Forever 88: Klein Forest to retire jersey of McCollins Umeh
Compassionate. Jovial. Kind. Gentle Giant.
Those are just some of the ways people that knew McCollins Umeh – or better known as MC to his friends – that best describe him. It is a name that resonates still to this day through the halls of Klein Forest High School.
It is a name, and now a jersey, that will be enshrined forever.
When Johnathan Wilson was named the new head coach of Klein Forest, among his first tasks was to take care of something that many believed was "long overdue" – the retirement of No. 88 – Umeh's jersey.
"He is without a doubt the greatest player to ever play at Klein Forest High School," Wilson said. "We want him to be recognized and remembered forever! I want our kids to play with the same love and passion as he did and leave it all on the field!"
Tragically, Umeh will not be in attendance to see his jersey retired at his alma mater.
On June 8, 2004, Umeh was going through his first voluntary offseason workout at the University of Arizona. He had been on campus for only a day. In the first 15 minutes of practice, Umeh, 18, collapsed and later died due to an enlarged heart.
"I remember where I was the day he passed, his funeral, and running out of the tunnel holding his jersey the first game the following year," former Klein Forest offensive lineman Brian Roberson II said. "I look forward to seeing No. 88 one final time."
Roberson II was 17 and entering his senior year at Klein Forest the summer Umeh passed. He is now the Associate Principal at Furr High School.
"It means the world to me to see MC Umeh's number be retired," Roberson II said. "There could never be another No. 88, and now, there never will. After practicing against MC for years, I knew his talent, and that talent was taken away from us too soon. He made everyone and everything around him better, and now the school he loved will honor him for his contributions to Klein Forest community."
From this day forward the number 88 will be retired at Klein Forest High School to pay homage and respect to McCollins Umeh. The official retirement ceremony will be sent out soon with details included. We would love everyone to show their love and support for MC #EagleUp pic.twitter.com/ZxN3gGMOuc
— KLEIN FOREST FOOTBALL (@KFGOLDENEAGLES) March 12, 2020
When Umeh was donning the green and gold of Klein Forest -- Gene Johnson saw who he was first-hand on and off the field his entire career.
Johnson these days may be best known for his time at Cypress Ranch High School. But his first head coaching job was at Klein Forest (2000-2003).
"Seeing MC's jersey retired is better than a big Friday night win against your biggest rival!" Johnson, who was on the University of Arizona staff in the spring of 2004, said. "The impact he had on our team, school and community was immeasurable. From the gentle giant that broke up fights in the hallway; to the dominant player that made play after play on game night; to the never-relenting student that worked extremely hard to make sure he was academically eligible for a college scholarship. MC was a champion in the truest meaning of the word in all areas!
"I don't think you could find a coach or player from MC's era that doesn't think this is long overdue! MC was one of the kindest most compassionate people I have ever known. I am so incredibly happy this is happening."
As Johnson was the head coach, he oversaw the entire program. Ty Trahan on the other hand worked daily with Umeh, serving as his position coach.
Now, Trahan is the defensive coordinator at Pearl Rive Community College in Mississippi, but to this day still has a photo of Umeh on his refrigirator with his kids
"He touched a lot of people's lives," Trahan said. "I can remember at the funeral it was packed. Just a tremendous human being and athlete. It's a great testament to the life that he lived."
Trahan, like many remembered MC for the amazing athlete he was on the field but it was the after-the-game interactions that he remembers and, honestly, cherishes, the most.
"I was a brand new coach then with a new family," Trahan said. "I had a son named Kirkland, four, and a daughter named Kortney, two. Just the interaction that he had with them, he would always come over and hold Kortney. He would hug them and love them. They loved McCollins ... His smile was infectious. He touched our family unlike any other player I coached."
Outside of the coaches, who saw him everyday, a person that knew MC better than anyone was Deon Murphy.
Murphy, now a middle school coach in Spring ISD, remembers the first day they met. It was the first day of freshman football camp. Murphy showed up and was the second person to arrive, the first was MC.
Their inseparable bond started from that moment on. There would be times MC would spend the night at his house, Murphy said. He would give MC rides home, they would "compete over how many letters" we had.
"He was one of my closest friends," Murphy said.
To see his jersey getting retired 16 years after his death, is something that is a "long time coming".
"Just knowing the amazing player and the great amazing friend he was," Murphy, who went on to play at Kansas State, said. "It was only proper; it was only right to do so. You're letting his legacy live on even more just seeing his jersey and his picture, and to see what he's done for his program."
The two ended up starting on varsity as sophomores in 2001. They were then part of one of the greatest Klein Forest teams the following season. In 2002, Klein Forest went undefeated in the regular season for the first and still only time in the 40-year history of the program.
The MC stories go on and on for Murphy.
Off the field, Murphy said MC never looked down on anyone. He never talked bad about anyone. Instead, he lifted everyone up with praise and encouragement.
"I don't think he saw me, but he was talking to one of our teachers around the corner from the locker room," Murphy said as he recounted his favorite MC story. "I was coming down the hallway. All I heard was him say, 'Hey you know what, Deon is going to make it. He's a small receiver but he's going to make it. He's going to go to the league. He's going to play ball.' He didn't know I was coming around the corner. So, when I came around the corner he was like 'Man, I was just talking about you.'
"For him to say those things about me when I was not present, that lets you know what type of true friend he is."
On the field, Murphy said MC was the "biggest players to be recruited" at Klein Forest at that time. His on-the-field presence was a big reason why.
In Umeh's career at Klein Forest, he finished with 117 tackles, 82 assists, 27 tackles for loss and 20 sacks.
"He was probably one of the best football players to come out of Klein Forest, period," Murphy said. "I don't think anybody would disagree with that."
For Murphy, one game of their high school careers sticks out.
It was the first round of the playoffs in 2003 against Tomball. It was their senior year. As the story goes, Murphy tells it like this.
"Our middle linebacker broke his foot, we didn't have another middle linebacker," Murphy said. "They said 'MC go play middle linebacker'. He hadn't played middle linebacker the whole season. He was always our defensive end. To see him leave defensive end and go to middle linebacker and help us win that game in the playoffs and finish the game with 23 solo tackles, that was amazing."
That year, a freshman looking up to and watching MC was Wilson.
"I watched how he played the game of football. He played the game with a tremendous amount of passion and effort," Wilson said. "Watching him from the sidelines he was relentless and refused to be blocked. What I've learned from him most is to leave everything you got on the field and the rest will take care of itself. This is the same mentality I would like for our players to have. Leave it all on the field and compete for your brothers and the rest will take care of itself.
"He was a great role model for all of the young players who looked up to him. He was humble and kind in person but tenacious on the football field! When he spoke you listened and you followed his lead. He was someone I looked up to and wanted to follow in his footsteps. But more importantly, he was a leader and role model for this entire community. He was loved and respected by everyone. His name still holds weight to this day as the greatest football player to ever come out of Klein Forest High School."
Others that knew MC, knew him more off the field as a friend and for some like Brittany James, a big brother.
James, who is a Master Instructional Specialist for English at Klein Forest High School now, was a year younger than MC. Her family, including her mother, Ronda – who was a teacher, had such a tight relationship with him that he would call her mom.
He was special to the both.
"He was jovial, smart, amazing athlete, he really didn't need to go to practice, he was just that talented," James said. "He was the LeBron James of high school sports. I ran track, he would always make sure he watched my races. When I ran the relays, he was on the field at my handoff cheering me on. He was truly my big brother."
When MC graduated in 2004, James said she stayed all the way to his turn. With his last name being Umeh and a class of nearly 700, that was a while.
But at the end, MC found James to make a special call.
"He had me call my mom on the phone, to say 'Momma I did it!'," James said reflecting on that phone call. "She said, 'I love you'. He said 'love you too' and 'I got our girl', talking about me. That was our last exchange.
"I love him and I'm grateful he is being honored in this way. Our principal always talks about 'Being the Legacy', MC left a legacy at KF that is unmatched. He lived every day to his greatest potential and even in the midst of adversity he was resilient, strong and persevered. He was the epitome of an Eagle. He soared high, he soared proud and he encouraged others to do the same!"