Editor’s note: This is the first 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 two.
They finally made the turn onto County Line Road for their first day of sophomore year at a new school.
The five of them passed through five towns on a 45-minute bus ride, three of them coming from Warrensville Heights and two from the Woodhill Park neighborhood on Cleveland’s east side, just a couple miles west of Shaker Heights.
As 1988 Hawken School graduate Melvin L. Jones detailed in his latest book, “The Onyx Renaissance,” he and four of his soon-to-be-closest friends, who would change the prominence of a small, private-school football program, left behind the urbanization of exhaust fumes and that smell of city smog to the sanctuary of trees and crisp, clean air in Geauga County.
Along for the ride with “Big Mel,” fellow Warrenville Heights buddies O.J. McDuffie and Owen Appling, as well as Marcus Teague and Owen Benjamin, were in for a total culture shock that brought them together by fate – none of them had planned a transfer to Hawken with some sort of legacy in mind back in 1985.
“As we got closer, we started to see the student parking lot; we were in total disbelief,” Jones said in his book, which was released in July.
“We saw cars that we never thought that we would see,” he said. “I thought that I was special when my dad had a gold Trans Am that was the same model as in the movie, ‘Smokey and the Bandit.’ We saw kids getting out of cars with the names Mercedes Benz, BMW, Jaguar and Porsche.”
The five African-American sophomores, who would become known as the “Juice Crew,” with nicknames like “Chill Will,” “Benji,” Juice” and “Ice,” also noticed the attire of their new peers, who were donning suit jackets, collared shirts or polos and dress slacks or Dockers.
With hardworking parents, the five new kids in town weren’t poor boys showing up to school in rags, by any means, but they also weren’t going to be wearing their Sunday best seven days a week.
And when the Juice Crew went to the “White House” on campus for their first lunch, the former public-school boys were not only taken aback by hamburgers made of real beef with all the fixings but also by the fact that they could go back for seconds.
“To live on the urban east side, where the majority were African-American, to go to a place where you’re seeing stuff that you see on television and experience stuff that you never thought you would experience, it was a shock,” Jones said. “I mean, we were coming from a student-to-teacher ratio of 25 to 1, where at Hawken it was like 15 to 1, 10 to 1 at certain times.”
The academic curriculum was rigorous, but it wasn’t anything the Juice Crew couldn’t handle, Jones said.
While the Juice Crew would gain notoriety for its contribution to taking Hawken School’s football program to new heights under then-head coach Cliff Walton, including a perfect season out of the gates, as well as regional championships with a trip to a state title game, that’s not why any of the five members transferred to Hawken.
For Jones, as he wrote in his book, he came from a family of educators, including both of his parents, his grandparents and his step-grandfather, who was a principal in the Detroit public school system, before he was murdered.
When his parents became concerned with the Warrensville Heights School District and his mom got into a certain discussion with the superintendent regarding the possibility of adding a levy to the ballot during a school board meeting, the decision was made for Jones that he wouldn’t be enrolled in the system for his sophomore year.
“My mom left that school board meeting frustrated and dismayed, and add the fact that she felt that the mayor, Raymond J. Grabow, was totally disconnected to the city that he was over, and he was using his political influence to negatively run the city,” Jones said in his book.
Programs that were a staple in the school district were starting to be phased out, and the funding that was normally there for the district was not accessible, Jones said.
McDuffie’s and Benjamin’s parents pulled their children from Warrensville Heights for similar reasons, while Teague’s and Appling’s parents were influenced when Hawken offered financial aid to gifted students in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District – they attended Patrick Henry School.
Teague, who was also a basketball standout, wanted to go play hoops at St. Joseph High School before it merged with the all-girls Villa Angela Academy, but his mom made it clear he was going to school to get an education more so than playing ball.
“Well, our parents made the decision for us,” Jones said. “This was the time where your mom or dad would say, ‘You’re going there, no questions asked, that’s it.’ So, in retrospect, we’re thanking our moms and dads for telling us, ‘You’re going.’”
And McDuffie, who was also a baseball standout, almost went to University School. But during his freshman year playing for Warrensville Heights, a game against US didn’t sit well with his mother, Gloria McDuffie.
McDuffie was on the mound that day and mowing down the opposing Prepper batters, Jones said.
“During the game, the athletic director of University School arrived,” Jones said in his book. “He didn’t know what the score was, so he asked a few US parents what was going on with the game. They told him how they were losing and how dominant O.J. was pitching. As the game went on, the AD turned to some fans and said, ‘Wow, that kid is good, but I bet you that he has an IQ of two.”
A few parents laughed, but one parent didn’t – Stanley Miller Sr., the father of Warrensville catcher Stanley Jr., and word got back to McDuffie’s mother, who made the decision to send her son to Hawken School instead.
The joke was on University School, as McDuffie would go on to be a three-time AP all-Ohioan and two-time offensive player of the year for the Hawken football team, before becoming an all-American at Penn State and a first-round NFL draft pick who led the Miami Dolphins’ receiving corps for eight straight seasons as Dan Marino’s favorite target.
While none of the Juice Crew members were too keen on leaving their home districts to attend Hawken School at first, the academic change grew on them with time.
Particularly, it was tough for McDuffie, who grew up in Marion, Ohio, about 40 miles north of Columbus, before his mom got a job as a bank manager in Cleveland’s Lee-Harvard area and moved him with her to Warrensville Heights. So, McDuffie was attending his third school over the course of just a few years.
But football helped.
At the time, Cliff Walton was coaching his fifth campaign of an eventual 37-year tutelage at the helm of the football program. And in that 1985 season, he was amidst transitioning the Hawks’ offense from a tradition I-formation to an innovative run-and-shoot scheme, which was first developed by Middletown, Ohio, high school coach Glenn “Tiger” Ellison, before it was enhanced and made popular by Portland State University offensive coordinator Mouse Davis.
“The ‘run n’ shoot’ consists of a single fullback and four wideouts; two slotbacks and two regular receivers, but it made sure that the receivers created mismatches for the defense by putting them in motion, making the defense reveal what coverage they were in,” Jones said in his book.
“For us to run it was kind of innovative, because you had a lot of schools still running the I, still running the wishbone, veers and stuff like that,” Jones said. “It was fairly new. So, coach Walton wasn’t old-school in running our offense, but old-school in keeping you accountable, holding you to a standard.”
Coach Walton epitomized a core of Hawken’s program: excellence, with no regrets.
Coming into the 1985 season, the Hawks had graduated a ton of senior leadership and weren’t expected to do anything but play average. Some of the newspapers even prognosticated that the Hawks were going to be a .500 team at best that year. But those sports writers didn’t know what the Juice Crew was about to bring to the table as sophomores.
Jones, who was 6-foot-4, 265 pounds by the time he graduated, found a starting role as a nose guard and defensive tackle in a five-front base; Teague proved he could make tacklers miss at slotback; Benjamin showcased his ability to cover receivers like a wet blanket; and Appling, who wasn’t the fastest defensive back, laid some bone-crushing hits during preseason drills as a prime candidate at strong safety – appropriately called the “Hawk.”
And then there was McDuffie, who ran routes effortlessly and caught pretty much everything that was thrown his way.
“We came in there with the mindset that as sophomores we had that swagger that we could show you what we could do,” Jones said. “We’re not here to wait our turn. We were ready right now.”
As preseason practices went on, it was clear to the coaching staff that they had some underclassmen who were more than just fillers for the special teams, Jones said.
And that’s not to take away from the upperclassmen, like 6-foot-2, 200-plus-pound senior running back Artie Haynes and 5-foot-10 senior quarterback Aaron Brandt, whose father, Frank Brandt, shot hoops on Sundays with Jones’ old man and was a big reason the door opened for Melvin Jones to transfer to Hawken – the elder Brandt worked in the admissions department at Hawken.
The younger Brandt, who quarterbacked that 1985 team, is now a math teacher, academic adviser, football statistician and 18th-year head coach of the Hawken varsity baseball team.
The Hawks kicked off that 1985 season with an old-fashioned butt-whooping of Richmond Heights, getting out to a 34-0 lead midway through the second quarter, before cruising with second- and third-stringers in the second half.
Jones had a few tackles in that first game, Teague caught a touchdown pass, and Appling and Benjamin made their marks, mostly on special teams. But O.J. “Juice” McDuffie didn’t touch the ball on offense. He never said anything about it, but Jones said he could tell it bothered him.
In a week-two road battle against Newbury, Hawken faced a 6-0 deficit before McDuffie came through on a 66-yard touchdown catch from Brandt.
“As I watched the play from the sideline, I cried out, ‘He’s gone. He’s gone,’” Jones said in his book. “‘The Juice is loose! The Juice is loose!’”
Hawken went on to defeat Newbury, 39-12, before going on to rack up win, after win, after win.
Hawken pulverized Independence, 46-7, in week three, when McDuffie had six catches for 117 yards with three touchdowns, before Haynes rushed for 152 yards and four touchdowns in a 37-0 victory against Painesville Harvey, and Brandt threw for 212 yards and four touchdowns in a win against Warren Champion.
“Just as the notoriety was gaining in the newspaper, we were starting to garner attention in the city,” Jones said in his book. “Previously, most people had never heard of Hawken, let alone knew that we were in Gates Mills, and that we had a very good football team. Now, people were asking, ‘What’s going on at Hawken and their football team?’”
The 1985 Hawks also defeated their rivals, Gilmour Academy and University School, which they referred to as “Our ‘Little Brother’” and “That ‘other’ private school in Hunting Valley.”
Hawken finished its campaign with a scare against Western Reserve Academy and a blowout home victory against Ledgemont to remain perfect. They joined the 1981 Hawks, who went 9-0 during Walton’s first year at the helm, and the 1965 Hawks to finish their regular season undefeated.
But it wasn’t good enough to make the playoffs. Without much help in the computer-point rankings from teams like Gilmour and US, which had down seasons, Hawken finished seventh in Region 13, and that was back when only the top four teams advanced to the postseason.
“Coach Walton was trying to explain it to us,” Jones said about the Harbin computer-point system adopted by the Ohio High School Athletic Association.
“And it was like trying to do calculus in a way that we didn’t understand,” Jones said. “We were more worried about, ‘Hey, if we win, we should go.’ As sophomores, if we win, we should be good enough to go to the playoffs. And when we found out that we didn’t make the playoffs, we were disappointed.”
McDuffie was named a third-team all-Ohio receiver as a sophomore, before the Juice Crew members went on to make their marks in other sports that first year they converged at Hawken, standing out on the basketball court, baseball diamond and track and field.
But when they rejoined Walton on the gridiron the following fall, their junior football season had a bit more in store than just an undefeated campaign.