Jim Henry Award winner Brandon McIlwain always carried a special quality
By Joseph Santoliquito
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.
Brandon McIlwain has always been on that level. 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, now South Carolina freshman, 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 high school version of Seattle Seahawk star Russell Wilson, like former Penn State coach and current Houston Texans’ coach Bill O’Brien did.
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 rated McIlwain as the No. 7 dual-threat quarterback in the country. Baseball America rated 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, and now he can add the Jim Henry Award from the prestigious Maxwell Club to his pile of post-season trophies.
Since January, McIlwain, who won’t turn 18 until May 31, began 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.
It wouldn’t surprise either Adam Collachi, Council Rock North’s former 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.
“Brandon could have easily shut it down; he had everything he wanted and needed, his football scholarship to South Carolina and Major League Baseball — but he kept playing,” Collachi said. “He didn’t do it for himself. He’s that selfless. He wanted to win for this program, the school, and his teammates. That’s what I think I’ll remember the most about Brandon. He had every right it shut it down. He could have easily said, ‘I have a broken thumb and I’m not playing this week,’ and no one would have questioned it. But he didn’t. 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. 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. Nothing affects him. If there is pressure or a tense moment, you can’t tell by looking at him — and I’m his father.”
Winner: Jim Henry Award – 2015
Council Rock North High School