AUBURN, Ala. — When Auburn running back Onterio McCalebb speaks about his mother, he does so with cautious hope.
Hope that some day she can put her drug-addled past behind her, that his presumptive NFL career can provide her with the things she’s never had in life, that, at the very least, she will be in attendance at Auburn’s A-Day scrimmage this afternoon to witness McCalebb play football for the first time in her life.
“It means everything to me,” McCalebb said, confident she will be part of the large contingent from Fort Meade, Fla., making the 500-mile trek north.
The 19-year-old McCalebb, a mid-year transfer from Hargrave Military Academy, inspires hope, having escaped the drug culture and street life of Fort Meade to set in motion a college football career he hopes will get him the NFL riches he needs to help those he left behind.
“It’s great that he never turned to the streets, never became that kid who got on drugs and just lost all ambition in life, because really, he had every outlet to do it,” said Bryan Bailey, a mentor to McCalebb who was Fort Meade’s co-defensive coordinator and track coach.
McCalebb’s parents were infrequent players in his life, his mother, Staphisa McMillian, involved with drugs, his father, Derrick Baker, having served a prison sentence. It led to an unstable upbringing in Fort Meade, a small town of just over 5,000 about an hour’s drive to the southeast of Tampa.
McCalebb grew up in a trailer with his mom and four siblings. The man whose surname he shares, DeWayne McCalebb, is not his father, a fact he didn’t learn until the fourth grade, when he was forcibly taken from his mother for her continued drug problems. He moved in with his grandmother and finally met his biological father, who would go back to jail for a probation violation soon thereafter.
He bounced around from place to place throughout high school, living with teammates and relatives while staying away from the drugs and alcohol that ruined his parents’ lives, finally finding an outlet in football.
McCalebb has always been fast. When he played flag football growing up, nobody could catch him. He qualified for the Florida state track meet in the 100- and 200-meter dash as a sophomore, winning three state titles in those two events by the end of his high school career. But after returning two kickoffs for touchdowns in a state playoff game his sophomore year, McCalebb quickly realized football was a way out, a chance to escape his impoverished upbringing and provide for his mother and siblings.
Colleges began to take notice after he ran a 4.32 40-yard dash at an Ole Miss football camp his junior year. Others did too, hangers-on who wanted a piece of his future.
Enter Bailey, a former Fort Meade offensive lineman whose Florida State career was cut short in 2000 by a shoulder injury. He took the budding star under his wing, the two growing so close that many people referred to McCalebb as “Onterio Bailey.”
Bailey warned McCalebb of the people who would try to find any connection to latch on to his success, remembering an early encounter with a woman who approached McCalebb at a track meet once his name began to surface in recruiting reports.
“Sure enough, here’s this lady, ‘I’m your daddy’s momma’s second cousin’s third whatever from this and that,’” Bailey said. “And I started laughing to myself thinking, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’”
McCalebb’s stock continued to rise throughout a senior season in which he ran for 1,995 yards and 27 touchdowns, establishing himself as a legitimate prospect in talent-rich Florida.
But he still didn’t have structure in his life. Bailey remembered numerous occasions when he’d receive a phone call at 11 p.m. from McCalebb, in need of dinner and a ride to wherever he was staying that night.
Although his recruitment picked up — he bypassed offers from nearby schools like Florida and committed to West Virginia before Rich Rodriguez bolted for Michigan, changing his pick to Rutgers before ultimately choosing Auburn — he failed to qualify academically.
To make the grade, he left the temptations of Fort Meade for the bucolic setting of Chatham, Va., home of Hargrave Military Academy.
“It was a shock,” McCalebb said. “Most people there, they’re a long way from home. Times get hard. You can’t have a cell phone, no microwave, no refrigerator. You can’t bring no outside clothes. No car. It’s a 24-hour-a-day experience.”
His hometown folks were skeptical he could stand the day-to-day test of a military environment, confident he would be back walking the streets in Fort Meade like so many had before. But McCalebb embraced his new-found structure, engaging in conversations about life with a new mentor, Hargrave coach Robert Prunty.
“He started to respect other people, giving them the respect they deserved,” Prunty said. “And he stopped being bitter with his life, because his life hadn’t gone the way he wanted it to go. He started to move on. He started to look at the good things instead of the bad.”
Once loud, brash and obnoxious, the kind of person you would hear coming before you saw him, McCalebb returned to Fort Meade a changed man. When McCalebb flew back for homecoming, Bailey remembered the running back approaching him, still dressed in his army boots and Hargrave shirt from the plane ride.
“The old Onterio would be yelling and laughing and loud and kind of obnoxious, but he just came up and the first thing he did was shake my hand,” Bailey said. “To a lot of people it didn’t really seem that different. … I could tell just by how he carried himself, how much more mature he got at that little bit of time that he was at Hargrave.”
Ready for action
McCalebb transferred to Auburn in January in order to participate in spring drills, intriguing teammates and coaches from the outset with his speed by reeling off long runs during almost every scrimmage.
“This kid can do it all,” Prunty said. “He can be a receiver. He can be a running back. He can be a punt or kick returner. He’s one of the most athletic kids we’ve ever had (at Hargrave).”
But McCalebb doesn’t want to just be a speed back. Bailey used to chide him about running out of bounds at every opportunity in high school, but he was shocked when he saw McCalebb’s Hargrave highlight video, which showed the 5-foot-10, 165-pounder darting up the middle, lowering his shoulder and driving into defenders.
McCalebb idolizes former Auburn running back Cadillac Williams (“He was the man,” McCalebb said), a similarly diminutive back who wasn’t afraid of contact.
“People always called me small,” McCalebb said. “It ain’t all about the size. If you’ve got the heart, you can do anything.”
Proving them wrong
After all, McCalebb has spent a lifetime trying to prove the doubters wrong. Throughout high school, he’d race any challengers. One time, given a slight head start, he went head-to-head for 100 yards against Bailey’s Chevrolet Silverado. They still disagree about who won the photo finish.
During the recruiting process, when Clemson filled a need by locking down a commitment from Jacksonville, Fla., running back Jamie Harper because he had more size, McCalebb, who was also in consideration, took it as a personal affront, chomping at the bit when Auburn and Clemson squared off in the 2007 Chick-fil-A bowl.
“He was like, ‘I wish I could put the pads on and run by the coaches and just wave at them as I scored a touchdown,’” Bailey said. “If you doubt him for a second, he can’t wait to prove you wrong.”
It’s why McCalebb hopes — prays — to see his mom’s face in the crowd during A-Day, an upset if there ever was one.
She’s his motivation for getting to the NFL as soon as possible, two years from now, three if necessary. He’ll do anything to get her off the streets for good, despite having gotten little, if anything, in return.
“He loves her so much, and maybe he shouldn’t care as much as he does, but it’s his mom, so he does everything for her,” Bailey said. “I hope she does make it up there, because he deserves to have that pride of having his mom sit there and watch him.”