BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Micah McFadden's sophomore season on the junior varsity at Plant High School in Tampa, Fla., had just ended. He hadn't really made any impact yet at the football powerhouse, and he was still basically just Luke McFadden's little brother.
"I've known the McFadden family since Micah was in the third grade. It's just an entire family of great character. The parents, the kids, they are all just fantastic people,'' said Robert Weiner, McFadden's former coach at Plant who is now an assistant coach at the University of Toledo. "Micah was that middle child, and I think when he was a sophomore, he was still just trying to figure out where he fit in.
"He was a great kid, but he was still kind of stumbling through the dark a little bit. He needed to learn how to navigate his own path, and as he grew and matured, he found his own way. That had a lot to do with him being a late bloomer, I think, but in a good way.''
After that sophomore season, McFadden sat down with his coaches, and from their perspective, one thing was clear. They knew him, knew his skill, knew what he was capable of. He had the potential to be a very good football player.
And now it was time to prove that.
"Because Luke was in our program, Micah was always running around our field as a little kid. We knew all about Micah,'' Weiner said. "And after that sophomore year, when we talked with him, we told him that 'as soon as you make the commitment to be great, you will be great.'
"And right then, it was like a light went on. It just clicked. He was finding himself, and from there he just lived in the weight room, worked like crazy to get better, watched a lot of film and asked a lot of questions. Then, as a junior, he was just tremendous. The rest, as they say, is history. Just look at him now.''
McFadden had a brilliant junior year at Plant, playing outside linebacker alongside Thomas Allen, the son of Indiana football coach Tom Allen. Then, as a senior, he moved to the middle after Allen graduated and he had more than 200 tackles. He was something of an overnight sensation, and because of that, he wasn't heavily recruited. He was a three-star recruit with more than 2,000 players ranked ahead of him, and more than 100 linebackers, too. His only Power 5 offers were from Indiana and Boston College.
But Allen, who knew the McFadden family well too because he was coaching at the University of South Florida when their sons played together, saw something special in Micah. He's the poster child for how Allen had to recruit at first, finding under-the-radar guys who could turn into stars.
Allen has built his entire program that way at Indiana, and with guys like McFadden — a 6-foot-2, 235-pound middle linebacker — and others, that's why they're 4-0 right now, ranked No. 9 in the country and the cutest success story nationally during this weird 2020 college football season. The play No. 3 Ohio State Saturday for Big Ten East supremacy in the biggest Indiana football game in decades.
Just like Allen told him they would.
"When I was a senior in high school and in the recruiting process, he was true from the start,'' McFadden said when asked about Allen's message back as a senior at Plant. "He was telling me that Indiana was going to be a contender for the Big Ten championship. He said we were going to win a lot of games if I came here. The guys that he was recruiting, he knew it was going to be a good class.
"He was so enthusiastic about the change that was going on in this program. You could see it in his eyes and the way he talked was so convincing. That led me to believe, believe in him, believe in the program and the change that was going on. That led to me wanting to commit here.''
The family ties certainly helped in recruiting, but it was also a perfect fit. Allen loved everything about McFadden, and vice versa.
"When it came to recruiting, there's no question a lot of people missed the boat on Micah,'' Weiner said. "Tom Allen obviously knew him very well because he had seen so much of him. He knew the quality of the kid and the family, and he knew what Micah could be. He saw all that before anyone else did.''
And that's exactly how it's played out.
"Micah literally checks off every single box when it comes to making the perfect middle linebacker,'' Weiner said. "He's got great speed, but he'll also blow you up every chance he gets. He's instinctively smart on the field, but he's also a very smart kid off the field. The mental side of that position, being the leader on the defense, fits him perfectly.
"You really see that this year. They're doing a lot of different things on defense, and you can see how they're confusing people. They're making a lot of big plays and forcing a lot of turnovers, and that comes for experience. They're all on the same page, and they can play in a lot of different ways. You can do that when you have a roster full of kids like Micah, who are all so versatile that they can do a lot of different things.''
Growing up before our eyes
Indiana defensive coordinator Kane Wommack still likes to joke that when they put McFadden on the field as a true freshman, McFadden really wasn't sure what he was doing. But he made plays anyway. He was that good. Before he even really knew the defense, he still went out and made plays.
"It is fun to able to see somebody go through the progression of maturity on and off the field as a player,'' Wommack said Monday. "To get to see that, and then also in the way he has gone about his business and getting better as a player. Early on, he was a guy that was just a playmaker that we put out there on the field and he would line up and go chase the ball down. Now we get to see his skill set develop fundamentally with his understanding of the game, understanding of our concepts, recognizing situations and what offenses are doing.
"His production has continued to climb. As a coach, it is very rewarding to get to walk a guy through that for going on three years. That is certainly the most that I have gotten to do.''
McFadden had 20 tackles as a freshman, and then led the team a year ago with 61 tackles, including 10 for loss and two interceptions. This year, he's done it all as one of America's best middle linebackers.
Whatever it is you like about linebackers, he's done it. Want a bunch of tackles? He had 11 in the huge season-opening win against Penn State. Want turnovers? He had an interception against Rutgers. Want to stuff the run? Michigan had only 13 yards in 18 carries. Blitz when your opponent isn't expecting it? He had two sacks against Michigan State and a third tackle for loss.
In other words, he's doing it all. "Micah had the sacks and a whole bunch of tackles,'' Allen said after the 24-0 win over Michigan State, where McFadden and cornerback Tiawan Mullen were the defensive players of the game. "He just played his tail off.''
That's what he does.
VIDEO: Kane Wommack talks about McFadden's growth
Winning is a family affair
Weiner got to know Tom Allen well, and he knows what this Indiana program is all about. He knows the genesis of "LEO'' and that love-each-other family feeling bleeds through the program from top to bottom. It shows in their rise to prominence this year, knocking off teams like Penn State, Michigan and Michigan State that have owned them for years.
That works well for McFadden, because he feels that way, too. And he's been through all of this before — in high school back in Tampa.
"I think what helped with Micah raising his game and becoming such a great leader was that he was part of a group of four or five kids that were all legacy kids for us at Plant,'' Weiner said. 'They were the core of our group on that team, and they all had older brothers who were great players at Plant. So they learned the way, and learned about the expectations. They all wanted to push to the next level together.
"And much like at Indiana, he helped us win some big games here that we hadn't won in the past. We went to a state championship game one year, and the state semifinals another year. He left it all on the field every night, and he carried everyone along with him. He just attacks everything he does, and I think that's why you've seen him get so much better every year. I mean, the jump is dramatic year after year.''
McFadden admits that his coaches believed in his ability before he did, but then once he started to have success, he just built off of it.
"When my JV coaches told me going into my junior season that I was going to be a beast in the next season, personally, I didn't always see it or whole-heartedly believe it, but those guys believed in me,'' McFadden said. "They trusted that my talent could get me on the field and perform at a high level.
"It was hearing those words every day, those guys in my ear telling me how good I could be and the work it would take to get me there. That continuous effort to do that really got me to that mindset. That got me to the next level to prepare for a varsity-type season that I had my junior year. And I just took it from there.''
He's found his place, but it took some time. And that is totally fine.
"His brother Luke, I can tell you that there are very few human beings in this world that I love more than him, or love more than that family,'' Weiner said. "He was just one of those kids that everyone looked up to and admired and he had a nice small-college career as a receiver at Johns Hopkins. It's hard to explain his pure goodness. They were three years apart, and I think for Micah, there was some of that 'how do I handle that?' and 'how do I find my own place?'
"But that's what I love so much about Micah. Once he set his mind to being great, he did exactly that. He was a terrific player for me at Plant, and I had no doubt that he was going to be a great college player. That's what he is right now. He is a great college football player.''
And for Weiner, he's thrilled to watch all of his success from afar. He's happy for Micah, happy for the McFadden family, and happy for Tom Allen. Indiana senior wide receiver Whop Philyor and junior defensive back Juwan Burgess are Plant kids, too.
"It's great to see them have the success they're having this year. I've loved it,'' Weiner said. "I watched and heard Tom talk to these kids about what was going to happen at Indiana if they came, and it's all coming true right in front of our eyes right now. Maybe no one else ever thought Indiana could be a top-10 team, but Tom Allen believed it, and my Plant kids, they believed it, too.
"This is really, really special.''
Several members of the McFadden family will get to every game despite the lengthy commute from Florida. Parents Doug and Deborah McFadden will make the trips, as will Luke as often as possible. Sister Rebekah is a senior at the University of Tampa, and youngest brother Sean is a senior at Plant High School.
"I'm working from home remotely now, so that's been something of a plus, in that I've been able to get to several of his games,'' said Luke, who graduated from Johns Hopkins and works for the William Blair investment banking firm. "It's just amazing to be able to enjoy all of this. It's been incredible.''
Tom Allen shared a story Thursday that Doug McFadden had asked him point blank during recruiting if he really thought Micah was good enough to play at this level. Dad wasn't so sure, because big-time recruiters had mostly stayed away.
It's a true story, Luke said.
"I certainly can't say that I saw this all coming, but it also doesn't surprise me, either, if that makes sense,'' Luke said. "There are a lot of kids who are good high school players, and they're great at that level, but you don't know what they can do next. I think we all sort of felt that way about Micah. We didn't really know how good he could be playing at a place like Indiana and in the Big Ten.
"But that's what makes me really proud of my brother. We figured he'd redshirt that first year, but he found his way on the field and he stayed there. What you say about him getting better every year, we all see it, too. He has incredible drive, and he really wants to be the best player he can possibly be.''
There's no end of the line for Micah's progress, either. He's on center stage in the biggest college football game of the weekend Saturday in Columbus. Millions of people will be watching on television, including the McFadden family now that no parents can attend this week's game, either.
"Yeah, that's sad because my parents had plane tickets for Columbus and they were really excited to be there,'' Luke said. "Saturday can't get here soon enough, though. It's a huge day for everyone in the Indiana family.''
And that certainly includes the McFaddens. Every last one of them.