Miami cornerback Brandon McGee has been through more in his 21 years than many people have in a lifetime.
So when coaches took away the senior’s coveted first-team black jersey early in fall camp and gave one instead to true freshman corner Tracy Howard, McGee didn’t pout or let the frustration fester. And he didn’t resent the words of defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio, who said he needed McGee’s “effort to match his talent.”
“We can’t come out here every day and have a pep rally and strike up the band,” D’Onofrio said. “I can’t try to light a fire under you every day. You’ve got to be responsible for that fire.”
McGee, the fastest player in a program known for speed, headed straight to the film room. He soon earned back that black jersey and will start his 14th game at cornerback in the season opener Saturday at Boston College.
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“I’m not sensitive at all,” McGee said. “Life is about challenging yourself, pushing yourself and fighting through adversity. We’re all young men. We’re still growing and learning. The process, the journey isn’t complete.”
McGee’s adversity began in 2000 when his father, Curtis McGee, was diagnosed with throat cancer. On March 13, 2001, when Brandon was 10, Curtis had surgery to have his larynx removed. He now speaks through a voice simulator held up to his throat.
Things quickly got worse for young Brandon.
In 2002, Hilda McGee — Brandon’s mother — was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had a mastectomy, but died in March 2004. Brandon was 13.
The Lauderhill teenager told his mother he would never ignore his studies, and he hasn’t. He grew into an accomplished student at Plantation High. The poem he wrote in memory of his mother, a former supervisor for AT&T, is tattooed on his chest.
“If tears could build a stairway and memories were a lane,” he recited, “I would walk all the way to heaven and bring you home again. My heart is sore and as time goes on I’ll miss you more. I wish you were here to hug and kiss. I know that our memories you too will miss.
“My promise to you I will forever keep until we meet again, mama, rest in peace.”
McGee still wears his thick orange bandana for practice and headband for games with the handwritten message “RIP Momma 3-29-04.” He kisses her high school yearbook picture at his locker, runs out to the field, kisses his right hand, touches his heart and points skyward. Then he finds his father, who has never missed one of his games — home or away — in the crowd.
“When you look at the character of a man, he’s the definition of it,” McGee said of his father.
McGee majors in sports administration and minors in entrepreneurship. He said education was “the No. 1 thing” his late mother and father stressed, so he is especially proud that his grade point average has remained at 3.0 and that he expects to graduate early, in December.
“Brandon is a good boy, very concerned about his family,” said Curtis McGee, 52, who also has an older son and a fiancée, Lorraine Regins, who has treated Brandon as her own. “He’s always worrying about me and his grandmamas. We tell him, ‘We’re fine, we’re blessed and we just want you to graduate and make your mom proud.’ ”
Curtis McGee, a former auto detailer and foreman of a construction business that his father owned, said his son never complains if the coaches yell at him. “He doesn’t feel like they pick on him. He likes them very much. He always says, ‘I need to go in the film room and see what I can do better.’
“His dream is to play on Sundays in the NFL. Brandon is very humble, but he knows what he wants in life.”
The Hurricanes need him. McGee, 6-0 and 197 pounds, entered UM in 2009 rated the nation’s 10th-best corner by rivals.com. He also played quarterback as a junior at Plantation, throwing for 1,100 yards with 13 touchdowns in seven games — and using his 4.29-second speed in the 40-yard dash to help him rush for another 450 yards. But he has only one career interception at UM (along with 55 tackles), and has been viewed as an underachiever. He constantly is challenged by UM coach Al Golden, who wants McGee to turn his talent into production on game days.
Last year, Boston College defeated UM 24-17 in the season finale, and the Hurricanes secondary was continually beaten by tight end Chris Pantale, who had four catches for 70 yards and two touchdowns. Pantale, on the John Mackey Award preseason watch list, broke his foot in training camp and is out for Saturday’s game.
McGee had a broken hand in last year’s finale, which he sustained the week before at USF. He is healthy now and eager to embrace whatever role he is given.
“Brandon McGee has separated himself from the rest,” Golden said Tuesday. “He’s doing very well.”
Howard, described as “feisty” and “aggressive” by Golden, is now listed as a backup to junior Ladarius Gunter, the other starting corner. Golden said Howard “needs to keep his hands in check,” but that coaches are “working on that.”
Howard told The Miami Herald early in the summer he intends “to push Brandon McGee so hard” that “by knowing he has someone on his tail,” McGee will end up drafted in the first round next year.
McGee’s older teammates say he has stepped up to the challenge.
“He’s a very resilient kid, and very determined,” safety A.J. Highsmith said. “He looks like a senior. He’s confident, he has exceptional speed and his technique and footwork are superb.”
Said safety Vaughn Telemaque: “Brandon’s a cool kid. He would never disrespect anyone. If coaches ask him to do something, he does the extra.”
Tailback Mike James, who lost his mother in a car accident nearly two years ago, is close with McGee. “He’s playing faster, he’s playing stronger and I’ve really been impressed,” James said. “He’s happy where he is now in life, but he’s still trying to do everything he can to get better.”
McGee was asked during the Atlantic Coast Conference media days how someone could play angry without letting it turn into negative energy.
“You let it fill you,” he said. “You turn it into positive energy. With the guys we have on this team it’s just a band of brothers. We handle adversity like men and keep moving forward.
“I never feel victimized. The things I’ve gone through have made me who I am today.”