March 27, 2012
by Sam Hickman
Demetrius McKelvie can't help but listen to the clamor ringing from the adjacent baseball diamond as he goes through linebacker drills on Hight Field inside the Cliff Moore Practice Complex.
He hears pings as balls with red stitching collide with bat barrels, thuds as clinched fists pound the inside of leather mitts and a harmonious roar as the crowd next door shows its appreciation for a perfectly-executed double play.
Although most members of the football team appear to tune-out the reverberations stemming from the confines of Lewis Field at Clark-LeClair Stadium, East Carolina's baseball facility, McKelvie's not-so-distant past gives him reason to stop and reflect for a moment.
The Hallsboro, N.C., native - located in Columbus County, just west of Wilmington - was a sweet-swinging lefty from the time he could pick up a bat.
McKelvie transformed into somewhat of a local legend, his frozen ropes through outfield gaps and mammoth home runs mirroring the likes of Ken Griffey, Jr., more than that of a kid roaming the hallways at the local middle school.
He led his 13 and 14-year old clubs to consecutive North Carolina Dixie Boys state championships and World Series appearances in 2004 and 2005 before embarking on a stellar prep career at East Columbus High School.
During his time with the Gators, he earned All-Waccamaw Conference and all-county accolades in each of his final three campaigns on the diamond. McKelvie was also a three-time honoree on both postseason lists for football.
In November 2008, having only played two full seasons of high school ball, he inked a national letter-of-intent to continue his baseball career at Marshall University with an option to try out for the football team.
McKelvie said that he committed to the Thundering Herd during the fall of his senior year so he could focus his attention solely on baseball without dealing with the pressures of the recruitment process.
Before his senior year at ECHS - the summer of 2008 - he was awarded a spot on the Region 4 baseball squad at the North Carolina State Games in Greensboro, an annual event that showcases the best rising upperclassmen from the mountains to the Outer Banks. He was also selected the year before, but declined the invitation due to prior engagements with his traveling AAU team, the Carolina Cyclones.
He also traveled to Long Beach, Calif., to participate in the 2008 Area Code Games - a prestigious, week-long, eight-team tournament which boasts squads from different regions of the United States. The fleet-footed outfielder competed against the likes of Bryce Harper (No. 1 overall pick of the Washington Nationals in 2010) and Mike Trout (former ECU signee, current outfielder for the Anaheim Angels). McKelvie said over 300 professional scouts were in attendance.
The next spring, he capped an illustrious career on the diamond with a remarkable senior campaign at East Columbus by sporting a .467 batting average and garnering the attention of nearly every MLB franchise.
Following a third-round loss in the state playoffs, which ended his prep career, Baseball America pegged the 2009 1-A All-State Baseball Team honoree as the 21st-best prospect in North Carolina - a list which included both high school and collegiate players.
Suddenly, it was not a matter of whether or not the outfielder would be selected in the Major League Baseball Draft. It was now a matter of when.
Allan Simpson, the highly-regarded founder of Baseball America who currently serves as director of cross checkers for Perfect Game USA, told Chuck Carree of the Wilmington Star News before the 2009 draft that McKelvie had a "fairly advanced swing with some power" and did a "good job of staying inside the ball."
Simpson, along with many other talent evaluators, projected the slugger to be chosen within the first 10 rounds while others felt teams would hesitate to risk a high pick on such a "raw" talent.
Ultimately, McKelvie was selected by the Milwaukee Brewers in the 25th round and the prospect signed a contract three weeks later.
Despite being taken much later than anticipated, he says he'll never forget receiving the call from the big-league club that made his lifelong dream of playing baseball professionally a reality.
"I stayed home from school that day with my little brothers and my mom," he recalled. "I expected to get the call earlier, but it didn't work out that way. It was unreal. I was shocked at first. Then, I was just excited."
McKelvie struggled during two years as a member of the AZL Brewers - a rookie team in the Arizona League. He posted a composite .192 batting average and hit just a pair of home runs in 65 games, a stretch that spanned from 2009-10.
Milwaukee released the former projected early-round pick in 2011.
He returned home and waited on - and expected - a phone call from another major-league organization. However, the ring never came.
McKelvie started making phone calls of his own, but not to baseball coaches or scouts. After arriving back in Hallsboro on May 13, 2011 - a date forever etched into his consciousness - he contacted his high school football coach and asked if playing at the collegiate level remained a possibility.
Despite his two-year hiatus away from the gridiron, the idea of McKelvie putting on a helmet and shoulder pads as a Division I player was not at all far-fetched.
He was recruited heavily by programs across the country during his time at East Columbus, generating interest from Clemson, Wake Forest, N.C. State and many others. Furthermore, he was one of 300 high school juniors that received an invitation to participate in the 2008 United States Army High School Football Combine in San Antonio, Texas.
Following brief conversations with staff members at South Carolina and N.C. State upon his return home, McKelvie met with East Carolina Head Coach Ruffin McNeill and outside linebackers coach Duane Price.
The decision was an easy one.
"I talked with them and that was all I needed," he said. "I came up and sat down with Coach Ruff and Coach Price, and I knew this was the place for me."
McKelvie enrolled in the fall of 2011 and participated in camp while redshirting his initial season as a Pirate. As he expected, the coaching staff moved him to linebacker after playing four years as a safety at ECHS.
Although he arrived last fall more of a project than a realistic candidate for playing time, the 6-foot-2, 240-pounder has quickly made the adjustment from a power-hitting outfielder to a viable option for the ECU defense.
He entered this spring's practice period with a place on the positional depth chart and is expected to compete for game-day reps at outside linebacker.
"Last year, I was on the sidelines cheering for my teammates, and this spring, I actually feel like one of the guys because I'm getting snaps," McKelvie said. "It feels great to compete and be a part of the team."
With four years of eligibility remaining for the 21-year old freshman, McKelvie noted the biggest challenge he has faced in the transition from safety to linebacker is the use of his hands for defensive positioning.
"Playing (safety) in high school, it seemed like the only time I had to use my hands was to tackle or make an interception," he said. "Now, I have to use my hands when I hit offensive linemen so I can shed blocks and make plays, especially when I'm rushing the passer. It's a lot different."
As for the emotional toll the transition from the diamond to the football field has taken on McKelvie, he has remarkably handled the complexities and difficulties better than anyone could have expected.
"I miss baseball sometimes," he admitted. "I loved it. I loved being out there, but I can't sit back and beat myself up over it. It is what it is.
"Most people don't get the opportunity to play sports in college at all, so I'm not going to complain about playing football instead of baseball. I love it out here. I'm thankful God gave me the opportunity to play football. It's a blessing, it really is."
Based on his marked improvement and subsequent development as a linebacker thus far, it appears the East Carolina coaching staff may have hit a home run with Demetrius McKelvie.