Look at the numbers, and it’s not hard to see that this year has been remarkable for Wash High running back Shai McKenzie.
He’s broken Brian Davis’ school record for rushing, been the WPIAL’s top back all season and set the area’s single-season mark. McKenzie also helped the Wash High football team to its first undefeated regular season since 2001.
But as amazing as this ride has been for McKenzie, two years ago it wasn’t any more likely than a run for president or landing a spaceship, with the 6-0, 215-pound junior trying to find his niche at fullback, defensive end, linebacker and even tight end.
The adjustment to high school football was so difficult for McKenzie that he quit the team in a huff, only to ask for his spot back a day later.
“It actually helped me become a better leader,” McKenzie said of his freshman year struggles with immaturity. “I knew at that point I had to change my attitude and be a respectful player.”
Asked what it’s like these days reflecting on that Shai McKenzie – and not the one who’s become a quasi-celebrity around Washington – and the polite, soft-spoken McKenzie doesn’t know what to say.
“It happens to a lot of people, I guess,” McKenzie said. “But it was a childish move that I made that I had to overcome.”
Wash High (12-0) will play Aliquippa Friday at Heinz Field for the WPIAL Class AA title, and one of the primary reasons has been the maturation of McKenzie, who has 2,656 yards and 41 touchdowns.
How respected is McKenzie around the WPIAL? Well, the head coach of the 14-time champion Quips jokingly offered to find him an apartment if he ever wanted to leave.
“He’s a Division I running back. How many of those do we have around here?” Aliquippa coach Mike Zmijanac said. “He’s a big, strong kid who runs really fast, and he’s tough. What is there to dislike?
“We can get him an apartment in Aliquippa if he ever decided to move. It’s not a problem. We’ll find a place for him. Just in case he decided he wants to do that, we’d take him tomorrow.”
‘Aren’t you Shai McKenzie?’
McKenzie had what should likely be considered the best game of his career against South Fayette in the WPIAL Class AA semifinals: 42 carries, 293 yards, four touchdowns.
The obvious motivation was a trip to Heinz Field, but for McKenzie, there was more.
McKenzie lives in Washington with his father, Sean, while his mother, Misty Nolder, and younger sister Shaniah live in Decatur, Ga.
Misty and Shaniah – along with Misty’s dad, an aunt and two cousins – traveled to Chartiers Valley for the game, which was only the third time Misty has seen Shai play.
“She was going to come to Heinz Field, but I told her, ‘I don’t know, we might not make it.’ “ Shai McKenzie said. “I wanted her to see a good performance and hopefully see us make it to Heinz.”
After running wild during Wash High’s 26-14 win over South Fayette, the rest of the weekend turned out to be an interesting one for McKenzie, with a Sunday family dinner at Ponderosa, where, yet again, he was stopped and reminded that, “Oh my God, you’re Shai McKenzie.”
“I don’t want to sound cocky, but pretty much anywhere I go around here, I get recognized,” McKenzie said, careful to not want that to sound like a bad thing. “I did a fundraiser last week for a community softball team, and I took two pictures, signed some autographs. It was pretty fun.”
Of course, some might say McKenzie is a glutton for punishment. He worked at a voting center on election night, transporting equipment from place to place for a school program.
“They came up to me and said, ‘Aren’t you Shai McKenzie?’ ” McKenzie explained. “‘Oh, we’ve got a special job for you’.”
‘Two against the world’
Shai and Sean McKenzie have lived together since 2004. Sean McKenzie stockpiles vacation time at Sherwood Valve, where he has worked for about seven years, in order to make it to all of Shai’s sporting events. Besides football, he has run track and played basketball.
Sean McKenzie, who also coached his son in basketball, estimates that since second grade, when Shai started playing football, he has missed four games.
“It’s been two against the world,” Sean McKenzie said. “I just made sure I was always there so he would have somebody there.”
Sean told a story of Shai’s youth football days – funny, yet indicative of his love for the game.
“In grade school, practice didn’t start until 5 o’clock, but he was ready at 3:30 p.m.,” Sean McKenzie said. “He would have all of his equipment on, just waiting for practice, just sitting in the house. He couldn’t wait to get on the field.
“He had an afro; he would be combing his hair. He would watch cartoons, in his uniform and all his pads. He’d even put his helmet on. I would tell him to take that stuff off. He would take it off for a little bit, then I would look back in the room, and he’d have right back on again. He’d be eating peaches through his helmet.”
‘He’s always been a talent’
Shai McKenzie’s love for football hasn’t changed, but it did take a serious hit two years ago. And not the type he was trying to deliver at defensive end or linebacker while struggling to make his mark.
After he quit the team, Shai and Sean had a “major blowup.” Dad and son screamed at each other. Sean McKenzie told Shai that he wasn’t a quitter and had to figure out a way to finish the year. After that, they’d re-evaluate. Shai McKenzie asked to be reinstated the next day and got his wish, but by that time questions about his attitude began swirling.
“The expectations for Shai have always been through the roof,” Wash High coach Mike Bosnic said. “He’s always been a talent. He was always going to be the next Brian Davis. But he had to learn how to do things.”
The transformation may have began during a 34-14 loss to Seton-La Salle in Week 3 of McKenzie’s sophomore year. After breaking off a long touchdown run in the first half, McKenzie finished with more than 100 yards, the type of explosive running that’s now taken for granted.
Confidence was restored. Practices became easy. The true Shai McKenzie emerged.
He accumulated 1,202 yards and 17 touchdowns as a sophomore before putting up numbers that, as Sean McKenzie put it, are “out of hand” this season – touchdowns that average 37.4 yards, nine 200-yard games, 754 yards and 11 touchdowns in three playoff games.
“He always had the physical skills,” Sean McKenzie said. “We just had to fix the mental part of it. The attitude wasn’t always there. He, at times, didn’t want to work as hard at practice, and that kind of messed him up along the way, especially when he was a freshman.
“As his attitude got better, he started maturing a little bit more. Then the mental aspect got a little better, and his physical play got a little better.”
The result has McKenzie cutting through mail the way he cuts through defenses, often upward of 50 letters per day, along with near-constant communication with recruiters, reporters and fans on Facebook, Twitter and through text message.
McKenzie holds scholarship offers from Pitt, Maryland, Connecticut, Youngstown State, Toledo, Purdue and Duke, with many more sure to follow after the season. He and Sean both say he will stretch the recruiting process out as long as possible, acknowledging that an offer from an SEC school – down south, great football, near family – could be a game-changer.
It’s a good problem to have. And one that seemed nearly impossible when McKenzie wanted to give up football for good.
“He’s gone from a guy that was immature and had a questionable attitude to a guy that has actually become a leader and has a positive attitude,” Bosnic said. “A lot of guys look up to him. He’s been a great leader for our team.”