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Thursday, February 21, 2013
McKenzie revitalizes Pennsylvania town

By Jared Shanker

WASHINGTON, Pa. -- The building sits no more than a mile from the highway, but the short distance between Washington High School and Interstate 70 provides insight into a community hurting to hold onto its proud traditions.

The severe coal mining decline in Western Pennsylvania hit the blue-collar community hard, and Jefferson Avenue, the state highway between the school and interstate, is lined with several struggling or boarded up businesses.

“We’re kind of a downtrodden community,” Mike Bosnic said. “A lot of the businesses have packed up and left. But we’re one of those coal towns where football still means a lot.”

So when Shai McKenzie quit the football team for a 24-hour period during his freshman season in 2010, he had an entire town to make it up to.

“You can’t really quit on your teammates and community,” McKenzie said.

In the two years since, the 2014 running back has become one of Pennsylvania’s best players. As a junior, he rushed for 2,689 yards and 42 touchdowns and the likes of Arkansas, Michigan, Tennessee and Wisconsin highlight his 22 offers.

Looking back, McKenzie regrets his decision to quit the team, even if it only lasted a day. He called his decision “childish.”

But growing up, the now 5-foot-11, 212-pound McKenzie was over the weight limit for ball carriers in Pop Warner football, so he was forced to play the offensive line. He still managed to find his way into the end zone on defense, playing middle linebacker and creating a knack for stripping opponents and returning it for scores.

He wanted to play running back, though, and high school would be his chance.

Starting on junior varsity as a freshman, McKenzie often topped 200 and even 300 rushing yards in games. It was too easy. He wanted to be in the varsity backfield. Mike Bosnic, the varsity coach, kept McKenzie on the sidelines. Physically, McKenzie was already one of the best players in Western Pennsylvania, but mentally and emotionally he needed to adjust, Bosnic said.

“I wanted to run the ball, and they stopped me from running the ball in middle school for being so big,” McKenzie said, “so I was so pumped every game to just get in, and I never got the shot.”

The playing time never came, and after leaving the team McKenzie had to work his way back up. He spent the rest of the season and offseason putting in extra work in the weight room and classroom, and Bosnic said McKenzie is one of his most motivated players in both areas.

The third game of his sophomore season, Washington’s starting fullback was ruled ineligible for the game, leaving the spot open for McKenzie. He rushed for close to 100 yards against Clairton, which has the nation’s longest current winning streak at 63 games and finished 2012 with a fourth straight state title. McKenzie finished the season with 1,200 yards rushing and would land his first offers before his junior season started.

All the individual accolades were getting McKenzie on the recruiting map. He had the offers and the interest, with Florida State the most recent big-time program to begin courting McKenzie. The comparisons began pouring in to Washington great Brian Davis, the 1984 PARADE co-national player of the year and widely considered one of the best Pittsburgh area athletes ever.

But that small, blue-collar coal town of Washington was still looking for winner, a rallying point for a town battling a declining population and rising crime rate. It was a community still reeling from the October murder of Tim McNerney, a local college football player at Washington & Jefferson College.

Wash High, which was coming off its worse stretch in its more than 100-year history, would finish the 2012  regular season undefeated for the first time since 2001. The Prexies went all the way to Heinz Field -- a Western Pennsylvania mecca -- and played for a WPIAL championship.

“It definitely was uplifting for a community,” said Kevin Gorman, a high school football columnist with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “It’s Wash High, and it has a long and proud community for football, great history and they’ve been down for years, and the town rallied around the team. It definitely had a unifying effect, and Shai was the catalyst.”

Bosnic, who has spent his entire life in the Pittsburgh area, said it “breathed some life into this community.”

“It brought back the pride in the community,” he said. “The old-timers once again were talking about that great football player and Wash High football.”

Freshman year is a distant memory. All is forgiven, Shai.