Commentary

Inspired by history

Leon McQuay III's grandfather broke the color barrier at University of Tampa in 1968

Updated: February 24, 2012, 1:14 PM ET
By Derek Tyson | GatorNation

RIVERVIEW, Fla. -- Leon "X-Ray" McQuay was a pioneer in the Tampa Bay sports community and enjoyed a six-year professional career, yet his grandson, Leon McQuay III, now a five-star safety prospect in the class of 2013, knows little about what his grandfather endured to have the success he did.

McQuay was the second all-time leading rusher in University of Tampa history with 3,039 yards rushing in three seasons. He trailed only the recently deceased Freddie Solomon, who amassed 3,299 yards in four seasons at the now-defunct UT program.

Leon McQuay III and Ethel Ricks McQuay
Derek Tyson/ESPN.comEthel Ricks McQuay goes through a scrapbook of her late husband with grandson Leon McQuay III.
More importantly, though, McQuay was the first African-American athlete to receive a football scholarship at the University of Tampa.

The younger McQuay never had the chance to meet his grandfather, as he died of heart failure when Leon III was just a year old.

All he knows of his famous grandfather was what has been shared by his family -- in particular, grandmother Ethel Ricks McQuay, who said the transition for her husband was a difficult one at the time.

"Leon got really nasty letters, and people said nasty, ugly things," Ethel said. "But I guess it was a big bite to chew that he was playing for Tampa U., which was segregated. But it was just an awful lot.

"It was just unbelievable some of the stuff he was getting. Occasionally the coach would let him see some of the letters and the stuff to let him know that there are people that don't like you, even though they don't know you. It's just that you are black. Oh, and by the way, don't take it personally."

After having much success on the field, Ethel said things started to change for her husband, who went on to play in the Canadian League for three years and eventually for the New York Giants, New England Patriots and New Orleans Saints.

Leon McQuay Jr. wall
Derek Tyson/ESPN.comInside the McQuay home, a wall of memorabilia stands in devotion to grandfather Leon.
"Everybody loved winning," she said. "Everybody wanted to take care of him, everybody wanted to have him in their restaurant. All of the sudden the community accepted him. Especially the wealthy community, because we were poor. This was all new to us. Then he became 'X-Ray' and then 'All The Way McQuay'."

Forty-four years after the senior McQuay broke the color barrier at the University of Tampa, Leon III is making a name for himself. Now he has to deal with the pressure of being compared to his grandfather and father, who played college football at Cumberland College in Kentucky.

"I think basically the pressure has just started," Leon Jr. said of his son Leon III. "About a year ago I kind of opened him up to where he came from and all of the things I went through. I really didn't want to play football, because once I saw the ugly side of it, which my dad was actually trying to shield me from, that I didn't believe existed until I actually saw it.

"So with L3, I just kind of, like, shared some of those experiences with him and let him know that you have a lot of pressure on you. I always joke with him about being the worst McQuay to motivate him. I don't know if that drives him, but he can do anything he puts his mind to."

The youngest McQuay said he doesn't let the pressure get to him, and only one college coach -- USC defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin -- even has mentioned his grandfather during the recruiting process.

When asked about dealing with the comparison of his grandfather, McQuay III said shyly: "I just know that he made it, and I want to make it, too."

Though off the field he may come across as timid, on the field McQuay III is a different person. His play has earned him scholarship offers from top schools such as Michigan, Florida, Alabama, Miami and most recently USC.

McQuay has long listed Florida and Vanderbilt as schools that interest him most. That remains the case, but Miami is starting to make a move on the talented safety prospect. The Canes offered McQuay a scholarship after he visited for their junior day.

"I like their coaches and how they are saying you would have to come in and compete," McQuay sad. "It won't matter what grade you are in. It's whoever is competing the best, they get to play. They are a private school, so if I wanted to leave for the NFL and I wanted to come back to finish school, they would pay for it."

Leon McQuay Jr., Ethel Ricks McQuay, Leon McQuay III
Derek Tyson/ESPN.comFrom left, Leon McQuay Jr., Ethel Ricks McQuay and Leon McQuay III.
McQuay, who carries a 4.57 GPA in the classroom, said he will take visits to UCF today, Tennessee on Saturday and Duke on March 3. He also said he likely will visit Michigan and Notre Dame over the spring before making a final college decision by summer.

Ethel Ricks McQuay said wherever her grandson decides to go, he will have a much better reception than what her late husband had to go through.

"There is no comparison, none," Ethel said. "He is loved by everyone. He is good guy, he is truly a good guy. Everything, his big smile, he's compassionate, he's lovable, all of it is true -- and he's like that with everyone. I'm very proud of him."

ESPN.com recruiting reporter Derek Tyson can be reached by email at DerekTysonESPN@gmail.com or you can follow him on Twitter, @DerekTysonESPN.