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Jaleel McLaughlin’s football success was bred from his struggle

The Youngstown State running back went from homelessness as a child to the NCAA record books and the radar of NFL teams

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — It’s often just a matter of time before Youngstown State running back Jaleel McLaughlin makes his presence known. It took longer than usual after his first seven carries netted only 11 yards at the school’s homecoming.

But with the score tied early in the second quarter against visiting Indiana State, McLaughlin split the line, broke a tackle and zoomed 68 yards for a touchdown.

“You have to be disciplined on defense. If not, Jaleel will make you pay,” said Youngstown coach Doug Phillips. “Often after games, [opposing] coaches will greet me and say, ‘That No. 8 [McLaughlin] is special.’ ”

McLaughlin has been cashing in so much yardage in his career that he’s ascended to fourth all-time in NCAA rushing yards with 7,641. He’s only 154 yards away from third, behind Division III Mount Union’s Nate Kmic (8,074), Danny Woodhead (7,962) of Division II Chadron State and Levell Coppage (7,795) of Division III Wisconsin-Whitewater.

But McLaughlin’s journey to college football immortality didn’t begin as smoothly as one of his spectacular runs: He overcame homelessness, limited scholarship offers and continued questions about his ability to become an NFL prospect.

“I always felt I had something to prove because of our early struggles,” McLaughlin said. “Those hard times continue to motivate me.”

The source of McLaughlin’s inspiration began when he was in the seventh grade. His mother, Tonya McLaughlin, a single parent, was laid off after 10 years from a factory job in Spring Lake, North Carolina, a small town near the Fort Bragg army base. Her oldest child, Jamecia, raised her oldest son, Tayvon, and she took care of her youngest boys, Jaleel and Jayshawn, who is three years older than Jaleel. She was no longer able to afford an apartment, so the three of them lived briefly with different relatives and at a motel.

“That was tough because the motel was close to my school,” McLaughlin remembered. “Sometimes I’d come out of the motel, and if I saw school buses going by, I’d duck because I didn’t want my classmates seeing where I lived.”

But times became tougher when circumstances led to Tonya McLaughlin and her two boys living out of her gray four-door Ford Focus for three months. McLaughlin would sleep cramped in the back seat.

“It was definitely frustrating,” McLaughlin said. “I’d wonder why we had to go through this. One night, after fighting off bugs, I got out of the car and slammed the door.”

“I started to cry because this wasn’t the life that I wanted for us,” his mother said. “But 10 minutes after slamming the door, he came back and said he was sorry and for me not to worry.”

“We’d have games every Saturday, and go from place to place during the week for practice. It gave us something to do and gave us something positive, because we didn’t want to see our mom crying. Playing sports made us want to work hard and not want to live like we were living.”

— Jayshawn McLaughlin, Jaleel McLaughlin’s brother

Their circumstances didn’t stop their sports participation. Tonya McLaughlin managed to keep her boys involved in track and field, football and basketball.

“Being a single mom, I didn’t know what else to do with boys but to keep them busy with sports,” she said.

“We’d have games every Saturday, and go from place to place during the week for practice,” said Jayshawn McLaughlin, 24, now a real estate agent in Charlotte, North Carolina. “It gave us something to do and gave us something positive, because we didn’t want to see our mom crying. Playing sports made us want to work hard and not want to live like we were living.”

McLaughlin had early success as a track athlete, earning regional and state awards before high school. His mother moved to Arkansas later that year for work, and McLaughlin and his brother moved in with their father in Charlotte. Their mother returned two years later once McLaughlin reached high school, and the family was reunited.

Meanwhile, McLaughlin made a name for himself in football. He averaged nearly eight yards per carry as a senior. In basketball that same year, he led Forest Hills High School to a state title, and in the spring, he led the school to its first state track title. He was a member of the state-winning 4 x 100-meter and 4 x 200-meter relay teams.

Sports success didn’t lead to many college football scholarship offers. At 5 feet 9 inches and 195 pounds, McLaughlin is still small in stature for a running back. And for the schools that did show interest — mostly Division II — running back wasn’t the position they considered him for.

“They all wanted me to play either safety or corner,” McLaughlin said. “Right when I was about to commit to University of Charleston, they called me and said they wanted me to play safety instead of running back. I couldn’t do that. So I signed with Notre Dame College [Ohio].”

Then-Notre Dame College coach Mike Jacobs saw enough on video to recruit McLaughlin.

“We have a rule. If the first minute of a highlight tape is touchdowns, you have to recruit him,” said Jacobs, now head coach at Lenoir-Rhyne University in North Carolina. “When we got a chance to see him in person, he was playing basketball. We saw him shut down a D-I prospect.”

What Jacobs saw on film only guaranteed McLaughlin’s position, not when or if he would play.

“The coaches told me I’d sit behind a few running backs in front of me,” McLaughlin said. “I came in with a chip on my shoulder ready to prove that I should play immediately.”

During the 2021 season with Notre Dame College (Ohio), running back Jaleel McLaughlin finished second in voting for the Harlon Hill Trophy, Division II’s Heisman Trophy equivalent.

youngstown state sports information

“We talk about those days all the time. We’ll talk about how far we’ve come and how things can get even better.” — Tonya McLaughlin

The road to proving himself began during summer training. Freshmen were required to run only eight wind sprints, and the upperclassmen ran 16. When the coaches would blow the whistle for the freshmen to stop after eight sprints, McLaughlin continued.

“I kept running because I wanted to prove I could play from Day 1,” McLaughlin said.

He proved it indeed.

McLaughlin ran for 302 yards in his freshmen debut, and rushed for 340 yards and three touchdowns in just three quarters four games later. He finished his first season with 2,421 yards and 18 touchdowns, setting several Division II records for freshmen, including most yards in a first game and most yards in a first season. McLaughlin finished third in voting for the Harlon Hill Trophy, Division II’s version of the Heisman Trophy.

McLaughlin picked up where he left off in Year 2. He finished first in Division II in all-purpose yards, first in rushing (2,316), first in touchdowns (33) and first in scoring (198 points). He was the first player on any NCAA level to rush for more than 2,000 yards in both freshman and sophomore seasons. And this time he was runner-up for the Harlon Hill Trophy.

West Liberty (West Virginia) coach Roger Waialae was all too familiar with McLaughlin, who rushed for 598 yards and six touchdowns in two games against his team.

“He waited two years too late to get into the transfer portal,” Waialae half joked. “Things he did in games were incredible. You’d think you got him [tackled] and all of sudden you don’t. I remember a play when Notre Dame snapped the ball over the quarterback’s head, he picked up the ball and ran 27 yards.”

Success at Notre Dame College started to make McLaughlin too comfortable. He now needed to challenge himself.

“I wasn’t losing sprints. I wasn’t worried about my starting spot,” McLaughlin said. “They didn’t even let me practice in the spring. I needed to put myself into a position where I was uncomfortable so I’d go harder. That’s what I needed in my life.”

Those needs escalated in 2020 when the coronavirus pandemic shut down several Division II programs and put the season for many teams up in the air. Until Notre Dame College decided to play a spring schedule, its fall season was in question.

“I figured I needed to make a move because I could lose a season, plus I wanted to play at the highest level so I could test my ability,” McLaughlin said.

McLaughlin drew interest from several schools once he entered the transfer portal, including Penn State. Youngstown State, which plays in the FCS, made an offer on the first day of the portal. The opportunity to start and remain in Ohio, where he established some relationships, led McLaughlin to sign with the Penguins.

The transfer didn’t come without criticism.

“There were times when people came into my Twitter posts saying transferring [out of Division II] was a terrible move,” McLaughlin said.

“I told them, ‘I’ll show you.’ ”

Youngstown State running back Jaleel McLaughlin is among the FCS leaders in rushing yards, rushing touchdowns and yards per carry.

Youngstown State Sports Information

McLaughlin didn’t show much in his first two games. He had only 63 yards on 17 carries. McLaughlin said the slow start was partly due to his bout with COVID-19. Once cleared, he had a week and a half to prepare for the season opener.

“I didn’t have that many yards in those first two games, but I knew this is where I needed to be,” McLaughlin said. “I needed to up my game and work harder.”

Hard work and a full recovery from COVID-19 helped bring McLaughlin to the level of play he was used to. He averaged 127 yards over the next five games of Youngstown State’s abbreviated season. Despite the slow start, he finished the season with 5.2 yards per carry.

That was only a preview of what was to come. McLaughlin averaged 6.5 yards per carry (1,139 yards) the following year, including 242 yards in the season opener.

And this year has been more like McLaughlin. He’s rushed for more than 200 yards three times and 100 or more yards in every game this season except for 36 yards on 10 carries at Kentucky (he did have a 64-yard catch against the Wildcats). In seven games, McLaughlin has rushed for 1,063 yards (7.8 yards per carry) and eight touchdowns.

“Catching COVID and not starting my career at Youngstown State like I did at Notre Dame made me sit down and ask myself did I really want this,” McLaughlin said. “As always, I just put my head down and trained harder to prove I could play on this level.”

McLaughlin’s success has caught the NFL’s attention. Youngstown State’s campus has been a destination spot for many scouts, including multiple visits by the San Francisco 49ers, Cleveland Browns and Chicago Bears, according to Trevor Parks, the school’s director of athletics communications.

McLaughlin isn’t the prototypical NFL running back due to his size, but Cam Mellor of the Pro Football Network said that shouldn’t prevent him from being selected in the 2023 NFL draft.

“With his size and fluidity, there’s a home for him on an NFL roster with ease,” Mellor said. “It certainly won’t come as easy as the top running backs in this draft cycle, but his productivity at both of his collegiate stops is far too much to overlook.”

Most NFL eyes will be on McLaughlin and the other 99 senior invitees to the Hula Bowl on Jan. 14 in Orlando, Florida. He’ll get the opportunity to showcase himself on special teams, as a pass-catcher out of the backfield and a slot receiver.

Either way, McLaughlin’s pleased with the opportunity.

“I always dreamed of playing in the NFL or in the NBA while growing up,” said McLaughlin, who will earn a business degree in December. “Having scouts come to practice and getting invited to the Hula Bowl is big-time. I’m happy for the opportunity to prove that I’m one of the best too.”

McLaughlin and his family are on the cusp of better things they could only dream of while living in a car in a McDonald’s parking lot. While the future is promising, the past remains.

“We talk about those days all the time,” said Tonya McLaughlin, now a nurse’s aide. “We’ll talk about how far we’ve come and how things can get even better. I pray with Jaleel every Saturday morning. I tell him no one can stop what God has for him, and to go out and get his blessing.”

Branson Wright is a filmmaker and freelance multimedia sports reporter.