Isaiah McDuffie sees it as a happy stroke of fortune, the handiwork of the “football gods.”
Really, what are the odds? It seems almost like divine intervention that allowed Isaiah to be back in Buffalo this week. McDuffie is a rookie for the Green Bay Packers, the first Bennett High player to reach the NFL.
But the Packers’ bye week happened to coincide with the final week of the high school football season. So, Isaiah got some time off from his main job and came home to help his father, Steve, prepare the Tigers for the biggest game in the program’s history.
McDuffie will be on the sideline Saturday in Syracuse when Bennett takes on Carmel in the Class AA state title game in the Carrier Dome. He has been an inspiration and mentor for the younger guys. Last spring, while home and preparing for the NFL draft, he helped his dad with the team.
“Oh, it’s amazing!” Isaiah said during a Tuesday night practice at All-High Stadium. “Getting a chance to come and have it line up with the bye week, it’s a blessing. I’m just so excited to be here and help out in any way I can. I’ve been tuning in, all the way from Green Bay, Wisconsin — Western New York Athletics or the NFHSYS network — any way I can to watch them.”
It has been quite a show. Steve McDuffie calls it a “magical season,” a year to treasure for his team, the Buffalo schools and his family, which I like to call the First Family of Football in the city.
At 3 p.m. on Saturday, the Tigers will play in the state final for the first time. They’ll try to become the second city team to win a state title since the Buffalo public schools entered sectional play a decade ago (at the urging of former superintendent James Williams, who died last month). South Park won the Class A title in the Dome in 2015.
Bennett is 11-1, the only blemish a late September loss at Orchard Park that was avenged, 70-20, in the AA semifinals. The Tigers nipped Lancaster at Highmark Stadium in the AA final, 14-10, ending Lancaster’s five-year run as sectional champions.
The Tigers are a fast, physical and motivated team that is peaking at the right time. They have surmounted obstacles along the way, most notably having to play on three days’ rest in the state semifinal after a Covid-19 outbreak caused their previous game against Rochester McQuaid to be delayed.
Maybe they should play on short rest every week. Bennett seemed well-rested in a 38-0 rout of Cicero-North Syracuse last Saturday on the Northstars’ home field. They rose above an unfair situation and dominated.
“We already knew the hand they were going to deal us,” said star junior lineman Rashard Perry. “We played angry those days and just wanted to get to the final stage.”
But it was a controlled anger, channeled through the discipline and football fundamentals that had been instilled in the squad by McDuffie and his experienced staff of assistants.
Bennett is supremely talented. Perry, who is 6-4, 225 pounds, has 23 sacks and has started on the defensive line since the eighth grade. McDuffie said Perry will play at a Power 5 school in college. So might senior Jayden Lewis, who has 12 interceptions, including eight returned for touchdowns.
Running back Dominac Allen is a finalist for the Connolly Cup that honors the finest high school player in Western New York. Allen ran for 322 yards on 32 carries against Lancaster in the sectional final. Linebacker Jamario Tolliver has been described as a “tackling machine.”
But the Tigers’ success is largely a triumph of coaching and execution. McDuffie rotates four running backs and eight defensive linemen. He plays about 28 players in every game, most of them play on both sides of the ball at some point.
“We have a great coaching staff,” said junior offensive tackle Jason Gwan. “A lot of our coaching staff played in Division I and know what it takes to get to the next level. So, for them to come here and teach us every day, what we’re doing right and doing wrong, it led the way for us to get to the state championship.
“We work hard every day,” said Gwan, whose parents came to Buffalo from Cameroon. “Our coach teaches us the three D’s: Discipline, decision-making and dedication. We’re out here pushing the sled, doing drills every single day. We practice for a long time. It’s all about hard work. We out-work our opponent.”
McDuffie was smart and secure enough to surround himself with a deep staff of coaches, many of whom played for him and some who played at a higher level. He wanted to mention them all, to spread around the credit.
On that staff are Cliff and Anthony Scott, brothers who starred at Grand Island and were Buffalo News players of the year. Cliff won it in 1989, Anthony in 1992, when he shared it, coincidentally, with Teddy McDuffie, Steve’s brother. All of them later played college football for the University at Buffalo.
Bob O’Connor, the former head coach of St. Joe’s, is on McDuffie’s staff. The other assistants are Khalil Cottman, Aaron Young, Jordan Fayson, Jermaine Clemons, Dewan Todd, Patrick Foster, Arthur Trisdale and William Blackford.
That’s a lot of gridiron intelligence on one team. The players are sensitive to the myth of city ball, that you just turn them loose and sheer athletic talent prevails.
“That’s the narrative they have for us,” Fayson said, “because everything goes down in the inner city, all the police and gang activity. I’m glad these guys are showing the positive light, what we can do with our athletic ability and our mentality. We are disciplined. If we weren’t, we wouldn’t be this far.”
Fayson knows all about the dangers of the city streets. He was shot in the stomach and nearly died in February of 2019. At the time, he was rehabbing a knee injury that took away his senior season at Bennett. Fayson was a top wide receiver getting recruited by Division I schools when he got hurt.
McDuffie was by his side through his recovery and took him on as a receivers coach. Fayson still hopes to move on to the University of Albany and resurrect his football career there. He was a sophomore in 2016, when Isaiah McDuffie led Bennett to the sectional title, and was one of the kids who saw Isaiah as a role model, as proof of what can happen if you do things right.
“I tell you, Coach McDuffie has implemented a very serious program for these young men to get to the next level,” said Anthony Scott, who quit a sales job in New York City and teaches at Bennett to be closer to the boys. “I played for the legendary Gene Masters (at Grand Island), and I try to bring a little bit of what he gave me here.
“Coach McDuffie learned under the legendary Art Serotte (the long-time Grover Cleveland coach), so he brings a lot of his expertise here.”
Masters and Serotte are both in the Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame. There’s a strong tailwind of football knowledge sweeping this Bennett team into the Carrier Dome. These kids realize that they’re playing for more than themselves. They’re playing for history, for all the city teams that never had this chance.
“This means so much,” said Anthony Scott. “Cliff and I didn’t get to play in the Harvard Cup. Steve and Teddy and his brothers, we were all friends. We would watch each other. I would come here to All-High as a spectator and enjoy the atmosphere and always say, ‘What if?’”
“It’s like a family atmosphere,” Scott said. “I love it. Mr. and Mrs. Scott (his parents, George and Lillian) had the restaurant, the Kensington Place, for many years on the East Side. So just coming here and giving back is one of the biggest things that I’ve done in the last 10 years.”
This is McDuffie’s 11th year as head coach at Bennett, which was in a decade-long funk when he took over. This has been a year he’ll never forget.
Isaiah got drafted by the Packers and made the team. He had his first two tackles on special teams last Sunday. Steve’s nephew, Dylan, rushed for over 1,000 yards for UB. His daughter, Gabrielle, is the leading scorer for the Niagara CCC women’s basketball team. And on Saturday, Bennett goes for a state title.
“I’m so blessed, so grateful to God for these blessings, not only for me but for my family and for the kids on our team,” McDuffie said. “It’s been an unbelievable, magical year.”
His late father, Stevenson, who nurtured the McDuffie family’s football dream, would be very happy to see this.
“He is smiling,” Steve said. “My mother is right there by his side. I can see her grinning and her saying, ‘I told you so.’ He would be cheering and she would have a smile on her face and be tickled to death.”
Bennett has won division titles in four classes since McDuffie took over: C, B, A and AA. It’s been a steady climb. On Saturday in Syracuse, they reach the top of the mountain — or the Hill, where the Dome is concerned.
“We’ve got to win to cement our legacy and finally get the respect we deserve,” Gwan said.
““It means everything,” Perry said. “We’ve been hyped and focused and done everything to get to this point. We knew we had the better team every time we played. Now we want to really show it and end it all with a bang.”
Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning journalist who joined the News 4 team in 2020 after three decades as a sports columnist at The Buffalo News. See more of his work here.