Editor’s note: This is the fourth and final 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.”
When five African-American boys left their home districts and intertwined paths as sophomores in the fall of 1985, it was fate that brought them together at a small, predominantly white private school.
As Melvin L. Jones describes in his latest book, “The Onyx Renaissance,” he, Will Appling, Owen Benjamin, O.J. McDuffie and Marcus Teague didn’t arrive at Hawken School with any preconceived notions they’d hook up as buddies and become known as the Juice Crew.
They didn’t arrive with a predetermined plan to leave an imprint on an athletic program that would gain statewide notoriety, especially on the gridiron.
And they certainly didn’t arrive thinking they’d actually like the place. After all, their parents sent them to Hawken for the academic advantages of the institution – not for any kind of sports legacy.
“That’s why I said it was more of a story, because we didn’t plan it. It was very much organic,” Jones said. “We just came together as one, and it just seemed like it was seamless. And to be able to talk about that sophomore year and be able to say, ‘This is how it started,’ right there. This is the genesis of things to come.
“You’ve got two guys originally from Warrensville, one guy from Marion who comes to Warrensville and two guys from the Woodhill Park side of Cleveland. We come together at this small, obscure school that nobody knows about, and then, next thing you know, welcome to the renaissance.”
While the Juice Crew schoolmates were part of a 34-3 run on the gridiron during their three years at Hawken, including their program’s first playoff berth, back-to-back regional titles and a state finals appearance under former head coach Cliff Walton, the quintet also flexed its athletic abilities on the basketball court, the baseball diamond and in track and field.
On the basketball court, McDuffie took over point-guard duties and helped headline the Hawks’ 1985-86 undefeated regular season, when he was a sophomore. Teague and Jones also played hoops that year.
Although, the basketball king at Hawken was 6-foot-4 senior Maurice E. Gray, who averaged 24.9 points per game that season as an AP all-Ohioan and a Class AA player of the year. A Warrensville Heights product, just like Jones, McDuffie and Teague, Gray finished his varsity career with a program-record 1,719 points, before going on to play at Davidson College.
“We had a McDonald’s all-American on our basketball team, and nobody knew how good we were until the start of the year, when we beat Bedford Chanel,” Jones said.
Then-seniors Ted Bryan and Kevin Slesh and junior Ivan Tyus were also in the starting five for the Hawks.
After their undefeated regular season was highlighted by taking down Bedford’s St. Peter Chanel, which featured 6-foot-3 James Williams and 6-foot-7 Dwayne Austin, both all-Ohioans, as well as 6-foot-5 Warrensville Heights products Cortney Gilmore and Aaron Smith, the Hawks went on to capture a district title in a rematch against the Firebirds to prove the first time was no fluke.
The Hawks then defeated Orrville, 45-44, in the regional semifinals. But Hawken’s perfect season came to an end during a 49-44 loss against defending state champion Youngstown Rayen in the regional championship.
The following season, McDuffie and Tyus were the lone returning starters, with senior Tony Smith and juniors Ben Davis and Deshon Banks joining the tipoff squad and with Teague as the sixth man. The Hawks felt the growing pains of graduating Gray during a 1-3 start to their campaign, but they went on to win 17 straight for an 18-4 season that concluded in the district quarterfinals under then-head coach Tom Bryan.
And during their senior year, McDuffie and Teague propelled the Hawks to their second district title in three years. Hawken defeated Magnolia Sandy Valley, 64-59, in the regional semis and then lost in the regional title game against Wooster Triway, 69-55, which had a pair of all-Ohioans in Larry Benning and Scott Slusser.
McDuffie was honored as a special mention all-Ohioan that campaign.
On the baseball diamond, meanwhile, Juice Crew members McDuffie, Appling and Benjamin showcased their sophomore talents in the 1986 spring season, along with standout sophomore pitcher Dane Hanson and the leadership of seniors Aaron Brandt, Ted Bryan and Kevin Slesh.
Riding the momentum of undefeated regular seasons in football and basketball, the baseball team went on to win their program’s first district title by way of road victories against Painesville Harvey and Twinsburg Chamberlain, before losing an 11-7 affair against Aurora in the regional semis.
Hawken baseball felt the graduation of guys like Brandt, Bryan and Slesh during the 1987 campaign, when it finished 8-15 under then-head coach Chris Marsh. But McDuffie still showcased his individual efforts by leading the team in seven offensive categories, including a .400 batting average and five home runs.
Fast-forward to 2020, Brandt is now in his 18th year as the head coach of the Hawks’ baseball program, and Jones is an Ohio High School Athletic Association umpire. When Brandt’s son, Lucas Brandt, now a freshman at Hawken, played with his 12-and-under team at Cooperstown Dreams Park two summers ago in New York, Jones was selected as an accompanying umpire for the national Little League tournament.
Jones was so captivated by that experience that he authored a book, “Park Dreams.”
“It was an honor to be selected and then to be able to go there, I mean, No. 1, Cooperstown is a small, little town that just strictly deals with baseball,” Jones said. “It’s nothing but baseball nostalgia. And then you go to this event where you have 100-some-odd teams where you’re with kids 12 years old. They don’t have to worry about politics or nothing. It’s just baseball. It’s all baseball. You’re having fun.
“The kids keep the home-run baseballs they hit over the fence. The parents get to see their kids play as they’re growing from boys to men. There are mamas crying. There are kids from California to Ohio. I mean, it’s a place where you feel good. Everything that’s wrong about the world is not there.”
While the Hawken sluggers returned in the spring of 1988 with a plethora of standout pitchers, including Hanson, McDuffie, Steve Arnoff, Charlie Takaoka and Frank LaRiccia, high school baseball can be a funny sport with one-game playoff series, and the Hawks ended their campaign in the district semifinals.
A four-sport athlete, McDuffie also stood out as a jumper on the track and field team, while Jones established himself as a dominant thrower in the state, and Teague was taking care of business in the 400- and 800-meter runs and as a member of the Hawks’ sprint relays under then-head coach Randy Dlugosz.
A three-time state placer, McDuffie wasted no time collecting some hardware from Columbus by marking 22 feet, 7 3/4 inches to take third in the long jump during the Class AA championship his sophomore season in 1986.
“I went down with him, because I had just missed going to state by a few inches in the regional meet,” Jones said. “But that was a cool experience – got to see “The Shoe,” got to see all the glitz and glamor.
“And then, for myself, because I made sure I got to see some of what I would call my competition, and you make that mental list, and it’s like, ‘OK, this is the person I’ve got to go after.’ I mean, anybody who has that hyper-competitive nature or who has that dog attitude, they have that list. They have that person they want to measure themselves against.”
Jones was accustomed to that atmosphere as a thrower who competed in the Junior Olympics during his middle-school days.
Getting moved to the Class A state championship in 1987, McDuffie repeated third in the long jump, while Jones made his first appearance at the big dance, marking 55 feet, 3 inches to finish state runner-up in the shot put, and marking 157 feet, 1 inch for fifth in the discus throw. Those three efforts alone were good enough for Hawken to finish seventh as a team.
And then for their senior season in 1988, the Hawks got moved back up to the Class AA track and field championship, when McDuffie captured the state long jump title with a leap of 23 feet, 2 1/2 inches, while Jones finished with a pair of state runner-up throws in the discus, 173 feet, and shot put, 57 feet, 1/2 inch. Jones missed gold by 15 inches in the discus and 4 1/4 inches in the shot.
“It was kind of frustrating, considering that you’re thinking, ‘OK, you’re going into your final throw. All you have to do is just maintain,’” Jones said. “I lost on the final throw to my competitors, and it wasn’t by a great distance, and it was on both of my final throws.
“So, I was questioning myself, like, ‘If I could have got us four more points, we could have had a second-place trophy.’ That stung that we ended up taking third at state. But nobody blamed me for it.”
Scoring 26 points between McDuffie’s jumping and Jones’ throwing, Hawken finished third at the 1988 state track meet, while Painesville Harvey scored 30 team points to take home the runner-up trophy. McDuffie just missed the state podium in high jump, and Teague just missed qualifying for the big dance with a fifth-place finish at regionals that year.
McDuffie and Jones were celebrated by their coaches and teammates for motoring their program’s best showing at a state meet.
“We appreciated the compliments, but the competitive nature in us just ate at us for a while that we couldn’t get four more points,” Jones said. “But we enjoyed the experience, and, because it was with my brother, it made it that much more special.”
After high school, Teague continued his athletic career at Denison University, while Jones did so at the University of Virginia at Wise as well as the University of Akron.
And McDuffie went on to play football for then-head coach Joe Paterno’s Penn State Nittany Lions. He set program records for 977 receiving yards in a single season, 1,988 receiving yards for his career, as well as a program standard for all-purpose yards. In 1992, he was a consensus all-American and the Fiesta Bowl MVP.
Also, McDuffie played one season of varsity baseball at Penn State and still holds a program record with four steals in one game. He was drafted by the California Angels in the 41st round of the 1991 MLB draft but did not sign.
In the 1993 NFL Draft, McDuffie was selected 25th overall in the first round by the Miami Dolphins.
“He made it,” Jones said about his reaction to his childhood buddy going pro.
“We had sleepovers all the time, and we talked about making it and making it to that next level,” Jones said. “We talked about it. First going to college and then getting drafted. And to see him do it, it was like, ‘We made it.’ He made, we made it. And I was so happy for him and for his mom, his Uncle Homer, everybody – everybody associated with it. It was a great feeling to see it happen. He was one of us.”
McDuffie went on to become Dan Marino’s favorite target, finishing his eight-year NFL career with 415 catches for 5,074 yards with 29 touchdowns, not to mention 2,103 kick-return yards for a pair of touchdowns.
In 1998, McDuffie led the NFL with 90 receptions – resulting in 1,050 yards and seven touchdowns. He became the first NFL player to record at least 90 receptions and 10 punt returns in a season without a fumble.
He retired in 2000 because of a nagging injury that involved damaged tendons in his toe.
“For him now to be considered one of the best ever for the Miami Dolphins is even more icing on the cake,” Jones said. “I could never be more proud of a man.”
When asked what spurred him to write “The Onyx Renaissance,” Jones said he wanted to preserve the legacy that he and his four buddies accomplished during their three years as standout athletes at Hawken School.
The topic came up during their 30-year reunion a couple years ago.
“We just started having conversations, and we were just wondering what happened to that legacy that we had built, that we had started, cultivated and grown upon,” Jones said. “You’re not going to have state championships every year, but we’re at least hoping for a whole lot more than what they’re doing right now.”
After the Juice Crew graduated, it took three more seasons for the Hawks to get back to the playoffs, but head coach Cliff Walton had some good teams in the early-1990s and early-2000s, including a regional championship in 1993 and a playoff-win campaign in 2000.
Since then, Hawken football has had four playoff appearances in the past 20 years with one playoff victory.
With roster numbers dwindled to 20 to 25 players, Walton retired with a 236-148-1 record following the 2017 campaign, and head coach Brian Stephenson was named his successor – a Lima, Ohio, native who spent his previous nine seasons helping the Woodberry Forest School varsity football team accumulate a 69-14-1 record with eight Virginia Prep League championships.
In three seasons at the helm at Hawken, Stephenson owns a 3-20 record.
“It feels like to me, especially with coach Walton, and now with coach Stephenson, you’re handcuffing these men who have shown that they can coach talented kids and get them to providence,” Jones said. “Right now, Stephenson is trying to build the program from the ground up, but he can’t if he doesn’t have both hands to do what he needs to do. No coach can do that.”
When it comes to 21st-century legacies for small-school football programs, Northeast Ohioans now talk about Kirtland and for good reason – the Hornets just won their sixth state championship since 2011.
Jones said he and his teammates thought that was the direction Hawken was heading when they graduated as state runners-up with a 34-3 record on the gridiron between 1985 and 1987.
“For myself and the guys, we’re not asking the school to put us on a great pedestal to say that we deserve a whole lot of recognition, but we believe that that legacy should be shown a little bit more love than what it is,” Jones said. “It’s almost like, ‘Yeah, they did it, but we’re not going to worry about them.’ That’s disheartening.
“The banners kind of help that, but it doesn’t really reflect the true legacy of what we did to help bring a little bit more prominence to that school when it comes to athletics. I’m pretty sure that, if you go out to that school right now, that our state finals trophy is still sitting in that trophy case, still disfigured, collecting dust and behind district championship trophies. What does that say about how they feel about football?”