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December 23, 2010Donovan Riley was sitting right there in Bill McGregor's office, the opportunity of a lifetime in front of him. McGregor, the longtime DeMatha head coach, face of the most renowned high school football program in state history, wanted the Poly star to be a Stag.
But while McGregor made his pitch, Riley fidgeted uncomfortably in his seat. The normally self-confident sophomore was shaky and nervous speaking to a legend who, to a 14-year-old boy, seemed more myth than man. It all seemed to good to be true. He was being offered a spot on a team that won championships by the dozen, had played on national TV and produced more Division I football players than almost any program in the country. How could he possibly turn it down?
"I thought about it very hard and I was honored for the chance," Riley said. "Coach McGregor told me I could go to France and people would recognize the name DeMatha. It certainly sounded enticing.
"But in my heart, I felt like Poly was good to me and I should honor them," Riley continued. "I'm a dedicated and loyal person; I felt like I had unfinished business at Poly. I turned Coach McGregor down. And you know what, I'm glad that I did."
Riley's commitment to his hometown school resonated with the Poly community. His coaches, especially, appreciated the faithfulness.
"He was committed to our program and dedicated to what Poly stood for," said Engineers assistant coach Al Cotton. "That's what you want in a kid -- loyalty. So often that's lost on young athletes. It just says a lot about who Donovan is -- a great kid with a strong background."
Riley was justly rewarded for his decision. He showed flashes of brilliance his sophomore year on varsity before exploding last year as a full-time two-way player. With the instincts of a savvy veteran, the grace of a Kenyan long-distance runner, the deftness of a point guard and the strength of a wrestler, Riley became the face of Poly football and one of the most complete athletes in Maryland.
As a defensive back, Riley recorded 43 tackles and had a team-high six interceptions. As a receiver, he caught a team-leading 46 passes for 960 yards and eight touchdowns. And as a punt returner, he took two kicks back to the house.
"[Donovan] just did everything for us; his contributions were invaluable," said Poly head coach Roger Wrenn. "Offense, defense, special teams -- he excelled in all three phases."
But Riley's game is not about flashy plays and gaudy statistics. What he brings to Poly off the field is arguably more important that any of his on-field production.
In the offseason he set an example for his teammates, training every day at performance-enhancement facilities to increase his speed and improve his strength. At home he watched film of opponents and imbibed himself with Poly's playbook. He would then pick apart his own game, searching for flaws in footwork, route running, tackling and technique.
"My Pop Warner coach always told us, 'Hard work beats talent when talent doesn't work hard,'" Riley said. "That always stuck with me. If you keep working hard, only good outcomes can come from it. And that means athletics, academics, life - everything. It's all in the same circle."
By the time summer two-a-days began, Riley was a step ahead. He was running the 40-yard dash in 4.5 seconds and benching close to 300 pounds. He could make every catch, hang with every receiver and beat every cornerback.
Many of Riley's teammates were in awe.
"He's a great player; he's one of the best DBs I've seen anywhere," said classmate and fellow defensive back-running back Jamal Chappell. "He's also a great leader. The younger kids all looked up to him. They would all send him Facebook messages saying, 'You're my role model. I want to play just like you.'"
Those kids couldn't have picked a better example. Riley didn't just put up in garbage time, racking up numbers against subpar City foes with undisciplined defenses. He strutted his stuff in the spotlight against playoff teams like Patterson and Dunbar, private school powers like Calvert Hall and archrivals like City College.
"Donovan lived for the big game," Cotton said. "He wanted to show everyone that he could play with the big guns."
Against Patterson, Riley lined up out wide on the last play of the first half. Poly was on their own 45-yard line and everyone assumed they would kneel down and head into halftime.
Instead, the Engineers ran a wide-receiver toss where receiver Jordan Garrison took the pitch and looked for Riley deep downfield. Riley gave his man a double move, streaked by him and hauled in Garrison's pass. Then he dashed the rest of the way for a momentum-swinging touchdown.
"When plays needed to be made, Donovan stepped up," Chappell said. "He's a playmaker like Ed Reed. He knows where to be at the right time and even at the wrong time. No matter what, he's going to make a play for you."
The Patterson game was hardly Riley's only pressure-packed triumph. Against Dunbar he was guarding elite receiver Deontay McManus -- a First-Team All-State selection -- one-on-one down near the Poly goal line. The Poets' quarterback threw up a fade for McManus, but Riley muscled him out of the way, got inside position, leaped up and grabbed the interception.
Then against Calvert Hall he bated quarterback Thomas Stuart into throwing an out-route. As soon as Stuart released, Riley jumped into the throwing lane and picked off another pass.
"So I got one against Dunbar and I got one against Calvert Hall -- two champions and two great players. That's pretty good," Riley said, chuckling. "I feel like I can make a play at any time. Primetime players make primetime plays - that's my motto."
Evidently Poly's version of Prime Time has opened the eyes of Division-I college recruiters from the ACC, Big East and Big 10. According to scouts and coaches, it's only a matter of time before Riley is flooded with scholarship offers.
"He's without a doubt an elite talent and a Division I player," Wrenn said. "Look for big things out of Donovan Riley in 2011."
Riley's banking on it. He's already started his intense offseason training regimen, which includes as much mental preparation as it does physical. His goal? To be one of the top prospects in Maryland next year. . . Maybe even better than those 4-star guys at DeMatha.
"I feel 110 percent that I can play with anyone out there," Riley said. "Any task that's in front of me, I'm going to attack it and I'm going to have the edge. That's what I work for; that's why I study the game. You might beat me once, but you won't beat me twice. Guaranteed."