DANBURY, Conn. -- You may be finding it a little harder this week to like football, what with its ongoing descent into the swamp of corporate cretins and concussions and CTEs. Maybe it's the way four-game substance-abuse-violation suspensions are now routine in the NFL, and Oklahoma State has replaced the University of Miami as the latest collegiate cesspool, and the coach of Eastern Michigan called a player a "bitch." Maybe it's how, on a larger scale, a lab-rat system from junior high on seems to be creating 340-pound men with the dexterity of the elephants in Fantasia, except they'll be dead by the age of 50. Maybe you're asking yourself something like, "My God, what kind of Dante-an Circle of Hell have we created here?"
If so, I'd like to share some good news about a young man named Octavias McKoy, tailback for the Western Connecticut State University Colonials, in the D-III Massachusetts State Collegiate Athletic Conference, located here in Danbury ("The Hat City"). On Oct. 26, playing against the Worcester (Mass.) State Lancers, McKoy rushed for 455 yards -- the most yardage anyone has ever run for in college football since its first contest, which was played just three years after Andrew Johnson declared an end to the Civil War.
Two weeks earlier, McKoy had gained 372 yards against Mass. Maritime, in a 54-53 loss. In between, against Fitchburg State, a 70-14 victory, McKoy gained a mere 226, having carried the ball just 22 times. His totals for the three games: 1,053 yards, 15 touchdowns, 9.8 yards per carry. He was a thousand-yard rusher and then some ... in three consecutive games.
For perspective, the current leading rusher in the D-I FBS is Andre Williams of Boston College, who in nine games has rushed for 1,407 yards, with 12 touchdowns and 5.9 yards per carry. Overall for the season, after eight games, McKoy has rushed for 1,679 yards with 25 touchdowns, averaging 8.6 per carry.
For further perspective, consider that exactly two Octobers back, the only numbers that mattered to Octavias McKoy were the ones on his weekly paycheck, after 40-hour weeks in the Saks Fifth Avenue Distribution Center near Aberdeen, Md., where his job was to receive an order in the warehouse, scan the designated items and have them sent to shipping.
If he runs wild in the last game against Westfield State on Saturday, McKoy could hit 2,000. But if not, there's something bigger at play going into that final game, at home, in the 2,500-seat WCSU Athletic Stadium Complex. With the sport settling into an ever deeper morass, Octavias McKoy will have stepped up to remind us how football can make a man.
* * *
Octavias? What kind of name is that? It's not like you were descended from Caesar Augustus' father, two millennia ago. "I don't know why," McKoy says, in the office relinquished by his head coach, Joe Loth, for an interview. It's a cramped space in the cluttered warren of the Colonial football offices, in a building beneath the bleachers, which face, across the field, a large swath of woods whose leaves are now turning from yellow to brown. "My uncle named me, but I never got the full story. I don't even know how he came up with it."
He is a handsome, thinly bearded, 24-year-old man, prone to smiling and saying "sir." A small earring winks out of each earlobe. Each of his wrists is wrapped by a cloth bracelet, one reading, "Ask First," the other "Respect the Answer," in support of those opposing violence against women. He has notebooks full of poetry, his other passion, and many tattoos: his astrological sign; prayers; the words "Blessed," "Respect" and "Honor;" some wings; and the names of his mother and father. He has 13 siblings -- five on his dad's side, five on his mom's side, and three step-siblings. His mom works an overnight stocking job at a Wal-Mart in Newburgh, N.Y., 45 minutes to the west. His dad, an army vet, is a driver living in Stratford, 45 minutes to the south, where Octavias grew up. As a boy, he never did come home from anywhere to a house inhabited by both parents.
"My father taught me all my lessons in life," he says, and on this day, these lessons include humility. When I ask him how he's managing to average something like a first down with every carry, he reels off the names of his six offensive linemen, left to right -- not only to be self-effacing, but also to help me understand why the highlight tapes of the Worcester State game feature at least a half-dozen long runs in which no one touches him. Literally, no one. The holes through which he runs, at a high speed, appear wide enough to warrant their own time zones.
On other runs, it's pretty much all Octavias. At the bunched-in line, he seems to slip through the eye of a needle, a step ahead of the flailing grab of defenders reaching out a microsecond too late. By then, he is already reading the rest of the field ahead of him, already planning the next juke of a befuddled cornerback; the next 20 yards are a given.
"He has vision," says Loth, out in the tiny reception area. "There's no question he's as physically gifted as any running back in the country, at almost any level -- the 40, the benches, the vertical leaps -- but what separates him is his ability to see into the second and third level as he approaches the line of scrimmage. Plus, he's a closer as a running back, which is very unusual. It's great knowing that, when a guy gets a long run, he isn't going to be tackled at the four. He closes every play out. And so he's been able to close out games."
"He's the hungriest tailback I've ever coached inside the 20," says Drew Owens, his offensive line coach. "He's gotten more touchdowns from the 15, 14, 12 than I've ever seen. That's when he breaks the tackles."
"I've been coaching 20 years," Loth says, "and he is without a question the hardest-working kid I've ever coached. In the classroom, he seeks out teachers. Off the field, he runs hills. We have to rein him in to keep him from over-training." So where does all that come from? Loth thinks for a second, offers a metaphorical shrug. Then he says, "Within."
* * *
So where did the "within" come from? Start with the lesson learned from being judged academically ineligible for the NCAA, after high school in Stratford. "I was immature," McKoy says. "As a kid, you think you have all the answers. You don't realize the people around you are trying to help you. You just think everyone's out to get you. For whatever reason. Mostly, I was immature. My grades here are fine." When you never have two parents in the same house, and you're one kid of a dozen, well, maybe the chip on your shoulder carries a little extra weight.
Then came the two seasons of college ball at Garden City (Kan.) Community College and Eastern Arizona College, where, after each coach made him play defensive back because of his athleticism, McKoy became convinced that taking a day gig in a warehouse and living with his aunt was the most realistic career path he could find, because obviously the football thing wasn't meant to be.
Then, one November night two years back, he happened to attend a party down in Baltimore after a day in the warehouse. He'd just gotten a haircut, and his bills were all paid, and he was dressed well. He was feeling good. But then, at one point, he found himself shaking the hand of one Terrell Suggs of the Baltimore Ravens, and something hit him. "I'm empty," is how he now describes his feeling at that moment. I thought, that could be me. I thought, if this is as good as it's gonna get for me, but it's not fulfilling me, I got to get back to football."
So he cleaned out the bank account, and instead of buying the car he'd been saving for, he enrolled last year in a program with a new coach, a program that had lost its previous 21 games. The Colonials endured seven more losses under Loth, whod come in in August, until McKoy scored the winning touchdown, securing their first victory since what seemed like, well, the Civil War. This year, after Loth has had a chance to do some recruiting, they're 6-2.
* * *
So how do you rush for 1,000 yards in three games? McKoy smiles. "I like to think of my game as maybe a collection of the all the people I admired growing up -- Jimmy Brown, Eric Dickerson, Barry Sanders, Emmitt Smith, Earl Campbell, O.J., Red Grange, Doc Blanchard ..." Doc Blanchard? Yes, he's been a football historian since the age of four.
But how is it that you are doing this? How are you putting up these numbers? I mean, if Loth hadn't pulled him with five or six minutes left, in a game that had been close until halfway through the fourth -- entirely unmindful of not only what the single-game record was, but how many yards McKoy had, since the Worcester State announcer wasn't paying a lot of attention -- McKoy could have hit 500.
Now he pauses, measuring the words, so as to not seem cocky. "I'm ... sharp," he says. "I'm not the biggest or heaviest. I'm just ... sharp. I have a high IQ out there. I work hard. I'm dedicated. I don't go out and try and do too much. I let everyone do their job, and collectively we all do our jobs."
The future? Unpredictable. The record McKoy broke was set in 1996 by a man named Dante Brown, who rushed for 441 for Marietta College against Baldwin-Wallace; he never played in the NFL and (last I was able to track him) apparently works for the IRS. Brown in turn had broken the record of one Maurice Hicks, who, after rushing for 437 yards for Florida A&T, journeyed through five years in the NFL before disappearing.
While possessed of biceps that challenge the stretch fabric of his long sleeved T-shirt, McKoy stands just 5-foot-10½ and weighs 195 -- but then, size need not be a handicap when you have speed -- like 5-6 Darren Sproles out of Kansas State, who scored two touchdowns last Monday night for the Saints -- or when you can break a tackle. Just ask 5-8 Danny Woodhead, out of Chadron State, who averaged 191 yards per game in D-II. After being waived as a walk-on by the Jets, he had a solid two years with Bill Belichick before signing a two-year contract this year with the Chargers -- for nearly $4 million, with incentives. Woodhead's college stadium held 3,000.
The NFL draft? "Not thinking about it," McKoy says, looking askance now, as if even bringing it up might jinx it. "I'm sticking to the game plan. I just want to live in the moment. I made the journey to being a college student, and now I don't want to pass that by, by looking ahead. That will come. Until then, I want to stay dedicated and focused and keep working."
And if the NFL doesn't happen? Now he's looking me back in the eye. "I'll always be writing poetry. But I want to be a coach. I love football. It's been my whole life since I was four. This is it. This is the path I chose. I want to be my best as a player, and then the best I can be as a coach."
OK, right, I get it -- but really, Octavias, seriously: You lead the United States of America in rushing yardage right now. He smiles. "That's not too bad," he laughs, enjoying the moment. As we should, too, for him and his game.