For Deontay McManus, Dunbar High School’s 6-foot-2, 215-pound junior wide receiver and safety, football was initially an outlet for the overflowing energy that would often land him in minor trouble at school.
“I used to get in trouble in class because I was hyper and couldn’t sit still,” said McManus. “But on the field I could release all that energy and be free to just be a boy who was running around having fun.”
His two older brothers, Darrell and Devonte, played organized football as well and from his first days strapping on the pads, he had tangible role models that he wanted to emulate.
“To me, my brothers were the best,” said McManus. “They told me they wanted me to be better than they were. I thought that was going to be pretty hard to do.”
The brothers would take Deontay out every week, giving him pointers and drills to work on that would improve his game. With only three years separating the siblings, their home would often bear the brunt of their gridiron ambitions.
“We were always rough-housing and horse-playing and my mother would always tell us to take it outside and stop breaking up her stuff,” McManus says with a chuckle.
Path to a Poet
The dividends paid off early on, as McManus began establishing a reputation as a gifted running back and linebacker with the Northeast Chargers Recreation league team. He was unquestionably one of the top players in his age group throughout the state, starting from the age of eight.
As a middle school student who was on the radar of every high school football coach in the area, McManus attended a Dunbar football game. Watching Tavon Austin, Dunbar’s prolific running back who now owns every major offensive statistical record in Maryland state history (most points, touchdowns, total offensive yards and rushing yards) made a deep impact on him. He felt a deep connection with the Poets’ hunger and winning tradition.
While many waited to see what school he would decide to attend and play for, McManus knew early on that he wanted to wear Dunbar’s maroon and gold.
As a freshman, he spent the majority of the season destroying the competition on the junior varsity level as the Poets’ varsity went 14-0 and won the Class 1A state championship.
“He could have played on the varsity as a freshman from day one, but we were so deep and talented, coming off back-to-back state championships, that we wanted him to go down [to junior varsity] and get some playing time,” said Dunbar coach Lawrence Smith. “But we knew that if he needed to, that he could come up and perform.”
During the playoffs in 2008, Dunbar lost two linebackers to serious injuries. Without a moment of hesitation, McManus was inserted into the starting lineup against Catoctin in the state semifinals.
“We knew it would be a lot for him to handle because we were a number one seed gunning for our third state title in a row,” said Smith. “We placed him at outside linebacker, closest to our sideline, so we could talk to him throughout the game. But we knew he could do it physically. Once he got his feet wet, he handled himself well.”
Austin, who was putting an exclamation point on his phenomenal career as a senior, along with the other Poet players, encouraged McManus throughout the practices and playoff games of the 2008 championship run.
“I was nervous and worried about how I was going to do, but Tavon and the other guys told me that I was going to play well and not too think to much,” said McManus. “They told me to just play my game and that they’d always be out there with me. That really motivated me.”
McManus celebrated Dunbar’s 2008 state title victory over Fort Hill as an integral part of their defense. He collected seven solo tackles and forced a fumble in the Poets’ 20-19 victory. He could hardly believe that not only was he a state champion, but that he was also playing on the same M&T Bank field patrolled by Baltimore Raven legends Ed Reed and Ray Lewis.
Doing a reverse
Heading into summer practice before his sophomore campaign last year, McManus expected to follow in Austin’s footsteps as Dunbar’s next great running back. He’d excelled carrying the ball on junior varsity and had thrived at the position since his very first day playing the sport.
But the Poets coaching staff had to sell him on a switch to two new positions – wide receiver and safety. He had no problem moving back to play safety on defense, but running back was not initially met with open arms.
“We talked to him about where his biggest upside was,” said Smith. “He didn’t want to do it at first because he’d had so much success at running back going all the way back to Pop Warner.”
“Ever since I was little, people were telling me that I was the best running back they ever saw,” said McManus. “So it was hard for me to break out of that shell. But we didn’t really have a lot of weapons at the receiver position. The coaches told me that as the best athlete on the team, I could get the job done.”
After giving it some thought and realizing that he gave Dunbar its best chance to defend its championship by playing receiver, McManus embraced the change. He became fully convinced in last year’s season-opening-victory against Randallstown, when he caught eight passes for over 200 yards and three touchdowns.
On defense, his anticipation in the passing game and physical presence against the run are a nightmare for opposing teams.
But McManus’ impact goes much further than stats.
“He’s a great leader,” said Smith. “When you’re the best player on the team and getting all the national attention, you’re going to see all of the double and triple-teams. But Deontay is not worried about stats. The great thing about him is that he just wants to win.”
When asked about the favorite memories of his varsity career, he doesn’t mention one-handed catches, last year’s 10-interception total, the yards or touchdowns he’s accumulated.
“My favorite part has been putting on that Dunbar uniform, because so many great players and people have put it on before me,” he said. “It means so much to me because I want to keep that tradition going. I consider it an honor.”
His biggest disappointment came when the Poets lost to Catoctin in last year’s state semi-finals. It was a constant source of motivation at various summer camps and 7-on 7 showcases, where his performances registered high marks in some of the country’s top college recruiting offices.
“I worked ten times as hard this summer because I don’t want to experience losing in the playoffs again,” said McManus.
That work ethic, combined with his physical presence, can be confusing to some.
“When people look at Deontay and see his size, they think he’s a grown man,” said Smith. “He just turned 16. He’s just a kid. But he’s a pure athlete. Instead of training for a high school game, people would think he’s getting ready for a pro combine because of his body.
When you see what he does on the field, it’s evident that he has what it takes to play well at the next level, as long as he stays humble and continues to put in the work to get there.”
Alabama, Virginia, Virginia Tech, M
aryland, West Virginia, Connecticut, Penn State, South Carolina, Rutgers and other schools on the growing list of those recruiting should not worry.
With Austin, who’s achieving success as a wide receiver at West Virginia, and other former teammates who are playing D-I football in his ear, McManus is already incorporating the lessons that the Poets before him are now learning in college.
While some top level recruits may revel in their high school celebrity, it’s doubtful that McManus will get off track. In addition to becoming a better player, he also has other plans.
“I’m not into parties and I stay close to my family because, at the end of the day, they are the ones who are going to be in my corner,” said McManus. “I’m always working with my younger brother, motivating him, teaching him things and telling him that I want him to be better than me. My older brothers did it for me, so now it’s time for me to step up. The fact that he looks up to me motivates me. I have to be an example and do things the right way to lead him down the right path.”
His eight-year-old brother, Devin, is now tearing up rec leagues around the area as a running back and linebacker.
It’s pretty safe to say that his big brother, Deontay, has already cleared a pretty promising path.