Rodney McCarter was an All-City and All-Public football player at Bok Technical High. Still, he didn’t plan to pursue an athletic scholarship.
Somehow, he ended up starting for Division I-AA James Madison University and ever since, his plan has been to help win games.
The junior free safety did just that in Saturday’s season-opening 48-6 win over Liberty University. McCarter recorded four unassisted tackles, but the 20-year-old athlete isn’t one to brag about his individual efforts.
"I don’t think I am playing a big role," he said during a phone interview. "I am just playing my position and trying to help us win some games."
Since arriving on the Harrisonburg, Va., campus, McCarter has displayed that competitive drive, which included making 33 tackles his freshman year. Last season, the 5-foot-10, 190-pound athlete accelerated to 103 tackles, including a team-best 81 primary tackles, and won the squad’s Challace McMillin Special Teams Player of the Year Award.
A native of 18th and McClellan streets, McCarter has impressed James Madison defensive coordinator Dick Hopkins, who said the player has made significant strides over the last couple of seasons. A physical and aggressive style of play earned McCarter the Dukes’ starting free-safety spot.
"He has really good knowledge as far as the game of football is concerned," Hopkins said. "He makes the best of what has been given to him."
McCarter certainly made the most of his opportunities at Bok, which isn’t exactly known as a breeding ground for Division I athletes. Bok football coach Tom DeFelice said the player was the first student at the school he knew of that qualified for a Division I scholarship. Shippensburg and Indiana University of Pennsylvania also showed interest in McCarter.
The First Team All-Public and Third Team All-City selection earned attention by leading the Wildcats with 79 carries for 752 yards. But even after putting up strong numbers his senior year, McCarter was caught off guard by the Division I scholarship offers.
"I just thought I would enroll in college somewhere and try out for the football team," he said. "I never thought somebody would offer me a scholarship."
McCarter credits several coaches for helping him develop into the college athlete he is today, including Bok coaches Tom DeFelice, Carmen DeFelice and Vince Trombetta and college coaches Eddie Davis and Hopkins.
Now that the player is starting every game, he is highly invested in helping James Madison make its mark in the Atlantic 10 Conference. The Dukes finished the last two seasons with a losing record.
McCarter went far with his teams at Bok, winning three Division D titles and playing in the 1999 Public League championship, which ended in a loss to Germantown. He hangs onto the memories and friendships that he developed at Eighth and Mifflin streets.
"I loved my Bok years," the player said. "I had a lot of fun. I wish we could’ve won the championship that year."
McCarter will return to the Philadelphia area Oct. 4 to play Villanova in an Atlantic 10 contest. He’s hoping to see plenty of family and friends at the game, especially his little brother. The game is a key contest on the Dukes’ schedule.
"All I want to do is win a lot of games," said McCarter, a sociology major. "That’s all you need. I want to go to the playoffs and play for a championship."
That goal won’t be easy this season, as the Atlantic 10 conference includes five teams ranked in the most recent Sports Network top-25 poll. On Saturday, James Madison will have a big test against Big East school Virginia Tech.
Defensive coordinator Hopkins said McCarter might seem like the quiet type, but is aggressive in his pursuit of wins for James Madison.
"He is shy off the field, but when it comes to game time, it’s like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," he said.
No matter what happens over the next two seasons, McCarter expects it to be the end of his football career. The athlete could envision himself as a police officer or detective, but not an NFL player.
"It crosses every college player’s mind," he acknowledged. "I am not really focused on that. I’ve never been into the NFL like that."
Then again, he never thought a Division I-AA scholarship was in his future, let alone a starting spot for the Dukes.