Dec. 16, 1999
by Brett Sowell Printed in the Duke Football Game Program (November 6, 1999)
As a high school sophomore in Baltimore, MD, Damonte McKenzie enjoyed reading college football recruiting letters. He especially enjoyed reading the ones from Clemson. The only problem was the letters from Clemson weren’t addressed to him. They were addressed to his teammate, Joe Gray.
“Back in Baltimore when I was a sophomore we had a great receiver on our team named Joe Gray. He was a senior. Clemson would send him the all orange letters and I used to read them. That familiarized me with the program.
“I remember I was receiving letters from smaller schools at the time. Places like Towson State would send me letters and he was receiving letters from bigger schools like Clemson. He would throw it in my face. He would ask ‘Where are you going, Towson State?’ Then he would tell me, ‘I am going to Clemson’. It was fun because I looked up to him and miss him to this day,” said McKenzie.
McKenzie spent his entire life up until his senior year in high school in Baltimore. His home was located just 20 minutes from the city’s famous Inner Harbor and Camden Yards. Unfortunately for McKenzie, Baltimore is more known for its crab cakes than high school football.
“In Maryland football isn’t quote, unquote everything like it is in South Carolina. Half of our football field was connected to the baseball field. Fifty yards of the field was filled with rocks and dirt. We really had no bleachers. A lot of people sat on a hill near the field to watch our games.”
Prior to his senior year of high school, McKenzie moved to South Carolina to live with his grandmother. Lake City, a rural town located half way between Columbia and the Atlantic coast, was his new home, and Lake City High School was where he was going to complete his prep career.
The one year at Lake City was a positive move for McKenzie for two reasons. He enjoyed the support that the team received from the townspeople and the guidance he received from his head coach Mickey Moss.
“When Lake City goes to play another school it is like Lake City High School represents that whole town. The town almost shuts down to come to the football games.”
While the town provided the support, it was Coach Moss who provided McKenzie with the guidance and direction he needed at that particular point in his life.
“Ever since the first day I came to South Carolina, from that day on he took me under his wing. He pretty much raised me from a young man to the man I am today. He guided me in the right direction. We talk every other week. He is a high school coach and athletic director so he is pretty busy. If we could, we would talk every day,” said McKenzie.
That season, McKenzie led the Lake City team to the state AAA semifinal playoff game and to a 12-2 final record. McKenzie, a tailback at the time, finished the season with 1,566 yards rushing and 15 touchdowns. On defense, he had 12 tackles. His stellar play landed him a spot on South Carolina’s Shrine Bowl team.
At the annual game, which pits the top high school players from South Carolina against the top players from North Carolina, McKenzie did not play as a tailback. Instead he played in the game as a defensive end.
That move to the defensive side of the ball was a prediction of things to come for McKenzie once he arrived at Clemson. Before coming to Tigertown, McKenzie was under the impression that he would move from tailback to fullback. In his mind bigger was better. So during January of his senior year at Lake City, McKenzie began a regiment of working out and eating. In January, he weighed 225 pounds. By the first day of preseason practice at Clemson in August of 1995, McKenzie tipped the scales at 260 pounds.
“The first day of freshman drills I felt like I was running in knee high mud,” commented McKenzie.
Before the first day of practice, McKenzie was asked by then Clemson head coach Tommy West if he wanted play right away. McKenzie’s answer was yes and he made a permanent move to the defensive side of the ball.
When starter Marvin Cross went down with an injury, McKenzie got his chance to play. In all he saw action in 55 plays in seven games. He had a total of six tackles, two of which were tackles for loss.
McKenzie lists the Maryland game of that season as the most memorable moment of his college playing career. “My freshman year we were up in Maryland and I was able to see my mother and some other family members. I got a sack and was immediately overwhelmed with excitement. A few plays later, I was playing left defensive end and the quarterback faked to my side on a bootleg and ran away from me. By the time he ended up crossing the line of scrimmage I caught him and made a nice hit on him.”
After redshirting in 1996, McKenzie came back with solid seasons in 1997 and 1998. During the 1997 season, McKenzie had 26 tackles while playing in 11 games for the Tigers. In 1998, he played in all 11 games and started three on the way to 37 tackles and five tackles for loss.
Through seven games this season, McKenzie has 20 tackles and six quarterback pressures as well as a caused fumble. As the only senior starter on the defensive line this season, McKenzie has taken on more of a leadership role for his team.
“You have two different kinds of leaders. There are ones who are vocal and those that lead by example and with their actions. I am not a believer in a lot of hoopla. I like to go out and try my best and try to lead by example. I feel like making plays is the best motivator in the whole world.”
Most of the leadership qualities that McKenzie’s possesses are most likely attributed to his mother. The defensive tackle stated that Deborah Ann McKenzie has been the most positive influence on his life.
“I would like to thank my mom for being strong and raising six children basically on her own. Sometimes when I want to quit during drills and I am really exhausted and tired, I will remember all the times my mom has been knocked down. She just keeps getting up and going and going. That really drives me.”
Among the six children is McKenzie’s twin brother, Damon McKenzie, who is also attending Clemson.
McKenzie has enjoyed his experience as a Clemson Tiger. He is especially enjoying this season in which he feels the foundation is being laid for great things to come for Clemson football. However, these feelings of happiness a peppered with a little bit of regret.
“I told the reporters after the Florida State game that for me the sad part about it is, I won’t be around to enjoy the success that this program is headed towards. To all of the schools in the ACC, all I can say is watch out. Clemson is on the rise as far as getting back to a winning tradition,” stated McKenzie.
And what does the future hold for Damonte McKenzie? “Hopefully I can finish this season strong and make it to the NFL. Graduating is my number one goal, but making it to the NFL is not far behind it. I wouldn’t call it a distant second. Hopefully that is where I will be.”
March 14, 2019