DUNWOODY, Ga. — When Sean McVay writes his autobiography, he should title it “Wham Naked.” He won’t, but he ought to, because “Wham Naked” is the play that vaulted McVay from a high school field to the Super Bowl sideline.
It’s a play that’s already a Bunyanesque legend at Marist High School, the launching pad for McVay’s football career. Picture a “Friday Night Lights”-esque scene, Marist in the third round of the 2003 Georgia 4A playoffs, facing off on a cold night against Shaw, a behemoth of a high school from the southwest corner of the state.
Late in the game, Marist was down four points, hopes for a state championship flickering and fading. McVay, the team’s quarterback, cornerback and occasional punter, had driven the War Eagles down to within sight of the Shaw end zone, but had run up hard against the defense on two straight plays. It was now third-and-long, and Marist head coach Alan Chadwick called a timeout. McVay jogged to the sideline. On the headset, Chadwick was talking over options with his offensive coordinator, Paul Etheridge, who was in the press box high above the field.
“Coach,” McVay said. “Let’s go Wham Naked.”
Wham Naked was a risky play, especially this late in the game. McVay insisted he could make it work, and Chadwick and Etheridge didn’t have better answers.
“Trust me,” McVay said. “It’s there.”
“Let’s do it,” Etheridge said.
So the War Eagles lined up in a wishbone, their usual triple-option formation. On the snap, the two running backs fired off to the right – the “Wham” – one of them reaching to take the handoff right in the stomach from McVay. As the running backs hammered into the line, drawing all 11 Shaw defenders their way, McVay paused. And after a beat, he began rolling to the left, still holding the ball, all alone – hence, the “Naked.”
He was so open and untouched he could have walked into the end zone. Marist won that game and two more afterward, claiming the Georgia 4A high school championship, and the legend of Sean McVay took flight.
***** Sean McVay descends from football royalty; his grandfather John helped build the San Francisco 49ers’ Montana-Young-Rice dynasty. Sean McVay didn’t play football until his freshman year at Marist, instead focusing on soccer. An elite private Roman Catholic institution tucked into the green suburbs of north Atlanta, Marist carries a bit of a football tradition of its own, with one state championship and six runner-up honors by the time McVay arrived on campus.
A natural athlete, McVay took to football instantly, starting first as a shutdown cornerback and later at quarterback. And even in those early days, Marist’s coaches could spot something different about this particular kid.
“Some kids have a gift for football, and some don’t,” Etheridge says. “You combine that with a strong work ethic and a photographic memory? That’s a lethal combination.”
“Sophomores would get their heads shaved going into camp, it was tradition,” Chadwick recalled. “And I remember Sean, a little guy, with his shaved head and his fair skin sitting in an interview with the coaches, highlighting tape. He had a presence in that interview, and he had a presence on the field.”
He wasn’t huge – he stood a Kyler Murray-esque 5-foot-10, at best – but he could see the field like few high school players can, and he was fast enough and accurate enough to carry through on what he’d envision on every play. He finished his career with 2,600 yards and 40 touchdowns on the ground, and another 2,500 yards and 18 touchdowns through the air. As a quarterback, he led the team to a 26-3 record, including a 14-1 record and that state championship his senior year.
That season resulted in an honor that, in retrospect, seems absurd: McVay beat out none other than Calvin Johnson, the future Megatron, for state Player of the Year honors.
“Calvin Johnson is going to make the Hall of Fame,” says Chris Ashkouti, McVay’s backup QB and fellow cornerback at Marist. “But that season, what Sean did was amazing. The ball went through his hand every single play. On defense, he would put a charge into the rest of us every time he was out there.”
“We knew what we had in Sean,” Chadwick says. “He was a coach on the field. We had a great team around him, but Sean made it go.”
***** There’s another side to the “Wham Naked” legend, and that’s the Marist defensive failure that immediately preceded it. As Ashkouti recalls, a Shaw ballcarrier broke through the Marist line, barreling toward him and McVay. The two friends joined forces to take down the Shaw player … and utterly failed.
“He ran right through us,” Ashkouti recalls. “He went in for a go-ahead touchdown. Sean and I were just laying there on the field. And I remember thinking, ‘That’s it, it’s over.’ And I looked over at Sean, and he had this look in his eye like, ‘It’s not ending here.’ ”
McVay’s on-field heroics ended with that state championship. He would go on to play for Miami of Ohio, and while he had the potential to be a Julian Edelman-esque fireplug receiver, injuries cut short the last of his football dreams. Right out of college, he took a job with Jon Gruden in Tampa, worked his way through the Redskins organization, then – in a surprise to absolutely no one who knew him way back when – became the youngest head coach in NFL history when he snared a job with the Los Angeles Rams in 2017.
“He’s got a looseness, a confidence about him, a knack for calling the right play at the right time,” Chadwick said. “He did it in high school, and he did it with that fake punt” – you know, the one that McVay called in the NFC championship down 13-0. That punt resulted in the Rams’ first three points of the game, and you know what happened after that.
McVay’s now in one of the most unforgiving occupations in America, one where millions offer you a critique on your job performance week by week, hour by hour, play by play. Chadwick believes McVay has the mindset to handle that blast furnace, and he uses another example from the Marist sideline to illustrate his point.
The team was playing a far-inferior opponent – “We were at least four touchdowns better than them,” Chadwick recalls – but the War Eagles weren’t putting in a dominant effort. They lacked that necessary winning fire, and after one failed offensive series, McVay came to the sideline and sat down on the bench near the medical staff. Chadwick spotted him, stormed over, and lit into his quarterback with the fury of an exploding sun.
“What the hell’s wrong with you?” Chadwick screamed. “Why can’t you see what’s going on out there?” On and on it went, a good 90 seconds. Chadwick walked off, took a breath, then came back and went in on McVay again.
McVay took it all in, then turned to the medical staff sitting nearby. “It’s OK,” he said. “Coach thinks I’m hard of hearing.”
“He shook it off!” Chadwick recalls with a laugh. “That was the kind of leader he was. Calm. Confident. That’s what I see now on TV.”
***** No matter how far we travel in life, we’re never all that far from our high-school selves, and McVay’s closest friends don’t have to think hard to pick out the similarities between their onetime teammate and the wunderkind NFL head coach.
“We went out to visit him in Los Angeles, and he was showing us around camp,” Etheridge says. “And everything was buttoned up, everything was running smoothly, everything was anal-retentive.” For McVay, who would spend late nights after practice eating game tape on his next opponent with his father, it was a pure distillation of the focus and drive that his coaches had observed in him more than a decade before.
Fridays, with their classes that take forever and pep rallies and anticipation that builds every hour, are the finest days for high school football players. The closer the day drew to kickoff, teammates would see a change come over McVay.
“About three or four hours before game time, he’d get this look in his eye,” Ashkouti recalls. “He’d be totally focused. You couldn’t shake him.”
Ashkouti saw that look again when he visited McVay again just before last weekend’s NFC championship. Family and friends spent time with McVay in New Orleans the night before the game, and that old familiar mask had dropped over McVay’s face.
“I’m not sure he heard a word any of us were saying,” Ashkouti says. “He was just looking right through us.”
Once the game began, then and now, there’s never any doubt: Sean McVay’s the tip of the spear, leading his team in both word and deed.
“We were a good football team,” Ashkouti recalls of that state championship Marist squad. “Our coaches would try to humble us, tell us not to be overconfident. And when they left, we’d look at each other and we’d say, ‘We’re going to be fine. We’ve got McVay.’ ”
Right about now, the Los Angeles Rams have to be feeling the same way.
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