Tackling the top

Ed McDuffie is getting plenty of mail these days from colleges across the country. The letterheads include Penn State, Pittsburgh, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Rutgers and Virginia.

At 6-foot-4 and 310 pounds, the St. John Neumann High student isn’t your average high-school senior. McDuffie, of 22nd and Watkins streets, is one of those gifted athletes who dreams — realistically — of playing Division I college football and getting drafted by the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

When the 17-year-old opened training camp last week with the Neumann Pirates, he was ready to knock the socks off potential college recruiters.

"It changed the way I play the game," McDuffie said. "I play with more intensity because I know I can make it."

His coach, Ed DiCamillo, shares the positive vibe.

"Surely he’ll be playing at a Division I school next year," DiCamillo said.

McDuffie, who can bench-press 305 pounds and run the 40-yard dash in 4.9 seconds, ranks Virginia and Michigan at the top of his college list.

"They are the first two schools that started showing interest in me, and I like what they had to offer," he said. "They both have a lot of past players that went to the NFL."

But selecting a college isn’t the top priority right now, as the returning Second Team All-Catholic will make that decision when football season ends. He still has to take his college boards before he can be eligible for scholarships. McDuffie also has to make official visits to the campuses.

First, he wants to help the Pirates to victory.

"Right now I am concentrating on playing football," he said. "After football season, I will concentrate on filling out the applications."

The Pirates opened training camp last week in preparation for another Catholic League playoff run. Last season, they finished 6-6 overall, which included a semifinal loss to eventual champion Archbishop Carroll. From what he has observed at practice, McDuffie believes his players can win more games this season.

"The team has a really good defensive line," he said. "We are going to be something to mess with this year. Our offensive line is also pretty good."

Meanwhile, his veteran lineman is no longer fazed by playing in 90-plus degrees of heat.

"Once you get out there and start playing, you don’t feel it as much," McDuffie said.

The coaching staff is counting on the three-year starter to lead by example.

"He is the most experienced offensive lineman we have," DiCamillo said. "He knows his assignment, which makes it a lot easier."

Ironically, McDuffie never expected his football career to last this long. He started tossing around the pigskin at the former St. Gabriel’s Grade School, now Our Lady of Angels. Being new to the game, the player had doubts about whether he belonged.

"I am really lucky," he said. "I didn’t think I would make it this far. I’ve been working harder and harder."

Now, as a starting offensive and defensive tackle, McDuffie rarely warms the bench. He stays in shape during the off-season by competing in track, throwing the discus and shot-putting. He regularly wins medals at the Catholic League championship in the spring, including a first-place finish in the discus his sophomore year. This spring, the senior also is considering lacrosse, as a couple of his football teammates advised it would help with his speed and conditioning.

But football holds the brightest athletic future for McDuffie. He aspires to play defense in college like favorite athlete Warren Sapp, the starting defensive tackle for Tampa. The two are similar in size, as Sapp is 6-foot-2 and 303 pounds.

"I like the way he moves," McDuffie said. "He is very quick. I try to move like that."

The high-school athlete, who might like to take up computer technology in college, wants to be on Sapp’s team someday. But he’d take his hometown Eagles, too.

For now, though, he’ll concentrate on 26th and Moore streets.

"I am just playing my game. You really can’t worry about [the college attention]."