Photo by Brian Paglia / Locust Grove junior wide receiver Cortez McDowell is averaging 24.6 yards per catch so far this season. It’s that big-play ability that’s attracted the attention of colleges like N.C. State and Syracuse.
LOCUST GROVE — All around Cortez McDowell are reminders of why he’s played so hard this season.
He thinks about his brother, C.J., a former baseball player at Ola, who had to give up the sport in college after having heart surgery.
He especially plays with the memory of Forrest Jones, the former Locust Grove offensive lineman who died before last season, ever present in his mind.
“We make sure we do everything for our partner Forrest Jones,” McDowell said. “We keep him in our spirits a lot. ... Forrest never took a play off.”
So McDowell doesn’t either now. He can’t. Not with all of Locust Grove looking to him as a team captain. Not with the Wildcats needing his big-play ability on both offense and defense. Not with college coaches starting to take notice.
Three games into the season, the 6-foot-2, 200-pound junior has emerged as one of Henry County’s most exciting and versatile players, one that defenses and fans alike can’t help but watch.
Take last Friday against Morrow. All McDowell did was catch the longest touchdown pass in school history, a 97-yard strike from quarterback Keenan Wise. He finished the game with two catches for 111 yards and the touchdown. He rushed twice for 22 yards and a touchdown. He even completed a 21-yard pass to Wise.
On the year, McDowell has caught 14 passes for 345 yards, and five touchdowns, for a whopping 24.6 yards per catch.
But McDowell is most excited about Locust Grove’s 2-1 start, the best in school history.
After disappointing consecutive 2-8 seasons, things are feeling different so far this season.
“It’s a whole different vibe,” McDowell said. “We’re in the locker room throwing water at each other acting like we’re 5 years old again. We get out. We bond a lot. ... Everybody out here loves each other.”
McDowell has loved the game of football — and been good at it — ever since he can remember. As a member of a youth football team from North Henry that included current high school stars Alejandro Bennifield (Lovejoy), Keyante Green (ELCA), Taurean Ferguson (Jonesboro) and Cameron Sutton (Jonesboro), McDowell got used to winning and being surrounded by exceptional talent.
That changed when the Atlanta native entered Locust Grove. The Wildcats were brand new and played like it during their first two varsity seasons.
But the hype of a more promising season began to build this offseason. It was clear Wise was developing into one of the top quarterbacks in the county, and when McDowell was verbally offered scholarships by N.C. State and Syracuse, the Wildcats seemed to get a little bit bigger on the map.
Despite his production on offense, McDowell was offered scholarships on the merit of his defensive talent. The junior is the team’s starting safety.
“Whatever college I go to, however I can help the team, that’s what I want to do,” McDowell said. “It’s just a great thing to make it to college, because there’s a lot of people who talk about going but never end up making it.
“I just want to make it to that level. Whatever I play, I’m going to play it my best.”
That’s the same pledge he’s made this season. To live up to his team captain status. To help Locust Grove shed its “new school” reputation. To bring a winning season and playoff appearance to the Wildcats for the first time ever.
A win at home Friday against Spalding (1-0-1) would give Locust Grove its most wins in the school’s brief history and start to get the Wildcats a little more recognition.
“We want everybody to fear us,” McDowell said. “These last two games we’ve come out like we’re a new team, like we’re a team that’s going to come out and compete. We just have to strap them on like everybody else does and go play on Friday nights.”