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The name you know: Bennett's Isaiah McDuffie earns News Player of the Year

There’s a reason Western New York scholastic football fans immediately equate the McDuffie name with success whenever they hear it.

A standard of gridiron excellence has long been established by several members of the clan – so much so that as a child Isaiah McDuffie dreamed of having the same type of success playing the sport as his father Steve and uncles Chris and Teddy did during their heydays.

Each of those gentlemen not only is a past first-team All-WNY selection but also played collegiately at the Division I level.

Isaiah McDuffie not only has done right by the family name, Bennett’s star running back and linebacker has established a legacy all his own.

The Boston College commit is the rare three-time All-WNY first-team selection – the first McDuffie to earn the honor more than twice. More importantly, he’s the Buffalo News Player of the Year.

Isaiah becomes the second McDuffie to earn that honor since The News began handing out the distinction in 1977. He headlines the 59th edition of the All-Western New York team, as selected by The News in conjunction with Prep Talk Awards Hall of Famer Dick Gallagher and other trusted area football gurus.

McDuffie rushed for 1,531 yards on 145 carries and 21 touchdowns. He scored at least once in nine of his team’s 11 games. At linebacker, he finished with 111 tackles – several for losses, three sacks, three forced fumbles and two interceptions.

Isaiah McDuffie of Bennett is the 2016 Buffalo News Player of the Year. (Photo illustration by Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News)

Isaiah McDuffie of Bennett is the 2016 Buffalo News Player of the Year. (Photo illustration by Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News)

McDuffie is just the third individual from a Buffalo Public Schools football program – and the second straight – to earn Player of the Year. He joins a list that includes his uncle Teddy (1992), the Grover Cleveland legend and Harvard Cup Hall of Famer, and South Park’s Tyree Brown (2015).

“It’s taken a lot of hard work but honestly I wouldn’t be here without my teammates,” said McDuffie, who’s also a finalist for the Connolly Cup. “It’s a team sport. The line makes the running lanes. … I’m really proud of what they did. I had a lot of great teammates. It was a great season, a lot of fun.”

It was also historic as Bennett capped its swan-song season by becoming just the second former Harvard Cup member to win a Section VI championship since the league disbanded when the city schools decided to join the Football Federation.

The traditional Bennett High School graduates its final senior class in the spring due to a since-aborted phase-out plan by the district. The rest of the school’s athletes participate in sports programs with Middle Early College, which is located in the same building as Bennett.

School officials have since opted to reboot Bennett under a new program name – admitting freshmen for the first time in three years last September. The role of athletics in the revamped school’s future, however, has yet to be determined.

What is certain?

McDuffie is one of the best athletes to ever play the sport at the scholastic level in the 716. A coveted major Division I prospect since his freshman season, the 6-foot-2, 209-pound McDuffie possesses that rare blend of elite speed and strength.

He first committed to Syracuse prior to his junior year – one of the rare times an area football recruit has received an offer that early in the recruiting process. Two-time All-WNY kicker and current senior Blake Haubeil of Canisius also accepted an offer to attend Ohio State that same summer.

A coaching change last spring at SU resulted in McDuffie changing his mind, opting to instead commit to the Orange’s Atlantic Coast Conference rival Boston College.

Bennett running back Isaiah McDuffie scores against Greece during the Class A Far West Regional. (Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News)

Bennett running back Isaiah McDuffie scores against Greece during the Class A Far West Regional. (Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News)

McDuffie set four school records during his Bennett career. He’s the all-time leader in touchdowns (70) and rushing yards (5,529). He also holds the single-season and single-game marks for tackles at 161 and 29, respectively.

“What people don’t understand is how hard he works,” Tigers coach Steve McDuffie said. “For him it’s a year-round work ethic.”

That’s usually the case when it comes to a top Division I talent.

The work paid off for Isaiah during a senior season in which Bennett not only made the jump from Class C to Class A but also  played perhaps the toughest schedule among A South Division members. McDuffie proved to be a central figure in the Tigers winning their third straight division title in a third classification.

McDuffie instilled fear in opponents whenever the Tigers called his number on a running play. If No. 11 turned the corner , odds are it went a long way as he either took it to the house or exceeded his 10.6 yards-per-carry average.

In Week Two, McKinley employed a strategy in which it tried to take the edge away from him, preferring to force him to bowl over people between the tackles.

“He was going to hit you no matter what,” Macks coach Brian Hillery said. “But I’d rather see him get 4 or 5 yards a pop than that long 50-yard-plus run.

“His speed, it’s exceptional. Once he gets going to the open field, he has that extra gear not many people have. That’s why he’s going Division I.”

McKinley, like many teams, could prolong the inevitable for only so long.

Bennett's Isaiah McDuffie beats Grand Island for a long gain this season. (James P. McCoy/Buffalo News)

Bennett's Isaiah McDuffie beats Grand Island for a long gain this season. (James P. McCoy/Buffalo News)

McDuffie showed his knack for breaking off a big run during the Section VI final as Bennett won its first title after consecutive runner-up finishes.

In that 28-13 victory over Starpoint, he gained a game-high 146 yards on 19 carries – scoring on runs of 13, 9 and 14 yards. His 22-yard run put Bennett in position to break a scoreless tie early in the second quarter. He also finished with a game-high 15 tackles as the Tigers carried a shutout deep into the fourth quarter.

McDuffie’s highlight reel includes:

• A four-touchdown performance in a Week One win at West Seneca East that included scoring runs of 41 and 31 yards.
• A 50-yard run late in the fourth quarter that led to Derrick Bishop’s game-winning 1-yard TD in a 26-22 Week Two victory over McKinley.
• Touchdown runs of 30 and 70 yards that highlighted a three-TD second half in a 56-28 Week Three win over division foe and playoff participant Iroquois.
• A 61-yard scoring run and 184 rushing yards in a physical 14-8 Week Six nonleague loss to eventual Class AA finalist Orchard Park.
• A 147-yard average in four playoff games as he and fellow first-team All-WNY pick Jamel Lofton formed a tough-to-stop dynamic ground-and-pound duo. McDuffie scored seven touchdowns during the postseason.

Quite the season.

Quite the career.

The next time the topic of which McDuffie − Steve (Grover Cleveland, first-team 1991), Teddy (1992) or Chris (Williamsville North, 2000-01) − is the best football player comes up in discussion, Isaiah’s earned the right to be part of the conversation.

“This is big,” he said.

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