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‘Nobody can stop me.’ Charlotte athlete turns devastating loss into personal motivation

Rocky RIver High School defensive end Rashaad McCollum

Rocky RIver High School defensive end Rashaad McCollum

Rashaad McCollum just knew he was going to have a big game when Rocky River High School played against Sun Valley Friday night.

And that was before he got some of the most terrible news of his life.

Wednesday, as McCollum was preparing to help flip his team’s fortunes, his grandmother passed away, compounding an already unimaginable calendar year.

Last fall, right around Thanksgiving, he lost his father and grandmother to complications from the COVID-19 virus.

McCollum, too, fell ill. He described the week and half COVID-19 laid him up as “terrible.”

“I couldn’t taste, smell,” he said. “All I wanted to do was sleep.”

To help get through the grief and his own recovery, McCollum had made a promise to his relatives — and to himself.

“They wanted me to make it,” he said. “So no more talking, I’ve just got to prove it now.”

According to his high school coach, Orlando Gray, McCollum had a really good season last spring. Still, McCollum felt he wasn’t playing quite up to his potential so far this season, despite having 20 tackles and three sacks in three games. So he was felt he was ready to have a big game Friday — and that was before he learned of his grandmother’s passing.

“Oh man,” Rocky River coach Gray said Saturday. “I don’t know that I’ve ever coached a kid with more mental fortitude. Prior to last season, he lost his father and grandmother in such a short period of time. It was the week of Thanksgiving. He played inspired last spring and he came back this year, dedicating the season to them. And then to lose his (other) grandmother this week? I told if he couldn’t play I understand.

“I know the losses he’s taken.”

But not playing wasn’t an option for McCollum.

In three weeks this season, Rocky River hadn’t won a game. McCollum and his teammates were tired of that, and he knew he had to ratchet up his play. McCollum never thought about missing the game.

And he had a memorable one: Nine tackles and five sacks in a 34-14 win over Sun Valley.

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Rocky River defensive end Rashaad McCollum Photo courtesy Rashaad McCollum Photo courtesy Rashaad McCollum

“I just lost my grandmother,” McCollum said, “and in my mind, I was like, ‘I gotta show out for her and go all out.’ I lost my father and my (other) grandmother three days apart last year, and I had to ball out. They had COVID and pneumonia and a lot of health issues going on, and I’ve been playing with a chip on my shoulder ever since.”

McCollum said football has helped him deal with his pain and his belief in God.

“I’ve been doing nothing but straight grinding,” he said. “Grinding and preparing for every moment. So the whole week, my game plan was to go out and (play) smash football. Nobody can block me, straight out. That’s my mentality every time I step on the field … Nobody can stop me from what I’ve got to do.”

Gray isn’t sure what the school sack record is for a season, and is checking the archives to find out. He feels certain that, with 29 tackles and eight sacks, McCollum will be in reach by the end of the season.

“You pull for him,” Gray said. “He’s a great technician. He plays with his hands and uses leverage and he’s athletic. He studies film of the offensive linemen he’ll face. He uses information our coaches are giving him along with his own film study and brings that to every game.”

And beyond that elite level of preparedness, McCollum has even more motivation now.

Every game, he’s playing for those he lost.

Langston Wertz Jr. is an award-winning sports journalist who has worked at the Observer since 1988. He’s covered everything from Final Fours and NFL to video games and Britney Spears. Wertz — a West Charlotte High and UNC grad — is the rare person who can answer “Charlotte,” when you ask, “What city are you from.”
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