TAMPA — Sickles High offensive lineman Deandre Mclean was asked the other day if he liked junior running back Ray Ray McCloud III.
“Ray Ray?” Mclean said, scrunching his big face. “I love Ray Ray.” Mclean's voice raised: “He's my running back!”
Is he ever.
McCloud not only finished the regular season as Hillsborough County's leading rusher with 1,941 yards and 22 touchdowns on 233 carries, but also Mclean said McCloud inspired teammates, frequently thanked them and gave them confidence.
“Ray Ray is a star at Sickles,” Mclean said. “Everybody loves Ray Ray.”
But what about a big head? Doesn't all that attention blow the roof off his ego?
“No sir,” Mclean said. “Ray Ray is humble. When he gets college scholarship offers (from Florida, South Florida, UCLA, Kentucky, South Carolina, Tennessee and others), he never even tells anybody about it. I think he doesn't want to brag about it.”
But do people get tired of McCloud getting so much attention? There are, after all, many other talented kids on the Sickles football team.
“When we see Ray Ray getting the props in the paper we know we had a part in that, so we're happy when he gets the headlines,” Mclean said. “We're the big hogs. We're just trying to open a hole. We try to open the biggest hole possible, but it doesn't take much for Ray Ray to get through.”
Many times all it takes is a crack, a sliver, and McCloud — a thin, muscled, 5-foot-10, 175-pounder with sub-4.5 second speed — is into the secondary where he shakes off a linebacker, fakes out a safety and leaves everybody in the dust for another touchdown.
And he does it all with a bull's eye on his back because everybody knows he's getting plenty of carries (averaging 23 a game with more than 25 five times).
A few weeks ago, before Tampa Bay Tech played Sickles in a critical Class 7A-District 7 clash, Tech coach Jayson Roberts was asked what the key to the game was. Roberts didn't hesitate: “We have to stop No. 34 (McCloud).”
TBT did not. Against the Titans, McCloud rushed 30 times for 249 yards and four touchdowns as Sickles won 35-8.
The victory vaulted Sickles (9-1) to its first district title and into tonight's first-round playoff game against Plant City (8-2). It also added another chapter to the Ray Ray legend, which began building in youth football with many current teammates with whom McCloud says he feels an iron-clad bond.
“When I was about to go to high school a lot of people were saying, 'Why are you going to Sickles?' Why don't you go to Plant or to someplace that has a better tradition?' ” McCloud said. “I said, 'I'd rather stick here and change a program.' I knew we could do it. I never have regretted anything. We're a family.”
At the moment, the Sickles family appears good enough to make a run at a state title, an experience that McCloud says he plans to savor every step of the way — with humbleness and without worrying about what may lie ahead in college.
“The most important thing is right now,” McCloud said. “We all feel we have something to prove and we feel we're capable of proving it. We're never taking anything for granted.”
McCloud said he is still a little sore from a bruised hip suffered a month ago in a loss to Plant (24-20), but he's running at 100 percent efficiency, a sight that Plant coach Robert Weiner appreciated.
“(McCloud) is the type of player that every time he gets the ball in his hands you hold your breath,” Weiner said after Plant pulled out the victory with McCloud rushing 27 times for 159 yards and two touchdowns. “We made some adjustments, but still, (McCloud) made it tough. Sometimes you almost found yourself just watching him run because he's that special.”