Sullivan: Isaiah McDuffie’s NFL breakthrough is crown jewel for Buffalo’s First Family of Football

Jerry Sullivan

Green Bay Packers’ Isaiah McDuffie runs during the first half of a preseason NFL football game Saturday, Aug. 21, 2021, in Green Bay, Wis. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

This really goes back to the grandfather, Stevenson McDuffie, who had an abiding love for family and a football dream. He and his wife, Lachez, raised six children in Buffalo’s inner city and believed that sports could help them grow into educated citizens and lead them to better things in life.

Son Steve McDuffie, who played at UB and is now in his 11th year as Bennett High’s football coach, recalls growing up in the Mariner Homes, how his father would invite all the neighborhood kids over, maybe 15 or 20 on a good day, and teach them football techniques in the back yard. 

“Football was his gift to us,” Steve Jr. said on a recent Sunday morning in the living room of his North Buffalo home. ”I remember when we were growing up, my father put that football mentality into all of us. 

“He didn’t have too many rules, but one rule he did have was, ‘You’re going to do well in school, and you’re going to play football.’”

His mother wasn’t much of a football fan. Lachez had an English degree from Canisius College and was all about books and education. “To her, football was a way for us to get educated, a way for us to use it as a launching pad to get in front of our competition,” Steve said.

“I think when my mom and dad had all these boys, it was an agreeable ideal that football be a main part of our life,” said Teddy McDuffie, who starred at Grover Cleveland and went on to play college ball at Temple and UB. “We didn’t have a lot growing up. My dad worked at the steel company when we were younger and when he was older, he worked in security.

“In my eyes, football became a vehicle they gave to us,” said Teddy, an administrator at Pinnacle Community Service, which runs runaway and homeless shelters. “As I’m older now and I look back, my mom knew we were pretty good at it. But her thing was, ‘Football can take them places.’ I think she embraced it because my dad really loved the game.

“People called him the father of the community,” Teddy said. “Other Black kids didn’t have a father around teaching them the game. And my mother was always a caretaker. If people didn’t have anything to eat, she’d give them something to eat. I worked in foster care and child welfare, and now with homeless and runaway youth, because of the service I watched them give to the community.”

Football became the family passion, their link to the larger community. The name ‘McDuffie’ became synonymous with the sport in Buffalo. For the last 35 years or so, there have been McDuffies running and tackling on the fields of Western New York. 

Chris, Melissa, Steve and Teddy McDuffie pose with Isaiah’s Connolly Cup, awarded to the best high school football player in Western New York.

It’s hard to top the Gronkowskis, who put four brothers in the NFL. But you could call the McDuffie clan the First Family of Football in the city, a ubiquitous presence in the high school ranks and a tradition in the University at Buffalo program that endures to this day. 

Terrance, the oldest son, was a star at Grover Cleveland under the legendary Art Serotte. Teddy says Terrance was a great all-around athlete, maybe the best of them all. Steve and Teddy played at Grover as well. Teddy once rushed for 300 yards three times in a four-game span. He was student body president at Grover and a leader for Serotte.

“His father was the greatest guy in the world,” said Serotte, 82. “He and I were very, very close. His mother, Lachez, was a super mother. They loved her. Their kids came first.”

Younger brother Chris, who played at Williamsville North, played running back at UB from 2003-06. He was the Bulls’ top running back until he hurt his knee in ’06, in Turner Gill’s first year as coach. He was replaced by freshman James Starks, who became a star at UB and was the featured running back for the Packers when they won the Super Bowl in 2011. 

Terrance’s older son, T.J., was a star at Williamsville North. His son, Dylan, is a junior running back at UB. Teddy’s son, Teddy Jr., plays football and basketball at Amherst High. A fifth McDuffie brother, Thaddeus, has a son who is a high school star in Columbus, Ohio. Tyrone McDuffie III, their first cousin, is a star tackle in Texas being recruited by Power 5 schools. Steve said his sister Lachez’s son is a budding star.

So there’s a lot of talent in that McDuffie gene pool. Steve Jr.’s daughter, Gabrielle, a basketball star at Niagara CCC, played at a national JC showcase in Atlanta in July. His son, Noah, is playing well for the Bennett JVs. 

Isaiah McDuffieof the Packers looks to make a tackle on Nate Becker of the Buffalo Bills during the second quarter of a preseason game at Highmark Stadium on August 28, 2021 in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Bryan M. Bennett/Getty Images)

But the best of all is his son, Isaiah, who starred at Bennett and at Boston College and was drafted by the Packers in the sixth round. Two weeks ago, Isaiah McDuffie realized a family dream when he played in his first regular-season game against the Lions — on a Monday Night Football, no less. 

Isaiah is well aware it was the realization of a family dream. He said it felt as if his family members were out there with him. 

“A hundred percent,” Isaiah said last week from Wisconsin. “Especially my grandfather. Every time I step on that field, I’m playing for him and playing for the name on the back of my jersey. 

“I know I’m that role model for a lot of people in the City of Buffalo, and my family also. I carry that pride and I know a lot of people are looking at me. So, I’m always going to do the right thing and always be that person people can look up to and say, he’s a good person you’ll one day want to be like.”

Stevenson McDuffie passed away in 2018. But Isaiah sees his grandfather every day. The screen on his cell phone is a photo of him and his grandpa standing proudly together on the night he won the Connolly Cup as the best high school football player in Western New York in 2016. 

“Boy, you should have seen the smile on my father’s face that day!” Steve said. He said his mother, who had died of cancer years earlier, would have been pleased, too. Lachez didn’t care much for football, but she always said, “But I want that Connolly Cup!”

Isaiah McDuffie and his grandfather, Stevenson, pose with the 2016 Connolly Cup.

It was extra sweet when Dylan was a Connolly Cup finalist for St. Francis the same year. Dylan and Isaiah were born about eight months apart and were inseparable as kids, bonded in a love of football and adulation of the older generation.

“Isaiah and Dylan grew up as best friends,” said Isaiah’s mom, Melissa. “From the time they were little running around, it was the two of them. They played Little League together. They grew up like brothers, the two of them, and they’re best friends to this day.”

Dylan said he was drawn to the game, to the dream, by looking up to the other men in the family. He said he and Isaiah walked around with a football as kids, no matter the time or place.

“We’re basically like twins more than cousins,” Dylan said after a recent practice at UB Stadium. “We used to go to my brother’s games and our other cousins’ games and get lost playing our own games behind the bleachers and running onto the field, trying to play in the game.”

The young ones watched in awe. The older ones passed down the dream, the love of football, like a treasured jersey. Chris could relate to Isaiah and Dylan. He saw a bit of himself in them, the boy who idolized his brothers.

“It was all our dreams,” said Chris, who is now an assistant principal at Williamsville South. “The foundation was laid early, by my mom and dad. Being younger, I was able to watch my brothers and admire what they did on the field. When you’re younger, you want to mimic what they do, right?

“I remember when my oldest son, who will be 9 at the end of this month, was born. Steve game me a football and said, ‘Hey, all Isaiah did as a baby was carry around this football.’ Isaiah was always on the sideline, always around. If there was a football game on TV, the family was together.”

According to family lore, Isaiah was seen doing 50 straight pushups when he was 2 years old. His dad says he was known to do 900 in a day. He was a water boy at high school games when he was 4. He was there when his father was an assistant at Grover Cleveland, St. Joe’s and Bennett. He was in fifth grade when Steve joined the Bennett staff. 

Steve was the one who inhabited his dad’s urge to coach, to make a difference with kids. Bennett was a chronic loser when he took over in 2011. He turned things right around. In his first 10 seasons, he won division titles at four different levels — C, B, A and AA. Isaiah attended Olmsted High, which didn’t have a football team, so he played for his dad at Bennett.

In 2016, in Isaiah’s senior year, Bennett finally broke through in its third try by winning the Section VI Class A title at what was then New Era Field. The Tigers beat previously unbeaten Starpoint, 28-13, as Isaiah rushed for 146 yards and three touchdowns and had a game-high 15 tackles. 

Isaiah originally committed to Syracuse but switched to Boston College when the Orange had a coaching change. He was a star linebacker at BC and was fifth in the country in tackles as a senior. He entered the draft after his redshirt junior season last December and graduated with a degree in applied psychology and human development shortly after.

Isaiah and his mother, Melissa, after a game at Boston College.

A degree from Boston College is no walk in the park. His grandmother would have been proud. His uncles agree Isaiah has the work ethic that he inherited from his father, who got it from the grandfather. Remember Stevenson Sr.’s rule: You will do well in school, and you will play football. 

“He loved Boston College,” Melissa said. “He felt it was a perfect fit for him and it really made him who he is today. They always had an image there of the BC Man. Between the way he grew up and going through their program there, it really shaped him.”

Jeff Hafley, his head coach at BC, valued McDuffie as a leader and role model, a meticulous student of the game with “the right attitude, the right makeup, the right mentality.” McDuffie’s parents say Isaiah was never a problem as a kid. Not even sneaking a beer now and then?

“Really never did,” Steve said. “HIs first drink was when he was probably in college and he told me, ‘Hey, I’m going out with the guys.’”

Isaiah came back last spring to help out his father as a Bennett assistant coach as he awaited the 2021 NFL draft. Steve said his son’s influence had a lot to do with the team’s success. “Those kids were like a sponge,” Steve said. He said a lot of his players have Isaiah’s phone number and text him regularly for input. He’ll watch Bennett games and offer critiques.

“The relationships my father builds with his players are amazing to me,” Isaiah said. “Being able to talk to them and be that role model is special for me.”

He sees a lot of himself in the younger guys. He tells them he was in the same shoes at one time. Work hard, believe in yourself and you’ll go far in the world — if not in football, in whatever realm that life might lead you.

The big dream, of course, is the NFL. No player from a Buffalo city school had been drafted since Steven Means of Grover in 2013. Starks was from Niagara Falls and was also a sixth-round draft pick by Green Bay, in 2010 (he remains friends with Chris McDuffie and called Isaiah to offer his advice after the 2021 draft).

No McDuffie had ever played in the league. But a lot of teams were interested, and looked as if Isaiah was going to be the next one. 

They held a big party at the McDuffie house the night of the draft. There was a group in the living room in front of the big TV and another one outside on the patio. There were some anxious moments, but finally Green Bay picked him in the sixth round with the 220th overall selection.

His cousin, Dylan, was with him the whole time, of course.

“It was crazy,” Dylan said. “It was honestly surreal for me. Being next to him when he got that call, knowing the work he put in. The gratitude and joy I felt for him, I can’t really explain how happy I was for him.”

There were a lot of tears, hugs and high-fives at the McDuffie house on draft night. “We all cried that night,” Melissa said. Steve popped open a bottle of Dom Perignon. He’d been saving it for a special occasion. It got no more special than this.

Melissa and Steve traveled to Green Bay for Isaiah’s preseason debut against the Jets at fabled Lambeau Field. Steve was sobbing after watching his boy stroll out of the tunnel and onto the field. He said it was even more emotional than the draft.

“Seeing him run out of that tunnel for the first time in an NFL uniform was … “ Melissa said, her voice halting. 

“It was overwhelming,” Steve said. 

“It was overwhelming, for both of us,” Melissa said. 

Then there was Aug. 28, when Isaiah came home for a preseason game in Buffalo, against the team he and his family rooted for his entire life. He had nine tackles and a half-sack and was named ‘Hardworking Player of the Game’ by the Packers, who surely realized the emotion of the moment. 

After being inactive in the Packers’ opener, Isaiah played special teams in Green Bay’s home win over Detroit on that Monday night. Steve said his father had to be doing in cartwheels in heaven when Isaiah lined up on special teams in his first regular-season NFL game.

“I know he’s looking down,” Isaiah said, “and I know he would have been ecstatic when I had the chance to come back to Buffalo a few weeks ago and play. That would have been really cool.”

It was a long journey to the NFL, one that goes back to those neighborhood practices in the back yard nearly half a century ago, where a good family man was determined to pass on his football dream to the children.

“I think about the journey,” Teddy said. “It was my dad’s journey. My dad’s name is Stevenson McDuffie. We call my nephew Isaiah, but his name is Stevenson McDuffie. His middle name is Isaiah. 

“So, in my mind, Stevenson McDuffie has finally made it to the NFL.”

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.

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