tell by looking at him — and I’m his father.”
Schram relays a story from McIlwain’s freshman year. The Indians were trailing Penncrest, 7-2, in the District 1 playoffs and they scratched back to tie the score and send the game into extra innings. Council Rock North started the bottom of the ninth with a runner on first and one out. Schram approached McIlwain about laying down a bunt to move the runner into scoring position.
“I walked down the line and told Brandon, ‘Let’s try to move the runner over,’ and Brandon tells me, “I’m feeling really good, give me one swing and let’s see how it works,’” Schram recalled. “This is a 14-year-old we’re talking about. So the first pitch is a fastball, away, and Brandon reaches and hits a shot that bounces one hop off the fence to the gap in the opposite field. High school hitters are mostly pull hitters. Special players can hit it anywhere. This was a blast that won the game for us. Football was work to Brandon. Baseball is fun. When you’re having fun, his athleticism, his charisma comes out.
“I saw him on a football field. He’s working. That’s nine months out of the year for him. Last year, we struggled in the middle of the year offensively when we batted him third. He led the team in RBIs, on-base percentage, stolen bases. We needed to get going. I put him in the leadoff spot. I thought we’d score runs early. That changed our game completely, and Brandon’s game was elevated. That’s when people started asking a lot of questions about him.”
As a junior, McIlwain hit .414, with 7 homers and 28 RBIs with 22 stolen bases for a team that went 19-6 and won the District 1 Class AAAA championship, reaching the state quarterfinals.
“I’ve known Brandon for a lot of years because he’s best friends with my son,” Schram said. “I’ve been coaching baseball for 18 years and he’s probably the best player I ever coached, not only for all the tools he brings to the table, but for being the greatest team player. The kid loves his teammates. We’re going to miss his home runs, his stolen bases, his arm. I cannot replace the kind of kid Brandon is. He loves to put the team on his shoulders. He lives for it.
“That’s something you can’t replace. Brandon will go on to South Carolina’s field this spring, and he’s going to make an impact. He’s that good. Brandon is the kind of kid if you put him on the soccer team he’ll be the best player. If he played basketball, he would have been the best. MLB scouts saw that. They were in touch with me, texting me, calling me. He could have been potentially a first-round pick. It doesn’t matter what level South Carolina plays on. Brandon will meet it and pass it. I’m going to miss him. He’s one of those kids that you love. Everyone in this community loves that kid.”
Brandon will come back to Council Rock North this spring to walk with his graduating class. In the meantime, he’ll be flown back and forth from Newtown, Bucks County, to Columbia, South Carolina, quite a bit over these next few months for the number of postseason trophies and accolades he’ll receive. He also knows that he’s about to step into a new world, without the convenience of a summer buffer.
“The transition will be a little nerve-wracking, I have to admit, because it’s going to be so fast,” said Brandon, who carries a weighted 4.0 GPA, has accumulated 12 college credits from going to community college the previous two summers and aspires to be a lawyer. “I start school on Jan. 11 and begin right there for the next step of my life. But this is what I wanted. I can remember playing all day as a kid, and it didn’t matter what sport my parents got me in. I was even on a swimming team one summer. I always loved playing.
“It’s when I hear stuff like (comparisons to) Bo Jackson and Russell Wilson, I’m honored. They’re greats. I know I have a lot of work to do. I think what excites me the most is that I haven’t reached my peak. I haven’t reached my full potential. There’s more out there I can do, and there’s more out there that I think I can do. I really don’t see this next step as a lot. Besides, anything I can do to keep playing makes me happy.”