McKinley-Lewis selects Toledo

Published Jul 10, 2014 at 3:03 pm (Updated Jul 10, 2014 at 3:03 pm)

Danzel McKinley-Lewis never played football until his junior year in high school. This autumn, however, the Seton-La Salle rising senior is expected to be one of the premier players in the WPIAL.

“I expect [Danzel] to be the best player in our conference, if not in all of Class AA,” said SLS head coach Damon Rosol. “This young man hasn’t even scratched the surface of where he could be as a football player.”

Indeed, in his first varsity season, McKinley-Lewis hauled in 40 passes for 791 yards and eight touchdowns. He has set his sights on many more receptions for at least 1,000 yards, plus all-state acclaim.

“But,” said the 17-year-old son of Sharon Lewis and Daniel McKinley. “It’s a team sport. You can’t do it by yourself. My total goal is to help the team win a state title.”

In 2013, at the behest of former coach Greg Perry, McKinley-Lewis helped the Rebels to an 8-3 record, a third-place finish in the Century Conference and an appearance in the quarterfinals of the district playoffs. Prior to football, baseball had been his sport for 15 years. McKinley-Lewis even helped the Rebels reach the WPIAL Class AA finals this spring.

“My dad,” McKinley-Lewis began. “He was a big influence on me. He introduced me to baseball. I have been playing it for 15 years but last year, Coach Perry convinced me to play [football]. He sat me down and said that we live in Western Pennsylvania and not too many players from here get recruited for baseball.”

After his sensational season, McKinley-Lewis discovered Perry was right. Recruiters flocked to the 6-foot, 180-pound wide receiver. Ohio University, Pitt, West Virginia, Kent State, Notre Dame College, Towson State and Buffalo bombarded him with their pitches.

However, McKinley-Lewis picked Toledo. Not only have the Rockets produced Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Bruce Gradowski, a former SLS Rebel, Toledo coach Matt Campbell has placed two slot backs – Eric Page (Tampa Bay) and Cecil Shorts (Jacksonville) – in the NFL.

Of his choice, McKinley-Lewis said, “I felt at home at Toledo and I liked the coaches and their offensive style and the fact two receivers ended up in the NFL. I liked the way I was treated by the people there, the coaches and the players. It felt like family.”

In addition to the school’s location, a three-hour ride from Pittsburgh, and the team’s offensive skill, persistence paid off for the Rockets, says Rosol. “Basically,” said the SLS field general, “Toledo let him know that he was a top priority for them and that helped sway his decision.”

In the 2014 scheme of things at SLS, McKinley-Lewis is a top priority. In addition to playing ‘all over the place’ on the offensive side of the ball, Rosol says, McKinley-Lewis will play free safety on defense. In fact, Rosol told some college coaches that McKinley-Lewis could be a ‘real good’ safety. “But,” Rosol added, “his heart is on the offensive side of the ball.”

McKinley-Lewis’s heart is in his craft, too. “He works his tail off every day to get better,” Rosol said. Currently, McKinley-Lewis is playing both outside and in the slot, which in SLS’s offense means mastering the intricacies of nearly 25 routes. Some he has grasped. Some he is still fine-tuning. Because of his exceptional skills, Rosol predicts, McKinley-Lewis will be successful by the start of the season.

“Right now,” he said, “Danzel’s strengths are his explosiveness and ball skills. He really tracks the ball well and snatches it when given an opportunity.”

McKinley-Lewis credits baseball for his ability to adapt so easily to football. He’s been an all-section center fielder for the past two seasons for the Rebels, who finished 15-7 overall this spring after falling to Franklin, 7-2, in the first round of the state playoffs.

“Baseball helps with football but not so much the other way around,” McKinley-Lewis said. “Baseball helps my hand-eye coordination and when I’m chasing down the ball and adjusting to a throw.”

The sport will also help McKinley-Lewis in high-pressure contests. His experience in the WPIAL finals this spring, when the Rebels let a three-run lead slip into a 6-5 loss with two outs in the last inning, sticks with him. “I don’t want that feeling again,” he said. While baseball will help him handle the pressure of a playoff run in football, McKinley-Lewis added that ‘win or lose, it’s still just a game. “You can’t win every game. Life happens,” he said. “Yes, you are upset and you can use that feeling [to your benefit] but there are more important things in life. God, family and friends are more important than one baseball game.”

Since sports are secondary to life, McKinley-Lewis focuses on his studies. Because of his mother’s influence, he said, academics are vital to him and that is why he applies himself and his mind. In fact, McKinley-Lewis scored a 2600 on one of his college entrance exams. While he favors everything Baltimore—he’s a fan of Orioles center fielder Adam Jones and Ravens wide receiver Jacoby Jones—McKinley-Lewis does plan to major in criminal justice should a NFL career not pan out for him.

“I would love to play for the Ravens in the NFL,” he said. “I have liked the Ravens ever since I have been young because everything here is about the Steelers. I like that the Ravens give the Steelers a challenge.”

A challenge is what McKinley-Lewis will give opponents today and long into the future, predicts Rosol.

“Once he learns and understands what is expected of him as a Division I athlete, the sky is the limit for Danzel,” said Rosol. “The young man hasn’t even scratched the surface of where he could be as a football player.”

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