When Jace McDown left Columbus High School after his graduation in 2016, he was one of the most-decorated athletes the school had ever seen.
McDown finished his prep football career with a school-record 5,512 rushing yards and 72 touchdowns, including a senior season when he compiled a school-best 2,667 rushing yards and 38 touchdowns as a running back. Defensively, McDown, who was a Kansas Shrine Bowl participant, closed his career with 401 career tackles as a linebacker, the second most in school history. McDown also helped lead Columbus to an 11-2 record in 2014, falling to Andale in the Class 4A Division II state championship game, and an 11-1 record in 2015, with the Titans winning the CNC League championship before falling to Holton 23-22 in the state semifinals.
“I think it is safe to say that Jace is the best football player that has ever come through our town,” former Columbus football coach Dan Grundy said. “That’s not just stats-wise, but he is probably the best in terms of leadership as well. He had a knack for elevating his teammates around him, getting the best out of them, without them even knowing it.”
Though he turned plenty of heads on the gridiron, McDown’s success wasn’t limited to football. He was a standout track and field athlete and captured a wrestling state title at 182 pounds as a sophomore. He also added a state title in powerlifting.
“He gave a lot of kids here the map on how to not only be a good student-athlete, but how to be a good person,” Grundy said. “He was a 4.0 student and valedictorian of his class. He didn’t take anything lightly or for granted and treated everyone the right way. We still have kids coming up in our program who watched Jace play that want to be just like him.”
His accolades in high school earned McDown a spot with the Emporia State Hornets as a linebacker. After redshirting his freshman season, McDown saw action in 10 games in 2017, accumulating nine total tackles while learning the process of playing at the collegiate level.
“I needed that redshirt freshman season to prepare,” McDown said. “Learning the playbook was crucial during that first season, and I was also able to add good weight and get in better shape.
“I adjusted to the speed of the game at the collegiate level pretty quickly. It was the mental side of the game, learning the new system and all of the plays, that was more difficult to learn. Even last year, I should have had a better grasp of the system. I am just now getting to the point where I can just play and not think about it.”
The experience in his first two seasons paid off as McDown went out in his sophomore season and not only led the Hornets in total tackles, but was the top tackler in the entire MIAA. He finished with 127 total tackles, 79 solo stops and 48 assists. He had 11.5 tackles-for-loss that was good enough for a top-10 mark in the conference, 2.5 sacks, an MIAA-leading five forced fumbles and four pass breakups.
“I think we all thought that he was going to be a very good football player, but I don’t know if we thought he was going to have the type of impact for us that he had last year,” Emporia State coach Garrin Higgins said. “He has such a cerebral football mind and understands our defense really well. Not only is he a great player, but he has an impact on our team from a leadership standpoint as well.”
“If you would have told me I would have had that sort of success before the start of the season, I would have said you’re crazy,” McDown said. “I was expecting to be a leader, as a captain, and play well. But, I didn’t expect to lead the MIAA in tackles. That was an honor. That is a shoutout to our system and the rest of the players on the field, because they set me up for that success.”
McDown enters his junior season with the Hornets as a second-team preseason All-American selection. While he is still carving out his career at Emporia State, the legacy McDown built as a student-athlete in Columbus has earned him a community-wide support group that isn’t going away anytime soon.
“Jace’s success means a lot to the Columbus community,” Grundy said. “We are a blue collar community that takes pride when one of our own finds success in life. To see him go to a school like Emporia State and have that success, it really gives people in our community a lot of pride, and Jace has never let us down when it comes to that.”
McDown’s local support group will get two chances to see him play this season. The Hornets travel to Pittsburg State in Week 2 to face the Gorillas at 7 p.m. on Sept. 14 at Carnie Smith Stadium. Then in Week 10 the Hornets travel to Joplin to face the Lions at 3 p.m. on Nov. 9 at Fred G. Hughes Stadium.
“I am really excited, especially for the night game against Pitt in Week 2,” McDown said. “Everyone knows Pitt draws a really good crowd, and it’s their home opener, so it will be really fun. I haven’t gotten to step on the field at either stadium, so I am really excited for those games.”
MIAA preview on 5B, 6B