It took only a few minutes for Wilde Lake’s Amir Macktoon to realize that good things were on the horizon for him and his teammates.
During a late-season boys basketball practice in February, Macktoon, Amari Hutson and the rest of the Wildecats’ hoops squad were introduced to new track coach Darnerien McCants for the first time. And while the credentials of the 1997 Arundel High graduate who played five seasons as a wide receiver in the National Football League immediately spoke volumes, it was something else that left a lasting impression on the group gathered in the gym.
“I knew he would be a good coach when he talked to us the first time. He was able to relate to us and kept it 100 with us,” Macktoon said. “That was a good first experience. If a coach isn’t 100, then you don’t know what you have to work on to get better.”
McCants, who was a state champion in the high jump and a three-sport star at Arundel, issued his best recruiting pitch that day. But more than simply encouraging the basketball players to come out for track, his message was intended to inspire them to strive for greatness in whatever path of life they may choose.
“I think we need to change these kids’ mindsets and expect greatness out of them,” said McCants, who retired from football in 2009 and has been a personal trainer since. “We can’t let them be mediocre.”
Over a span of a few months this spring, McCants certainly made an impact on the Wilde Lake team and community. Working in particular with the team’s jumpers, he helped a group of four athletes that included Macktoon and Hutson qualify for states in either the high jump or long jump.
Jim Nwalal finished second in Class 2A in the high jump, while Macktoon, Collins Tadjou and Hutson placed fourth, seventh and ninth, respectively, in the long jump.
He also built a trust with his athletes that allowed him to bond with them beyond the track.
“We talk about sports, but he’ll also talk to us about real life stuff and how we have to approach different situations and what our mindset has to be,” Hutson said. “It’s good to have a person like that who you can talk to. It lets me know someone has my back.”
McCants said that his experience at Wilde Lake has motivated him to become an educator — the career he studied for in college. He played football and majored in education at Delaware State before being drafted in the fifth round by the Washington Redskins.
He put together a solid professional career, playing from 2002 to 2004 with the Redskins and catching 53 passes and eight touchdowns in 29 games. In 2005, he was with the Eagles as a special teamer. He then played one season in the CFL and was also on the Ravens practice squad in 2008.
Once he decided to officially retire from playing, he quickly transitioned to sharing his expertise and experience with others. Before coaching at Wilde Lake, McCants, who lives in Ashburn, Va., also coached at Briarwood High School and Rock Ridge High School for six years.
His plan was to take the 2018-19 season off from coaching so he could focus on his personal training business. However, after talking with Jansen McMillan — a friend and an alternative education teacher at Wilde Lake — McCants offered his services as a jumping coach to the Wildecats.
While excited that he got a chance to return to Columbia, where he grew up and attended Wilde Lake as a high school freshman, McCants admits this spring had its challenges. But he also now knows this is the direction he wants to go.
“To travel to Wilde Lake from Ashburn is an hour, so I couldn’t implement what I wanted to because I still had to work,” McCants said. “Now, I want to get into the school system full time, so I can teach from the inside out to show the kids how it’s done.”
McCants, 42, said the goal for his young athletes is to give them the tools to obtain scholarships to college. Tadjou is a rising senior, while Macktoon and Hutson are rising juniors.
“You may not be able to go top (Division I), but you can still get a scholarship,” McCants said. “At Wilde Lake, unfortunately it’s the same dynamic as when I was there, a lot of single parents in low income situations. We have to get these kids to understand with today’s technology, there’s no reason not to expose yourself. … Most of these kids have the grades, but they have no exposure. Why aren’t they getting looks? It’s because no one knows they exist. It’s a digital world. We have to utilize this device you walk around with every day.”
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His biggest takeaway from being around the Wilde Lake community again was the lack of “pride in the Lake.”
“That’s what hurt the most to see. When I was coming up, there was a lot of pride in the Lake,” McCants said. “Everyone growing up, we wore Wilde Lake stuff. We wanted to be a Wilde Lake Wildecat. Now, these kids don’t have that. That’s something that has to be taught or learned.”
Macktoon, whose long jump improved by about two feet during the season, said having a coach like McCants, who has gone from growing up in Columbia to playing in the NFL, helps give validity to what he’s teaching.
McCants, who was a substitute teacher at Homewood Center last year, knows becoming an educator is a “process,” and he compares it to his pursuit of becoming a professional athlete.
“I’ll go through the process. This is the direction I want to go, and I’m patient,” he said. “My career didn’t happen overnight. It took time, and this is no different.”