Monessen’s Justice Rawlins dropped to one knee in the end zone at Chartiers Houston High School. He held his head in his hands and wept for several minutes. The Greyhounds had just lost, 35-6, to Neshannock, and Rawlins’ senior football season had come to an end.
After Monessen defeated Class A powerhouse Clairton Sept. 20, expectations were lofty. Rawlins and his fellow seniors thought their hard work would translate into a trip to Heinz Field and, ultimately, a WPIAL title.
Rawlins, a 6-1 senior, was all too accustomed to disappointment. As a freshman linebacker for the Greyhounds in the fall of 2010, his 99 tackles, five interceptions and two touchdowns earned him a spot on the MaxPreps Freshman All-America Football Team. His reputation as a hard-nosed tackler and leader earned him scholarship offers from Rutgers, Pitt, Akron, Kent State, Cincinnati and West Virginia.
As his older brother, Chavas, garnered Division-I attention as a quarterback, it was the younger Rawlins whose future seemed destined for greatness. That all changed during Monessen’s second football scrimmage in 2011, when Justice caught a simple flat pass from his older brother. He took a hit to his knee and suffered tears in his ACL and MCL.
His sophomore season was over and the scholarship offers he had been receiving dried up. Nobody wanted to take a chance on a 15-year-old kid with devastating knee injury.
“Once that knee injury came, all of that interest went away,” Rawlins said. “It was hard for me, especially as a sophomore. I had to get my mind set that not everything happens the way you want it to.”
He returned for his junior and senior seasons on the football field but the scholarship offers were gone. Always seen as the short, stocky younger brother of Chavas, who is now a freshman wide receiver at Duquesne, Justice has always had a chip on his shoulder. While a WPIAL title escaped him in football, he has a chance at redemption in basketball.
A stand-out forward for the Greyhounds’ basketball squad, averaging 10 points and nine rebounds per game, Rawlins and Monessen will face No. 2 Vincentian Academy tonight at Montour High School with a trip to the Class A championship game on the line. Tip-off is 8 p.m.
The Greyhounds have five seniors ready to redeem that unexpected football defeat.
“We keep reminding ourselves that we don’t want to go back to what we did in football, and we actually want to make it to the championship in basketball, especially since we have a legitimate chance to go for the ring,” Rawlins said.
Game after game, as Monessen went undefeated against Class A competition during the regular season, it was Rawlins who was the steady leader. Never shy about showing emotion, especially against a tough opponent such as Clairton, he attributes his attitude to his older brother and the immense pressure he undertook after that All-America season in 2010.
“What Justice brings is the desire to win,” Monessen head coach Joe Salvino said. “He is a kid who doesn’t give up. He’s our leader as far as trying to get the team motivated and getting them going to where we have to be. I think the kids respond to him very well. He’s the rock of our team.”
Rawlins clears the lane for Monessen, allowing fellow seniors Clintell Gillaspie and Javon Brown to drive for uncontested layups. His rebounding prowess creates second-chance opportunities for the Greyhounds, and even when he is on the bench in foul trouble, Rawlins does not hang his head. Rawlins is active in the game, motivating his teammates with instructions and clapping at every Monessen basket.
National signing day passed without Rawlins participating, but that does not mean his football career will end. California has been in contact with a spot available. After Penn State hired coach James Franklin to replace Bill O’Brien, the Nittany Lions’ staff called Rawlins to offer him a chance to walk on. Other schools in Ohio and West Virginia are interested in him playing baseball, a sport some say is his best.
To Rawlins, it does not matter where he ends up. He is out to prove the six Division-I football programs wrong that turned their back on him.
“Wherever I land, I promise I’m going to make a big impact and all of the schools who stopped looking at me will say, ‘Geez, we wish we wouldn’t have.’”
Until then, Rawlins is focused on Vincentian.
While some were picking Clairton to upset the Royals in the semifinals, he hoped it would not happen. He wanted a shot at Vincentian, which averages 90.9 points per game.
“You have to beat the best team to be the best team, and I think we have something to prove,” Rawlins said.