They call him “Back flip.”
And when Je’Vondrea McClair decided to try his hand at track and field, the fortunes of his Meyers team went head over heels.
The naturally gifted athlete who’s most fascinated with the sport of football spent the past two years helping the Mohawks become champions.
In the process, he turned into one himself.
Thanks in large part to McClair’s jumping ability, Meyers went undefeated for the second straight season while winning back-to-back WVC Division 2 championships and McClair earned the highest finish of any of the league’s competitors at the PIAA Boys Track and Field Championships.
“That was something,” McClair said. “I felt great to be a part of that.”
But his state silver medal in the long jump and District 2 Class 2A championship in that event were only a couple of reasons why McClair was named the Times Leader Boys Track and Field Athlete of the Year.
His consistency and durability in jumping events became a rock Meyers leaned on, propelling the Mohawks to victories in every meet McClair participated in during his high school career.
And it was something he never thought possible while growing up in the Heights section of Wilkes-Barre.
But while the son of Lanee Keatts was focusing his attention on football as a kid, a trio of track personnel at Meyers tried to pull McClair into the pits.
Former Meyers state medalist Mark Robinson was one of them. McClair’s cousin, four-time state sprint medalist Nalasjia Harris-Johnson, was another. And then there was Hayden “Billy” White, a long-time Meyers track coach who served as an assistant at Hanover Area for a few years before returning to take over the Meyers helm in 2016. Most recognized for developing star hurdlers, White also has a sharp eye for jumpers, and quickly noticed McClair’s acrobatics outside of track.
“Everybody knew he was a real good athlete,” White said. “He would do all those flips all the time. If you can do a front flip and a back flip, you can jump. So we finally talked him into going out for track.
“I don’t think he knew how much fun track can be.”
While Harris-Johnson said selling McClair on the sport wasn’t easy, McClair admits he was open to the idea.
“I actually went with it,” said McClair, whose cousin, Bryandt Shelly, was a three-time state performer for GAR. “It kind of runs in the family. Bryandt Shelly was a state champ, my sister threw, my aunt was in it. It was around me.”
But his amazing flipping ability? That was pretty unique.
“I started doing that when I was in elementary school,” McClair, 19, said. “At about 5, 10 (years old), I started flipping. All my friends call me ‘Back flip.’ “
McClair wasn’t even expected to medal during his first state championship appearance, entering the PIAA long jump finals as a No. 14 seed.
But he found an extra burst of energy, leaping past most of the field with a personal best mark of 21-11.5, elevating himself to second place on the state medal stand.
“I knew coming in, that last year he had been injured most of the year. That really held him back a bit,” White said. “The big surprise was at states, when he took the silver medal. That was a matter of how consistent he was in his jumps. He was on the mark every time.”
McClair marks the 2016 regular season finale, when Meyers edged Hanover Area in a battle of unbeaten teams for the WVC title, as a turning point in the sport for him.
“Hanover was our last meet, and I was doing high jump,” McClair said. “Nobody told me until afterwards, but we needed my points to win the meet. I didn’t come in first, I came in second. But we needed those three points to win. After I finished, everybody jumped on me. They said, ‘You won it for us.’
McClair was feeling it during this year’s districts, too.
He left this year’s District 2 Class 2A boys championships with a gold medal in the long jump, a silver medal in the triple jump, a sixth-place medal as part of the 400 relay team — and with a big hug from his delighted cousin Harris-Johnson.
“Everyone knew he was always a good athlete,” Harris-Johnson said.
Now, there’s a good chance track and field will be in McClair’s foreseeable future.
He plans to join the track team while attending Luzerne County Community College.
“I had a few offers, but I’d rather head to LCC, keep it cheaper, then make a decision (on future college) later,” McClair said.
Besides, remaining in the area will allow McClair to keep his part-time job at Schiel’s Family Market, where he’s already a star.
“They put my picture up, they allowed me to work around my (track) schedule,” McClair said. “They really appreciate it over there.”