By CHRIS McMANES — Nick Cross had never played football before he showed up for DeMatha’s first practice in August 2015. Once a mystery to his coaches, the senior strong safety is now well-known throughout the country.
“I don’t think we would be where we are if it wasn’t for Nick,” Stags Coach Elijah Brooks said. “Because he practices so hard and prepares so well, he forces his peers to do the same. His impact and influence on his teammates makes everyone’s level of play go up.
“And he’s producing on the field like a five-star player should produce.”
Cross, who has committed to play for Florida State, will play his final home game at rainy Wilson Stadium in Landover tonight in a Washington Catholic Athletic Conference semifinal against Good Counsel. Kickoff is 7 p.m.
Cross will become more well-known nationally when he plays in the 2019 All-American Bowl. The prestigious contest from San Antonio will feature 100 of the top players in the nation. Cross received his All-American jersey in Hyattsville in October. The Jan. 5 game will be televised live on NBC.
Just a little over three years prior, Cross was just beginning his football odyssey as a linebacker and defensive end on the freshman team.
“I hope he continues to progress because it will be a phenomenal story,” Brooks said. “He’s a good kid, an All-American academically, socially and athletically.”
Brooks recalled Cross’ first year on the gridiron.
“His game was extremely rigid,” he said. “You could tell that he was trying to process the game and play it at the same time. It wasn’t fluid or natural.”
As a sophomore, Cross was a reserve defensive back and special teams players on the varsity. He made his first start in the 2016 WCAC championship when Dexter Washington got hurt.
“It was pretty nerve-wracking,” Cross said. “I had a nightmare the night before that I missed the championship game. I don’t know where I went, but I missed the game. [Playing] wasn’t as bad as I thought. It was a lot of fun.”
Cross was having a whole lot of fun when he made a crucial play during DeMatha’s 20-point rally for a 34-29 victory over St. John’s. Late in the fourth quarter, with the Stags trailing 29-21, he pounced on a kickoff at the Cadet’s 1-yard line. Two plays later, DeMatha was in the end zone.
When the game ended, the Stags were 12-0 and No. 1 in the Washington area.
Cross, who turned 17 on Sept. 10, moved into the starting lineup full time as a junior and was named first-team All-WCAC. The 6-foot-1, 205-pounder is a hard-hitting tackler and plays Velcro-like pass defense. In his final season, he has gone from steady to spectacular.
In a 53-6 victory over Avalon, he scored his first career touchdown with a 34-yard interception return. His next tally was more eye-opening. After a Good Counsel running back broke into the open field, Cross ripped the ball loose and ran it back for six points. DeMatha forced five turnovers that game and won by 30 points.
“Physically, he has developed into an elite athlete,” Brooks said. “From his freshman to his senior year, you definitely see the growth. Now, things are a lot more instinctual than when he first started.”
Arriving at St. Jerome
Cross lives in Bowie with his parents, Michael and Anna, brother Nijel and sister Ni-Ann. Anna is a pharmacist at University of Maryland Prince George’s Hospital and came to the United States from Trinidad and Tobago. Michael is a computer software engineer who emigrated from Jamaica. His mom prefers to call her eldest son, “Nicolas.”
Cross attended Ascension Lutheran in Landover Hills from first through seventh grade. Born the day before 9/11, he was 5 when he entered school. When it closed in 2014, he transferred to St. Jerome Academy with a couple classmates, Joshua Morgan and Wesley Douglas. Ni-Ann and Nijel still attend school there and are active in sports.
Nick ran track as a youngster and played organized T-Ball, soccer and basketball. Football was limited to recess. At St. Jerome, Cross could also play football indoors in Eric Heller’s physical education class. He was physically far more developed than his fellow students in Daniel Flynn’s eighth-grade class.
Cross became a starter on Joe Sego’s Varsity A basketball team. The talented squad included fellow DeMatha students Alex Edgecombe and Thai’re Vance, as well as Malcolm Dread (Gonzaga).
Vance plays basketball for the Stags; Dread for the Eagles. The club won St. Jerome’s record-tying fifth CYO Mid-Atlantic varsity boys championship in 2015 at DeMatha’s LT (SEAL) Brendan Looney ’99 Convocation Center.
Cross corralled a team-high seven rebounds in the title game and left a lasting impression on Sego, who compares him to a guy who played in the NFL and the Major Leagues.
“Nick is what I like to call a once in a generation-type athlete,” Sego said. “He is a bit of a freak of nature. He reminds me of Bo Jackson in that a lot of his strengths and power are just genetic gifts.
“I honestly think he could have been an All-American in any sport he chose.”
Cross had often asked his father about playing on an organized football team. He’d even leave a local football team’s website open on his dad’s computer screen and “then go hide somewhere to see if he would look at it.
“We’d talk about it every year. ‘Maybe this year,’ [his dad would say.] Sometimes it would be disappointing. And then finally [as I was about to] go to high school, he was like, ‘Yeah, you can finally play.’ So, I was really excited …”
Cross has benefited from outstanding coaching. In addition to Brooks and Sego, he has learned under, among others, former Stags’ defensive coordinator Deno Campbell and current safeties coach Vance Robbs.
Cornerbacks coach and co-defensive coordinator Josh Wilson offers insight from his nine years in the NFL.
“Coach Josh and Coach Vance push me every day,” Cross said. “Coach Josh made it to the NFL and had a successful career. He looks at things that can make you go from being average to good to great to even unstoppable. I always ask him and Coach Vance what they see.
“It’s not the big things anymore. It’s basically the little things.”
Cross and free safety DeMarcco Hellams headline what is arguably the best secondary in the nation. Hellams, a senior who also starts at wide receiver, is going to Alabama. The pair played together on the freshman team.
Coupling his athletic feats with a 3.6 grade-point average made Cross very attractive to college recruiters. He received full scholarship offers from about 35 schools, including from as far away as Stanford. Before deciding on Florida State, he and his parents took official visits to Florida, Auburn and Alabama. They also made an unofficial trip to Penn State.
Brooks said he told the coaches recruiting Cross that his stellar defender would ask a lot of questions about the school and the team’s teaching techniques.
“That’s how he’s wired,” he said. “He wants so desperately to be good that he’s always craving more – more guidance, more teaching, more film, everything. He always wants to be challenged in that way.”
Florida State, in Tallahassee, was Cross’ dream school since he was “a little kid.” He said he feels comfortable with the coaches he met, is impressed with its tradition of producing NFL defensive backs, and it has the major (finance) he wants.
The Seminoles will be getting a player who runs the 40-yard dash in 4.4 seconds and who has bench pressed 225 pounds 18 times. No matter what sport he’s playing or whether it’s a game or practice, he goes all out on every play.
“Nick would always give 100 percent effort in every drill, every practice,” said Sego, who also coached Cross as a ninth-grader. “Sometimes we had to tell him to dial it back a bit. Because he was so much stronger and quicker than our other players, we feared injury.”
Cross said he had a dream that Josh Wilson had become the Seminoles’ defensive coordinator. When informed of his latest nighttime images, Cross said Wilson told him, “that should tell you something …”
“Coach Brooks is always telling us that when you know, you know,” said Cross, who also plays the saxophone. “So, when I went down there, I knew it was the right place for me.”
Even before he started playing football, Cross set a goal to be one of the top players in the nation and to play professionally. He is looking to start next year at FSU.
“I think God has blessed me,” he said. “I actually prayed specifically that I would do the things that I’m doing since I was like 11 or 12. It really started kicking in when Ohio State came and offered me [a scholarship]. Then I got like 10 more [offers] in the next two, three days.
“So, I think that’s when it kind of started to sink in [how good he was].”
Brooks has coached several players with NFL aspirations who never made it. Conversely, he has seen guys who weren’t that highly regarded leaving high school who did. He thinks Cross has the physical tools, mental makeup, desire and work ethic to hear his name called in the NFL draft.
“He definitely has the potential, barring injury, to be an NFL player,” Brooks said.
The winner of the DeMatha-Good Counsel WCAC Capital Division playoff game Friday will advance to play the St. John’s-Gonzaga victor. The latter will meet at top-seeded St. John’s on Saturday at 2 p.m.
The Cadets (9-0) are ranked No. 1 by The Washington Post. DeMatha (7-2) is second, Good Counsel (6-3) fifth and Gonzaga (7-3) sixth.
Good Counsel will get a big boost if starting quarterback Kamerun Snell is able to play. Snell, a senior lefthander who is battling foot and shoulder injuries, did not play in his team’s 32-2 loss to the Stags on Oct. 19 and hasn’t played since.
Whether Snell plays or not, DeMatha Coach Elijah Brooks is expecting a much-tougher game against the Falcons. The Stags lost in overtime at home to Good Counsel last season. In 2015, DeMatha won its third of four straight WCAC championships with a 48-17 victory over the Olney school.
“It’s playoff football, and we’ve had many battles with Good Counsel,” Brooks said. “They’re going to be a better team this time around. They’re not going to turn the ball over five times. We’re going to have to raise our level of play if we expect to advance to the championship.”
The title game will be held at Catholic University’s Cardinal Stadium for the first time. The game, which might be televised by ESPN, is slated for Sunday Nov. 18 at 6 p.m.
The WCAC Metro Division championship is at 1 p.m.
Eric Najarian and Jermaine Johnson hooked up last week at McNamara on a 99-yard touchdown pass. It is believed to be the longest play from scrimmage in DeMatha history. At worst, it would tie it.
Najarian, throwing out of his own end zone, found Johnson open at about the Stags’ 40-yard-line. The senior wideout took the ball the rest of the way to give DeMatha a 7-0 lead in an eventual 42-14 victory.
On the Stags’ next series, the duo connected over the middle for a 45-yard TD. Najarian added a 14-yard scoring pass in the second quarter to sophomore Kaden Prather. The senior signal caller tied his career high with three touchdown passes.
DeMatha’s offensive line, which has struggled at times this season and lost its top lineman, Jordan White, in the first game, is playing better each week. The unit features guards Khaydon Brooks and Darius Fox; tackles Andrew Allmond and Dwayne Allick; and center Connor Shephard.
Chris McManes (mick-maynz) is a former sports writer for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. You can follow him on Twitter at @ChrisMcManes1.