Mac McCain III loves a good challenge.
The problem is, he’s so good at what he does on the football field that opposing quarterbacks aren’t challenging him much anymore.
Because of that, the NC A&T cornerback had just two thoughts on his mind as he saw the ball coming his way near the back of East Carolina’s end zone two weeks ago at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
Catch it. And take it to the house.
Those two things became McCain’s trademark during a freshman season in which he picked off six passes, three of which were taken back for touchdowns. He added to that growing legacy at ECU by returning his first interception this year 109 yards for a touchdown.
It was a pivotal play that shocked the Pirates and catapulted McCain’s Aggies to a 28-24 upset win. But the only real surprise was that ECU chose to throw the ball anywhere near him in such an important situation.
“I was a little surprised,” McCain said of the pick-six that was officially recorded as a 100-yard return. “I like it, though. That way I can make plays. I don’t like to be bored all game, not getting the ball come to my side.
“I want to score. I want to get in the end zone, so anytime I get the ball my decision is to go.”
Gardner-Webb didn’t give McCain any chances to “go” last Saturday by keeping the ball away from him for most of their game against the Aggies. He was only involved in a handful of plays, making two tackles. But it still didn’t help the Runnin’ Bulldogs, as A&T cruised to an easy win in its home opener for its 16th straight victory.
McCain said he expects teams to try and “lull him to sleep” for the rest of the season by throwing to the opposite side of the field, then eventually trying to catch him napping with the occasional pass to his man. But according to his coach Sam Washington, a former NFL defensive back himself, even that might be a mistake considering the attraction the ball seems to have with McCain’s hands.
“He has a lot of instincts and that’s stuff that you cannot coach,” Washington said. “It’s either you have it, or you don’t. He possesses a lot of those things that gives him favor. You also need a little speed, and he can run.”
A 5-foot-11, 173-pound Greensboro native, McCain said his knack for being around the ball was “a gift from God.” He’s also blessed with 4.3 speed and a 34-inch vertical leap.
But even with those physical attributes, 109 yards in full pads in the heat of late summer can wear a player out.
“I was good the first 60 yards,” he said. “When I got to about the 40 I started looking at the video board to see who was behind me. That guy (Blake Proehl) almost caught me. He must be on the track team or something because he was moving. I was so tired, I didn’t think I could play the rest of the game.”
Mercifully, his coach (and former defensive coordinator) gave him the next couple of plays off to catch his breath, but he returned to the game to lead A&T with 11 tackles and three more pass breakups.
Washington said he was apprehensive at first when he saw McCain take the ball out of the end zone instead of settling for the touchback. It was a feeling didn’t last long.
“Initially you wonder do you come out of the end zone in certain situations? Fortunately, he was already downhill,” Washington said. “Once he hit it and I looked and saw the quarterback, I was like, ‘Yes, sir.’ It was a joy to watch.”
McCain now has seven career interceptions for 374 return yards. The FCS record for most interception returns for touchdowns is seven by North Dakota State’s Marcus Williams. The career FCS record for most interception return yards is 682 by Bethune-Cookman’s Rashean Mathis. With two-plus seasons of eligibility remaining, the A&T sophomore has a reasonable shot at reaching both marks.
No matter what, his knack for pick-sixes has helped him create a name for himself at A&T, which is saying a lot considering how much weight his name already holds at the HBCU school.
His grandfather and namesake, Franklin McCain Sr., was one of the “Greensboro Four,” the courageous group of A&T students that staged a famous 1960 Woolworth lunch counter sit-in protest that is credited with starting the modern Civil Rights movement.
The elder McCain is immortalized on a statue on A&T’s campus. It’s a place of honor that’s included in the football team’s walk to Aggie Stadium before every home game.
“Aggie Pride has always been around my family, so I always wanted to go to A&T,” McCain III said. “It kind of pushes me every time we go to the statue before the games, not only to fill his shoes but to make them bigger for the next generation under me.”