SPRINGFIELD - On the long drives, the ones to Oklahoma or Delaware, or even Rutgers or Pitt, William Watson’s the one behind the wheel, and Melquawn Pinkney’s the one at the back of the van absolutely wired, playing jokes, putting things in people’s ears.
“He’s kind of like the maestro,’’ Watson said. “He’s got to pull strings, he’s got to get on everybody’s nerves. He’s got to keep everybody up the whole ride there. He keeps everybody happy.’’
Watson, an assistant football coach at Putnam Vocational Tech for 14 years, is the one loading up the van with football players, setting up the hotel rooms, configuring the GPS on the way to what they all hope is more exposure, more opportunities for college coaches to see them.
When they hit the top prospect camps, the college showcases, the 7-on-7 competitions during the summer, Watson will watch Pinkney from the stands. For a running back/defensive back, Pinkney’s 5-foot-9-inch frame doesn’t allow him to physically stand out among the recruits drawing four- or five-star ratings from scouting services. But in that environment, he refuses to shrink.
“He walks around like he owns the combine,’’ Watson said. “He’s just calling out the top names.’’
Pinkney has a routine. He finds the top player at the camp, asks him what schools are recruiting him, then says, “I’m going to send this film to that school after I’m finished with you. If they’re giving you a scholarship, they’re giving me a scholarship.’’
“I saw a lot of running backs, but they never showed me anything that I couldn’t do,’’ Pinkney said. “They were just more hyped.’’
People are noticing Pinkney now because his numbers are too huge to ignore. In Putnam’s past four games, Pinkney’s rushed for 1,332 yards. For the season he’s at 1,526 yards and 24 touchdowns. His 421 yards in Week 3 against Agawam set a Western Mass. record, even though it fell just short of the then-state record of 426 set by Lynn English’s Brandon Guy in 2001.
Last week, Cody Titus piled up 436 yards for St. Bernard’s in Fitchburg, and when word reached Pinkney, he said, “That just means I’ve got another record to chase.’’
He’s a small player at a small school, but the more yards he eats up and the more games his team wins (the Beavers are 6-0 and face Chicopee Comp tonight), the bigger their names get. The intent is to gain notoriety, 100 yards at a time if he has to.
Next to Pinkney, the hardest-working man on Putnam’s sideline against Agawam was Alvin Brown, the team’s longtime scorekeeper.
“He was getting a good workout,’’ said Putnam coach Lou Malvezzi.
The buzz started after Pinkney’s first long run, a 72-yard burner for a touchdown. By halftime, he had 298 yards and four scores. After the break, he added touchdown runs of 70 and 50 yards.
Malvezzi took him out with eight minutes left . . . in the third quarter.
“If we would have kept him in, he would have had 700 yards rushing that day,’’ Watson said. “Easily.’’
As recently as training camp, Pinkney wasn’t even the clear favorite to start. Going back to his freshman year, it was the same way. He didn’t pass the eye test. Two other backs came in with Pinkney; all three would get game carries.
“You look at the stat sheet and he was still the most productive back,’’ Watson said. “Every time. You’re like, ‘Are my eyes all right? This guy’s bigger and stronger, this guy’s bigger and faster, but this kid’s still the most productive back that we have.’ ’’
He has big college dreams - Ohio State, Oregon, Alabama, or LSU - but they’re tempered by the reality of his small build. His 40 time is in the 4.5-4.6 range. His strength is deceptive.
“I feel like I’m just as good or even better, but people don’t look at me for the player I am,’’ he said. “They look at me like if I’m 5-9 I’ve got to be heavy. Or if I’m 5-9 I’ve got to be super fast. I’m a football player.’’
In a lot of ways, Pinkney is a walking metaphor for his team, which despite its success (Putnam has gone to six Super Bowls in the last 11 years) still feels slighted.
“He’s a good representation for what we are,’’ said Malvezzi. “We may not be well-known or that big of a school, but in terms of football and what we’re doing now, we’re coming to the forefront.’’
The last time Putnam had its own football field was 2008, and then they shared it with Springfield High School of Science and Technology.
Since then, the Beavers have played their games at American International College and shared Blunt Park with Springfield Central High as their practice field.
It’s . . . awkward.
“We’ve got to sit there and watch them practice every day,’’ Pinkney said.
Eyeballing Central’s practice, there are four or five clusters of 10 or 12 kids. Their numbers look healthy.
A quick glance at Putnam’s practice and there are four groups of six or eight bodies. The numbers aren’t overwhelming.
“You look over there, it’s like four little Putnam teams out there,’’ Watson joked.
Central houses more than 2,000 students, almost 600 more than Putnam. The perception is that they are the city’s darling, the de facto choice for the best team in the area.
“People probably say Central,’’ said Vasquez. “But that’s not what we think.’’
“It’s kind of been that way,’’ Malvezzi said. “They’re the bigger school. They get the bigger numbers. We have to kind of fight to keep our identity.’’
More than a decade ago, Putnam was a shell of a program. But since 2000, the Beavers have been to six Super Bowls. The first time, they were a Division 3A team. They’ve moved up to Division 2. Eight of the 11 teams on their schedule this season are Division 1, including Central. They’re walking over opponents by 33 points on average.
“We worked from the bottom,’’ Watson said. “When I first got here, we couldn’t even have a full practice. We didn’t have 22 kids. We used to have to do half a line on each side. We were in the lowest division.’’
The Beavers opened this season against Central. The 20-13 win was like having bragging rights for breakfast.
“Haven’t heard them ever since that day,’’ Pinkney said. “They can’t say anything else until next year.’’
A studious approach
After losing the Division 2 Super Bowl to South Hadley by a field goal last year, the goal is to return and win.
After that, Pinkney will consider his college options, using the yards he’s piled up this season as his résumé.
Three years ago, when Pinkney was a freshman, Justin Reid was the one eating up football fields 100 yards at a time. Reid finished his career at Putnam with 4,472 yards, the eighth-highest total in Western Mass. history.
At 5-8, Reid didn’t have a body ripped from an Under Armor commercial, either, but his size wasn’t what kept schools from looking at him. It was his grades, something he regretted when he looked back. Reid is a defensive back now at American International College.
“He took Mel under his wing and gave him that message,’’ Watson said. “He plays at AIC now, but he missed out on some big opportunities because of grades and he told him, ‘When your time comes, don’t do what I did. I didn’t take it serious from the beginning.’ ’’
When no one else was in Pinkney’s ear about college plans, he was looking ahead.
“He already was thinking, ‘I’ve got to keep my grades up because if I get my opportunity and my time comes, I don’t want grades to be what holds me back,’ ’’ Watson said.
The conversation has come up about whether Pinkney would rather play for a lower division school or walk on at a major college program.
He said he’d rather walk on.
“His thought process is, he’d rather walk on to a school like that, because when he gets there, they’re going to offer him,’’ Watson said. “Even if he has to prove himself for a year, he’ll do that.’’
They will question his size. They may even question his numbers. Pinkney will be eager to prove them wrong.
“If you can play football, you can play football no matter what,’’ Pinkney said. “I’m a football player, and coaches are going to start picking that up.’’
Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.