Leon McQuay -1971-73, 77 - University of Tampa
Words used to describe the extraordinary rise with thoughts of the talent that was Leon McQuay, a rare blend of speed, grace and power whose ability on the field magnified his personality off it. Tempestuous. Moody. These words also described McQuay whose 14-year career was dotted with controversy. Former NFL quarterback Joe Theismann learned what former University of Tampa coach Fran Curci knew, McQuay's running style was quick and elusive.
"He was a phenomenal athlete,'' said Theismann, who was quarterback for the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League in the early 1970s. "He had a unique running style. He didn't lift his feet more than two inches off the ground. "You felt he could do that on water or grass, it wouldn't have mattered.'' Theismann was first impressed with McQuay when the Argonauts played game in Montreal.
"We were on our own 25 and we ran a quick trap up the
middle,'' Theismann recalled. "There was a slight hole and Leon popped through it. He sprinted 85 yards (the Canadian field is 110 yards) for the touchdown. "I'll never forget that - his speed
and quickness. He was a little like Walter Payton with the slight hesitation and the flare.'' Both celebrated and vilified as one of the CFL's top backs, McQuay rushed for more than 1,600 in two years and led the Argonauts to the Grey Cup (championship game) in 1971. But the love affair with "All the Way'' McQuay ended in his second year when the Argonauts finished a disappointing 3-11 and the former Blake High superstar was at the center of team dissension.
The complaint against him was that he was afforded preferential treatment and missed practices. Playing for a new coach in 1973, McQuay was suspended for insubordination. "All of us in the CFL were like castoffs. We were a bunch of misfits trying to achieve stardom,'' Theismann said. "We were destined to go on to the NFL. We had ambitions of wanting to come back.'' McQuay finally made his way into the NFL in 1974, but after stints with the New York Giants, New England, Oakland and New Orleans, mostly as a kick return specialist, McQuay became disenchanted with his role.
That didn't surprise Curci, who recruited McQuay out of then all-black Blake High after only one season as a running back. He was the first black to sign a scholarship to University of Tampa and became the foundation of a program that would gain national recognition from 1969 to 1974. "Leon was a project,'' said Curci who coached the McQuay-led Spartans to the small college No. 1 national ranking in 1970. "He wanted a lot of attention and [threatened] to quit the team several times. "One time he didn't show up for practice and I went to his house to get him. Turns out he was afraid of flying and we were headed to our first game out in California.'' More than the tension McQuay's presence created, Curci remembers the athlete.
"What a sensational athlete. There was no one more explosive than Leon,'' said Curci, who left UT after two seasons to coach at Miami. "He never made a mistake on the football field. Never.'' Curci's departure left McQuay insecure in his position at UT, he said. And that led to McQuay's decision to leave Tampa after his junior year and after rushing for 1,212 yards, 22 touchdowns and more than 3,039 in his college career.
"I left and that's why he left,'' Curci said. "He would come and visit me in Miami every time he had a few days off. I was like a father to him."" Mentor or father, it was Curci who eulogized McQuay in 1995. The two-time all-American who spent his last years as a minister, barber and mechanic, died of heart failure at age 45.
Said Theismann: "He was one of those people you just watched and asked 'How'd he do that?' "
excerpted - By Rob Malich - Toronto Argonauts website - 1996
While the Argos made it to the title game for the first time in 19 years (in 1971), one nightmare play has haunted the team ever since, so it's good to get it out of the way first. Of course, we are talking about running back Leon McQuay's fumble late in the game on the Calgary six-yard line, with the score 14-11 in the Stampeders' favour. As coach Leo Cahill would later say, "Leon slipped, and I fell!", and it was apropos, as the coach was let go after the disastrous 1972 season that followed.
For McQuay, he will unfortunately always be remembered for that play, despite the fact he was one of the best running backs to ever play in a Double Blue uniform.
But sports isn't always fair, just like in life, and McQuay seemed to be a victim on both ends. After moving back to his native Florida to become a minister, he died suddenly last year (1995) at the tender age of 45.
"In all the years I've been watching and playing football, he was the most talented halfback I've ever seen," said Cranmer, who lined up to the side of him at slotback. "25 years ago, he ran a 4.3 (second) 40 (yards), and that was just unheard of."
A prized recruit out of the University of Tampa in 1971, McQuay was on the way to smashing every Argo rushing record before a knee injury slowed him down late in the year. Nevertheless, he finished with 977 yards on 138 carries for a 7.1 yard average and the Eastern nominee for the Schenley most valuable player award.
"I don't think I've ever seen a guy who could go up into the line of scrimmage, then go to the right at full speed, just like that," said Peter Martin, who was the radio voice of the Argos for almost two decades. "He could really run, but he was kind of wacky in a way. You didn't know which Leon McQuay was going to show up."
In 1972, the Argos slumped to a 3-11 record, and so did Leon, to 745 yards on 148 carries. The next year, McQuay was sent out west to Calgary in a trade, but returned for a final time with the Argos in 1977, where he gained 307 yards on 76 carries. McQuay, like the team itself, sadly never realized his full potential, in football and in life.
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