Friday night Texas high school football is a story told on one of two sides of the same coin. There is the powerhouse — like Denton Ryan — whose players pull on their arm sleeves and wristbands in multi-million-dollar field houses. Their cleats aren’t worn out because they play on turf fields that are thrown out every couple of years. Their profiles on 24/7 Sports and other recruiting outlets are littered with offers from universities that perennially compete for national championships. And their reputations are glorified across town because they play for high school programs that boast state titles and current NFL standouts.
Then there is the little engine. That’s Wylie East in this story. It wasn’t long ago that Garrett McCain and Marcell Ateman had “nothing” besides talent. A bunch of bonds had failed, which meant there was no incoming money to build up any kind repertoire for the program. They played on an old grass field, one of the only left in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex at that time. And they got ready for football practice and games in a P.E. girls locker room.
“I can stretch my arms out, and I can touch each wall,” said Joe Lepsis, football coach at Wylie East.
It fit about 20 girls comfortably, but that was if there wasn’t any equipment. When 35 varsity football players had to get in there with helmets, shoulder pads and a few more pounds on their bodies than the average P.E. girl, half of them had to change in the hall just outside the locker room.
“It was ridiculous,” Ateman said with a laugh. “It was like a closet.”
McCain, the quarterback turned Oklahoma State center fielder, and Ateman, the Cowboy receiver once high school hoops star, have tons of stories together. Their legacies — while still being written at OSU — are already in the books at Wylie East, a school that hasn’t had anyone play professionally in any sport anywhere.
“Everything that they’re doing right now,” Lepsis said, “they’re trailblazing.”
The First 2 Names
Wedged between Lake Ray Hubbard and Lavon Lake, Wylie East is going on only its eighth year of existence. It was part of the big school, Wylie High, about 15 minutes down Brown Street, but after a population increase of more than a 170 percent from 2000 to ’09, a split was growing necessary.
But there were problems with the new school. There wasn’t a budget, which meant no athletic facilities whatsoever. For Ateman and McCain’s entire high school career, they went without a weight room, locker room or coaches’ office. That was OK though because they had an opportunity.
In Wylie East’s third season of football, Lepsis scheduled that powerhouse Denton Ryan. On the road. For Ryan’s homecoming game. It was meant to be used as a model, a prototype to show everyone around the program what Wylie East could be someday, maybe.
Before the game, a Ryan cornerback was mouthing off to Ateman, who had already become a four-star receiver for the Raiders. Ateman held offers from 14 universities, including Michigan, Baylor and Tennessee. He was a stud, and that corner had to have known it. Lepsis watched and wondered how Ateman would respond. He wanted him to use his 6-foot-3 frame and show that (as Lepsis put it) he was the strongest kid at Wylie East, despite being a receiver. He wanted that, but he couldn’t know for sure. He knew there wasn’t a way to finesse Ryan. They were “a bully.” So he wanted Ateman to set the tone.
Two of the first three plays, Ateman caught quick slants, leaving the mouthy corner yards behind. After every play, Ateman jawed back. He set that tone. The third play though, the play Lepsis said he will never forget, the corner tried to jam Ateman at the line of scrimmage. As even the corners at OSU have learned, that’s a horrible idea. Ateman “buried” him into the turf, broke inside, took a shot from the safety cracking down and plowed through for a few more yards. Lepsis still uses those first three plays to start every season as an example of strength and physicality.
“Those three plays were what turned the corner for us,” Lepsis said. They beat Ryan that night 34-31.
“We put it on ’em that game,” Ateman said.
McCain had weapons all around him. Ateman was his No. 1 guy to the left side. Quan Jones, who plays at Baylor now, was to McCain’s right. Jesse Brubaker was the starting quarterback before he was moved to tight end so McCain could start. He is now playing on the defensive line at Tulsa. And their running back, Jabari Anderson, is at Tarleton State. McCain said Anderson might have been their best player.
“It was easy to just throw the ball up to those guys and let them work,” McCain said. “I think we averaged 52 a game. It was insane. It was a video game.”
McCain was on the freshman team only the year before. Brubaker was the only quarterback on varsity, and he got hurt early that season. The coaches told McCain they wanted him to come up with the big kids, but they needed his parents’ consent.
McCain wasn’t needed to start that week or any other week that season, so Lepsis put him back in the secondary, and he returned punts for a time. That spring, Brubaker moved to tight end, and McCain was named QB1. As Lepsis found out, that was one of the best coaching decisions he ever made for reasons he learned a Christmas later.
The Wylie East principal had allowed a dance room to be turned into a pseudo weight room. Finally, something. The football guys held an 2-hour open weight room session. As Lepsis walked into the school, he found McCain at the top of the steps. He was stunned to see him.
McCain was scheduled to have knee surgery later that day. His mom was coming to get him in about 20 minutes.
“Garrett, I thought you were having surgery today,” Lepsis said. “Why in the world are you here?”
What his quarterback said next is why Lepsis told this story to every recruiter who came to see him and why he still tells it to his players today.
“Well, it’s open, so I figured since some of my teammates are gonna be here, I needed to be here,” McCain said.
Lepsis said that’s all you need to know about McCain. After his mom came to take him to the hospital, Lepsis thought to himself. It all started to hit him.
“One of these days, that kid’s gonna graduate, and I may never coach another kid like that,” he said.
It wasn’t because of his athletic ability. It was because of that “it factor.” Lepsis said he has had it since the day they met. McCain has always been “the guy.”
“There’s not a kid, teacher or coach alive that doesn’t respect Garrett McCain,” he said. “He’s that kind of guy that you hope when you’re son grows up, he’s just like Garrett.”
McCain and Ateman were stars at Wylie East. On and off the football field, baseball diamond and basketball court. While they were still there, Lepsis was talking to another player about staying out of trouble. He wanted to know who did and did not go to parties, drink or do drugs. He needed to know who he could rely on and who he should to keep watch over. He pulled out his roster and started at the top.
“Tell me about Garrett McCain,” Lepsis said.
“Garrett, he doesn’t get in trouble, coach,” the kid told him.
“Because Garrett’s gonna do something with himself.”
One name later, “Tell me about Marcell,” Lepsis said.
“Marcell doesn’t do any of that stuff.”
“OK, well tell me why Marcell doesn’t do that.”
“Because Marcell’s gonna go do something with his life,” he said.
Brothers For Life
At first glance, they couldn’t be more different. McCain is almost scrawny for a baseball player, 6-0, 186 pounds. He is typically clean shaven, and he does everything with a sense of perfection. His stride, his speech, his attitude. Quick to talk to anyone. Ateman is a massive human, 6-4, 220. He often grows his beard out, and his right arm is covered in a sleeve of tattoos. He doesn’t get written about a great deal, and McCain said he thinks Ateman probably likes it that way.
As soon as you start talking to them, they couldn’t be more similar. Both seem like your best friends after one conversation. They are heavy in their faith. McCain wears a large cross necklace for every baseball game, and Ateman has a cross tattoo right where the necklace charm would lay.
Their passions have led them in similar yet not identical paths. Ateman committed to OSU his sophomore year, before he became a truly touted recruit. He played basketball before he got to Wylie East, but Lepsis convinced him to give football a try. McCain was always the multi-sporter, too. He just liked baseball more and was frankly better at it. He had offers from the academy schools and mid-major universities such as Houston to play both baseball and football, but he didn’t want to. He wanted to be in Stillwater.
So here they are, two men from the same high school, who played on the same high school football team, who now go to the same university four hours from home, who wear the same jersey number, and who both are tearing it up in their respective sports.
Ateman broke a bone in his foot before last season. The year before that, he had 677 yards receiving with five touchdowns. He handled the time away from football well, McCain said. He said he will bounce back strong.
McCain is second on the Cowboy baseball team with a .353 batting average. He has started every game and leads OSU in at-bats, runs scored, hits, doubles and triples. He is one of the faces of Cowboy baseball.
Still, their friendship remains. It’s not as strong as it once was. They don’t hang out after practices, go watch movies together or play video games. But when they see each other on campus, they still talk. When they see each other at the training table grabbing lunch, they always take time to sit together, catch up and trade scouting reports. One will text the other from time to time to see how he is doing. It’s hard though. Football is during the fall, and baseball is during the spring. With offseason workouts, practices and camps, it’s almost impossible to keep up.
That doesn’t matter though. They have all the memories they need.
“He was fun to play with, great teammate, great guy to be around in the locker room,” McCain said. “I really enjoyed getting to experience being on a team with Marcell.
“It’s a great relationship Marcell and I have.”
To this day, McCain still gets excited when he sees Ateman go up for a fade from OSU quarterback Mason Rudolph. He can sense when the ball is going his way before its is even snapped. He knows how his mind works, what he sees and what he thinks.
“I feel like I’m out there going through the plays with him,” McCain said. “I get probably just as much adrenaline rush as he does when he catches the ball.”
He knows his tendencies, and he thinks back to when he was the one putting the ball in his hands a lot.
Ateman does, too.
“High school football was some of the funnest times,” Ateman said. “Being able to play with people like Garrett, Quan, Jabari, we were all so close. We’ve known each other since we were little.
“It’s all just a blessing. We never strayed away from each other.”
Looking back at what he and McCain did in their time at Wylie East, Ateman said it’s just a honor to be one of the examples Lepsis uses for his younger players. They were a new generation, he said, a chance to establish what that football team would be like on the field and stand for off of it.
When they go back to Wylie East now, they finds it like that old powerhouse Denton Ryan. There is a locker room now, a fully functional one, coaches’ offices and a field house. Turf is on the field now, not grass. They even have an indoor facility. None of that was feasible when they were there. But because of them, it evolved.
There’s a high level of respect that flows between Ateman and McCain because of the things they achieved and the foundation they laid. A level of respect that never faded, even after their last game together.
“If he needed anything, he knows I’m one call away,” Ateman said. “It’s a forever kind of relationship. He is like a brother.”