Gorman: McKenzie not shy about comparisons
Shai McKenzie grew up in Washington, where watching Wash High play football and dreaming of becoming the Little Prexies' next great running back is a rite of passage.
McKenzie knew that rushing for 200-plus yards in three of the first four games this season — at a 15.5-yard clip — would bring inevitable comparisons to Brian Davis, the 1984 PARADE co-national player of the year and one of the greatest all-around athletes in WPIAL history.
“I'm sure that I've heard that innumerable times,” said Guy Montecalvo, who coached Wash High from 1980-2002. “We've had that comparison made whether we had Aaron Gatten or Travis Thomas or Keith Malone or Steve Pirris or E.J. Barfield.
“That's the standard that they were measured by. I'm not sure there's ever been a better one, to tell the truth.”
McKenzie has heard as much from his own father, who was a teammate of Davis on the WPIAL and PIAA basketball champions. Sean McKenzie has shown his son the YouTube video, The Legend of Brian Davis, a compilation of grainy game films where Davis displayed an explosive combination of speed and power along with a devastating spin move.
“He was the best I've ever seen,” Sean McKenzie said of Davis, “the best there ever was.”
That sentiment is echoed by Mark Wise, who played quarterback in the same backfield with Davis and whose son, Josh, now plays quarterback in the same backfield with McKenzie.
“Shai McKenzie is a good back — he's got power, speed and decent vision — but Brian Davis was the ultimate back,” Mark Wise said. “At Penn State, I played with D.J. Dozier and against Paul Palmer and Allen Pinkett. They all played in the NFL, and nobody among them had the vision and ability to cut on a dime like Brian Davis.”
The story should end there for Shai McKenzie, if only he were shy about being compared to Davis. But McKenzie, a 6-foot, 215-pound junior, isn't at all. He not only embraces such talk but has set his sights on breaking Davis' school rushing record.
“I heard a lot about him when I was a kid,” McKenzie said. “My dad always talked about how great he was. He always told me he was the best running back he ever saw and didn't think there was ever going to be another running back like that at Washington.
“I want to be on his level, to be great like that. It motivates me to get better and try to be better than him.”
McKenzie had 2,276 career yards entering Friday's game against Jeannette, which already put him more than halfway to Davis' 4,480 yards.
“The thing about Shai is he's a tremendous talent,” Wash High coach Mike Bosnic said. “Probably for a long time he's been told he has the chance to be as great as Brian Davis. He's smart enough to be able to handle that, keep it all in perspective and remain grounded.
“The thing with Shai that stands out to me, he has all the characteristics: great agility and quickness, great overall speed, and he's strong and explosive. He has all the qualities of a great running back. As good as he's done so far, there's still some things he hasn't shown yet.”
McKenzie showed all of those qualities on the Little Prexies' first drive, finishing with a determined 4-yard touchdown. He had a 70-yard scoring run negated by a holding penalty, yet still crossed the century mark (104 yards on 24 carries) with a 9-yard touchdown run at 7:23 of the fourth quarter. Then with 19.1 seconds left, he recovered a blocked punt and raced 47 yards to score the winning points in Wash High's 18-15 victory.
Did Brian Davis ever do that?
McKenzie did this with Pitt linebackers coach Chris Haering watching from the sidelines. The Panthers have offered a scholarship, along with Duke, Purdue, Toledo and Youngstown State, and Bosnic believes McKenzie will soon be a national-level recruit.
“He may very well be one of those guys we talk about around here for a long, long time, like a Brian Davis or Rushel Shell,” Bosnic said. “He's that good.”
Well, maybe not that good.
But, as Shai McKenzie knows, being mentioned in the same breath as WPIAL legends isn't necessarily a bad thing.
Kevin Gorman is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at email@example.com or 412-320-7812.