Editor’s note: This is the second part of a series about Hawken School 1988 graduate Melvin L. Jones’ account of five African-American boys who left public-school life in 1985 and made their imprint on Hawken athletics, primarily with notoriety on the gridiron, as the author of “The Onyx Renaissance.” Check next week’s edition of Times Sports for part three.
That sour taste is difficult to get rid of.
The five of them were a year older and a year wiser when they returned to the gridiron with a veteran squad in the fall of 1986. Their hunger had been brewing ever since going 10-0 the previous season without an invitation to the playoffs.
As 1988 Hawken School graduate Melvin L. Jones wrote in his latest book, “The Onyx Renaissance,” he and his four best buddies had trouble understanding how the Hawks went undefeated as sophomores during the 1985 football season and did not have the opportunity to test their skills that postseason.
While the 1985 Hawks joined the 1981 and 1965 Hawks with unbeaten regular seasons, their program had yet to make a postseason appearance since the Ohio High School Athletic Association began the football playoff format in 1972.
So, when Jones and four of his closest buddies, Will Appling, Owen Benjamin, O.J. “Juice” McDuffie and Marcus Teague, returned for their junior season, they had a playoff-or-bust mentality for the 1986 campaign.
“At school, this was the year that the football team at Hawken was predicted to go to the playoffs for the first time ever in the school’s history,” Jones said in his book. “Last year’s burden of having a lot of juniors and sophomores playing became a blessing because there were a lot of returning starters and players with experience.”
Back when the “Juice Crew” played for Hawken, 10-0 teams getting snubbed out of playoff berths was a regular occurrence under the Harbin computer-point system, mostly because only four teams per region received invites.
With the OHSAA expanding the postseason to eight qualifying teams per region in 1999, players and coaches now feel slighted if they go 8-2 and miss out. In fact, well more than 500 teams have recorded 10-0 campaigns since the expansion and only three have missed out on the postseason because their schedules were just that weak.
Beefing up their schedule in 1986, the Hawken gridders weren’t about to let history repeat itself, starting with a season opener against fellow Region 13 foe Chagrin Falls. Other additions included Wellsville, Jeromesville Hillsdale, Medina Buckeye and Brooklyn.
But that wasn’t the only change happening on County Line Road that fall. While the Hawks didn’t lose a big senior class from the previous year, they did graduate their starting quarterback and running back, which meant McDuffie was going to make the transition from an all-state receiver to the Hawks’ featured tailback.
In turn, sixth-year head coach Cliff Walton decided to go back to the power-I formation after installing an innovative run-and-shoot scheme the previous year.
“He thought that it would be better because the line experience and the fact that he had a running back that can do the job … O.J.,” Jones said in his book.
That offensive front notably included Chaz Grossman, who was accompanied by fellow seniors Steve Brill, Dave Evans and John Fanaroff, as well as juniors Andy Peay and John Zaller.
Teague, better known as “Ice” to his fellow Juice Crew members, was still making a name for himself as one of the better receivers in the area, while Benjamin, or “Benji,” was quietly becoming one of the premier defensive backs in the county, and Appling, or “Chill Will,” was essential on special teams, as well as certain passing situations on offense.
In addition, Hawken had a pair of all-state senior standouts in defensive lineman Jim Lis and defensive back Ed Yoon, while Dan Feld took over signal-caller duties and was no slouch in the Hawks’ offense – he eclipsed the 1,000-yard passing mark for the season.
But that preseason, Jones, or “Big Mel,” went down in writhing pain during a scrimmage, only to learn that he had dislocated his kneecap and tore some tendons that would require surgery.
“If it wasn’t for the pain that I was feeling in my leg, I think that I would have started crying; I thought that my season was over, I had let not only my teammates down … but I let my brothers down,” he said in his book. “They came to me and tried to make me feel better by giving me words of encouragement, but they were hollow words for the moment.”
The last thing Jones wanted to do was go under the knife, but, with arthroscopic surgery available, recovery and rehabilitation were the main hurdles to clear.
Two weeks later, the Hawks hosted Chagrin Falls in their season opener. When Jones was laid up in bed and got a phone call from McDuffie after the game, McDuffie said that he and the team did “alright.”
Later the next day, Jones was watching the evening news out of boredom, with the sports anchor talking about the Browns’ upcoming season opener against the Chicago Bears and also about the Indians’ recent success. Just as Jones was about to change the channel, he heard a familiar voice coming out of the television.
It was McDuffie giving credit to his offensive lineman for opening up some gaping holes to run through against Chagrin Falls.
“I looked up and my jaw hit the floor,” Jones said in his book. “Juice had a monstrous game against Chagrin Falls, where he put up some video-game type of numbers running the ball. I think that the reporter stated that he had an average of over 10 yards a carry.”
Other than Academic Challenge, Hawken School students just weren’t on television, he said.
“‘Mom, come here, O.J. is on television!’” Jones said. “My mother hurriedly came into the room and watched the last part of the interview with me. After seeing that, I could not wait to get the green light to start my rehab … I had to get back.”
Hawken actually set a program record with 411 yards rushing that game, as McDuffie was complemented in the backfield by senior fullbacks Mike Noonan and Yoon.
The Hawks continued on that season to not only post dub, after dub, after dub, but they completely annihilated their opponents behind a defense that only surrendered 5.1 points per game, as Lis headlined the trenches, Noonan the linebacker corps and Yoon the secondary.
And not only did the Hawken gridders defeat new foes Chagrin Falls and Wellsville, when they were considered underdogs in those games, but they put together another sweep of their private-school rivals: University School, Gilmour Academy and Western Reserve Academy. In fact, it was the first time Hawken won on University’s gridiron in eight years.
And in the game against Wellsville – which was headlined by all-state seniors Eric Dowling at linebacker and John McIntosh at lineman – McDuffie not only had his way running the pigskin, but he returned an interception 108 yards to the crib for an OHSAA state record.
By the time Jones was far enough along with his knee rehabilitation to rejoin his brothers on the field, Hawken was 7-0 and making a drive toward the playoffs.
When week 10 rolled around, the Hawken boys traveled to the west side of Cleveland to finish their regular season against Brooklyn with fate in their hands in the Division IV, Region 13 computer rankings.
“It was odd but exciting to have control of our own destiny; no more the years of depending on someone else to have a hiccup for us to play in the tournament,” Jones said in his book. “It was all on us.”
Jones said he got a weird vibe in the locker room before the game – not a bad vibe, but a weird one.
McDuffie scored the first touchdown of the game on a 58-yard punt return, before Feld dialed up Teague on a 75-yard touchdown toss for a 14-point lead. Brooklyn misplayed the ensuing kickoff and downed the ball in the shadows of its own end zone, before its quarterback ran an option like he was carrying a loaf of bread.
“I hit him on his side and pulled his arm down,” Jones said in his book. “Then, the ball popped out and it stayed on the ground. I saw the ball immediately and pounced on it. To my surprise, when the referee blew his whistle, he threw both of his hands up, signifying a touchdown.
“I just scored a touchdown … I scored a touchdown! I lost it as I came to our sideline.”
The Hawks ended up putting a 41-12 hurting on Brooklyn to keep their win streak alive with yet another undefeated season, but this one meant something a little extra with the computer points in their favor. They still remained cautiously optimistic about a playoff berth.
“Well, it was total excitement,” Jones said. “We didn’t know how to act, because we were scared that we weren’t going to make it again. I mean, I remember the phone call that came to my parents’ house. And I almost didn’t pick up the phone. My father had to pick up the phone. And he got the call and he told me that we made it.
“The next thing I know, I’m getting off the phone and I’m on a conference calling O.J., Owen, Marcus and Will. We’re talking about what we’re going to do, what we’re going to wear and then we got to school and everyone was all excited. It was a brand-new feeling to be able to say the football team was doing something besides having a great season and then finishing up.”
Not only did Hawken secure a playoff ticket, but it earned the No. 2 seed in the region with a semifinal battle against No. 3-seed Orwell Grand Valley in the works at Solon High School. But that wasn’t much of a battle with a blowout victory in favor of the Hawks.
A clear favorite to win that game, it was difficult not to look ahead for a much-anticipated regional championship against top-seed St. Thomas Aquinas, which was coming off back-to-back state title appearances, including winning a Division IV championship in 1984 under then-head coach Jack Rose, who later went on to coach at Massillon.
“We just knew we were on a collision course with Aquinas,” Jones said. “We had it set in our minds, ‘We’re going to play Aquinas.’ The next thing you know, Aquinas loses to Windham and it’s like, ‘Oh, OK.’ So, we had to change our whole mindset for that.”
Region No. 4-seed Windham upset St. Thomas Aquinas behind the arm of all-Ohio senior quarterback Darrell Fall, who was fixing to do some more destruction against Hawken in the regional title game. And a lot of the Windham seniors had playoff experience from their sophomore season in 1984.
But that Windham aerial attack had little success against the no-fly zone of Hawken’s secondary, which was not only headlined by Yoon but also included Juice Crew juniors Teague and Appling, as well as seniors Joe Nahra and Doug Cohen. On top of that, weather conditions favored the quickness and experience of the Hawks.
“It was so cold that nobody really could move,” Jones said. “That’s why it ended up an 8-6 football game, because it was that bitter cold. Nobody could really move the ball. I just remember that grass was so hard that it was unbearable.”
Jones said one of his teammate’s feet were so cold that he held them too close to an exhaust heater and his cleats melted off his shoes.
The game tested the intestinal fortitude of both teams, with both sides nearly as concerned about getting warm as they were about playing a regional championship, he said. But the Hawks persevered with a two-point victory.
“We were frozen, we could barely feel our extremities and there were a couple of kids who were starting to experience frostbite,” Jones said in his book. “There was no way that we were going to leave the field because we were about to be crowned the OHSAA Division IV, Region 13 champions.
“To watch coach Walton take that trophy was a joyous occasion for all of us. We saw coach get a little emotional as he handed it to the senior captains.”
Advancing to the state semifinals, Hawken collided with Castalia Margaretta to play under the lights on the turf at Baldwin Wallace University’s George Finnie Stadium in Berea.
The goal in mind was to secure a trip to “The Shoe” in Columbus.
“As the National Anthem played, I closed my eyes and thought about what I needed to do to help my teammates and my brothers make it to the state championship; there was no reason why we should have to let this journey end,” Jones said in his book. “I looked at my brothers, and we acknowledged each other; we had the same mindset that we were ready for this moment.”
Another tight ballgame was in store for the Hawks, who led, 8-7, before Margaretta split the uprights on a game-winning field goal, 10-8, to end Hawken’s 22-game win streak and its 1986 campaign at 12-1.
Statistics showed a Hawken team which had outplayed its opponent in most categories, especially defensively. The scoreboard, the final statistic, showed otherwise.
Margaretta earned the right to play at The Shoe, but it got dominated by Columbus Bishop Hartley, 47-0.
“That bus drive back from Berea was solemn; very quiet,” Jones said in his book. “We knew that we gave our all and we left everything that we had on that Finnie Stadium turf, but it didn’t take away the sting of losing that game.”
While Hawken’s defense had much to laud from that season, the Hawks’ explosive offense broke several program records, including most rushing yards in a season at 2,522, most points in a season at 383 and most touchdowns in a season at 56.
As for McDuffie, the transition from receiver to tailback served him well. He finished with a school-record 1,709 yards rushing and 31 touchdowns for the season. The 5-foot-11, 175-pound junior was named a Class A first-team all-Ohioan, as well as the running back of the year by the Associated Press.
While McDuffie’s journey was just getting started, the Juice Crew would have even more to show for the following fall for their senior season.
“We began talking about the unfulfilled feeling that we were having,” Jones said in his book. “Owen and Will came to my locker and they talked about the bad taste of losing they had in their mouths. We didn’t say anything after that.”