- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 25, 2014

Howard quarterback Greg McGhee is an advocate of correct posture.

Down 26-13 with four minutes remaining in the third quarter of the season finale against rival Hampton, Howard returner Richard Aiyegoro muffed a punt. Hampton recovered. Knowing the turnover would likely cost Howard the game, Aiyegoro put his head down in anguish.

McGhee pulled Aiyegoro’s helmet back up.

“We’re going to get [the football] right back,” said, McGhee, who then relayed that message to other teammates, many of whom surrounded the quarterback with their heads down. “Keep the same energy and swagger we had the first kickoff.”

McGhee would be fully justified if he lowered his head as well. Since he played his last down of high school football, his pursuit of an NFL roster spot has suffered repeated setbacks.

However, whether the Bison rebounded to beat Hampton or were blown out in McGhee’s final game in a Howard uniform, he would still go down as one of the greatest athletes in school history. The manner in which he accomplished this, despite those setbacks, is in some measure what makes his NFL dream realistic.

Daunting Odds

McGhee, who focused on basketball through his junior year at Pittsburgh Perry High School, only started to dream about how far football could take him when he received a letter of interest from UCLA during his junior year.

“That just opened my eyes to see how crazy this can be,” McGhee said, “that a school in California sends a hand-written letter to me in Pittsburgh about football — something I do to have fun — and I can get paid to do it as a job.”
Letters piled up as McGhee led Perry to the state playoffs as a senior, and he verbally committed to Pittsburgh, his hometown school. McGhee racked up 2,977 yards from scrimmage and 36 touchdowns on the season.

However, his scholarship offer dissolved when Pitt pressured coach Dave Wannstedt to resign in December. Two weeks later, to his dismay, Pennsylvania sportswriters voted him second team all-state. They had honored McGhee as an “athlete,” rather than a quarterback, though he gained 89 percent of his yards through the air.

His Plan B became Howard, partially because its coaches saw him for more than just an athlete.

When he committed to the Bison, they had won just four of 33 games in their previous three seasons. Over that time, they had lost every game against Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference competition, going 0-24. Their losing streak against Hampton in the “Battle of the Real HU” was even longer — 14 years.

That winter, though, Howard hired former Bison quarterback Ted White, the MEAC’s all-time leader in passing yards who spent five years in the NFL, as its offensive coordinator. The faith that White and newly hired coach Gary Harrell showed in McGhee to redeem the program won him over.

It took time for McGhee to win over Howard, though. Its fan base during his freshman campaign consisted of “our parents and a couple people at the school who liked football” — a far cry from western Pennsylvania, where football is an obsession.

“Friday night under the lights, the whole community comes out,” McGhee said, “compared to here, where we got a Saturday game at 1 o’clock, some [students] are still in bed.”

His first month on campus, McGhee and the Bison gave students little reason to set an alarm on Saturdays. They opened the season with a 41-9 loss to Eastern Michigan and entered October with record of 1-3.

But on the evening of Oct. 1, McGhee tossed three touchdown passes and rushed for another, and Howard celebrated a 34-14 win over Savannah State, its first conference triumph since 2007.

“You could’ve thought we won the Super Bowl,” White said.

The following Saturday, Florida A&M sent Howard back down to earth by building a 21-0 lead through three quarters. Then, in the fourth, McGhee scored three of four Bison touchdowns in a 29-28 comeback victory, giving them back-to-back victories in the MEAC.

Howard finished the season 5-6 and 4-4 in the conference, its best record since 2006. McGhee boosted more than the team’s overall talent. He changed its culture.

“He upped the level of everybody on the football team,” White said. “Those same guys who were on the previous team that hadn’t won a MEAC game, Greg was the ring leader in motivating them and making sure they understood what the thin line was between winning and losing.”

McGhee’s sophomore season got off to a more humbing start. The NCAA suspended him for the first three games for what it deemed was an improper use of textbook allowances. His scholarship had allotted him $750 to spend on textbooks in the campus bookstore, and he and nine teammates thought they could spend the money on any supplies. McGhee, who did not own a laptop, purchased an iPad.

Howard persevered, and when McGhee returned, he helped the team finish 7-4, second in the MEAC. The next two seasons, though, weren’t as rosy. During McGhee’s junior season, Harrell took a personal leave of absence, and the Bison salvaged a 1-5 start to finish 6-6. This fall, a 1-7 start turned into three consecutive victories, leading into the showdown against Hampton on Nov. 22.

Leave Your Legacy

An image of a football stitched to a heart with text that reads “leave your legacy” is tattooed on McGhee’s right rib.

He accomplished this at Howard.

Thirty-nine seconds after McGhee told Aiyegoro that they would get the ball right back, cornerback Kenneth Russ recorded his second interception of the afternoon. Not a minute later, halfback Aquanius Freeman punched the ball in from two yards out, thinning Hampton’s advantage to 26-20.

McGhee proceeded to lead two fourth-quarter scoring drives, reminiscent of those he orchestrated as a freshman. With 21 seconds left in regulation, junior kicker John Fleck nailed a 17-yard field goal to send the Bison seniors out with a 30-29 victory.

It was a watershed moment for McGhee, who wrapped up his college career confident that he could play football professionally. The odds, however, are against him — not since 2006, when Tavaris Jackson was drafted out of Alabama State, has a quarterback from a historically black college or university been drafted.

Wide receivers coach William Sherman, who has served as a liaison between McGhee and the NFL, said every team has inquired about the quarterback and almost all have sent scouts to observe him. However, Sherman doubts McGhee will receive an invitation to the Senior Bowl or the NFL combine, leaving his pro day as his best shot to convince teams to sign him.

“Most people think, as a quarterback, that when you come from a historically black college, you’re not coached. You’re not polished. You’re raw. You hear those words all the time,” White said. “Greg is by far more than ready to be a next-level quarterback … Whenever he gets his shot, wherever that may be, I know he’s going to kick the door in.”

Howard strength and conditioning coach Nicholas Latham said McGhee’s measurables could give him a chance. At 6-foot-3 and 209 pounds, McGhee can run 40 yards in 4.5 seconds on artificial turf, leap 39 inches vertically and put up 350 pounds in the bench press.

Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III is the only player at that position to run faster than a 4.5-second 40-yard dash in the combine since 2007. Griffin and Josh Portis, who signed with the Seattle Seahawks as an undrafted free agent out of California (Pa.) in 2011, are the only quarterbacks to leap 39 inches.

Greg, I can say, hands down, without a doubt, easily, was the hardest working person I’ve had on this campus for the past four years,” Latham said. “I’m going to be sad to see him leave.”

This season, McGhee broke the MEAC record for most yards from scrimmage, previously held by White. He also finished with 2,388 passing yards, the most in the conference, and 847 rushing yards, which was good for fourth.

While McGhee was adamant about playing quarterback in college, he’s willing to change positions as long as a team gives him that opportunity.

“Being a quarterback at an HBCU, I think of it like high school all over again,” McGhee said. “You’re probably going to get tagged as an athlete because you can do things some quarterbacks cannot do … but you just got to keep fighting.”

Rod Rutherford, the wide receivers coach at Indiana (Pa.), recruited McGhee as a graduate assistant at Pittsburgh. That modesty and sense of awareness should serve McGhee well as he pursues a professional career.

Now, he just needs that opportunity.

“He’s a very humble kid and I think that’s paid off because, being that he was so humble, he was willing to learn and look for advice and coaching,” Rutherford said. “He’s definitely developed into a big-time quarterback … I’m pretty sure, whatever he sets his goals to be, he’ll definitely get them.”

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