By Drew Goodman
The first time Mark Johnson, the legendary Cherry Creek baseball coach saw Darnell McDonald play baseball was in the the 8th grade. He joined his good friend Tyler, Mark’s son at the High School for a little batting practice. On one of his first swings he launched a ball over the scoreboard in left center field. Thus began soon thereafter one of the greatest high school athletic careers not only in the state of Colorado, but quite honestly, nationally as well.
Freshmen weren’t allowed to play varsity football in the 90’s, so the state began learning about him in the spring when he became one of only a handful of freshmen ever to start baseball for Johnson at Creek. He hit .358. That was just a warm up for what was to follow. He hit 581 with 15 homers as a junior and .606 with 11 homers as a senior. “Those numbers would have been even greater had teams not just walked him as they frequently did,” according to the hall of fame coach.Creek won a state title in each of his final three seasons of baseball. The 1995 title came in a 6-3 victory over Roy Halladay and Arvada West. He had a seldom seen at any level combination of immense power and rare speed. He not only was named the Gatorade Colorado player of the year in 1997, but its National player of the year as well. Baseball America joined in the chorus, naming Darnell its national player of the year.
The autumns in Englewood were similar to the springs, in that McDonald provided Creek with one otherworldly performance after another, as the state’s premier running back from his sophomore year forward. He would lead the Bruins to three state titles in football, to match the three he was part of in baseball. His career totals of 6,121 yards and 83 touchdowns was a big school state record at the time. In what turned out to be his final game in pads, he ran for 333 yards and five scores, in the snow, against Dave Logan’s Arvada West team, in a 48-33 victory. Ironic perhaps in that most people believe the two greatest prep athletes in the states history are Wheat Ridge’s Logan, and Cherry Creek’s McDonald.
Darnell was named the Gatorade Colorado football player of the year as well. Manv in the recruiting world felt like he was the top running back in the country. The University of Texas certainly did, as they offered him the opportunity to play both sports in Austin. In a difficult decision, he would turn down the opportunity after becoming a 1st round selection by the Baltimore Orioles in the ’97 MLB draft. He would go on to play parts of seven big league seasons, in a 16 year professional career.
“He along with Logan, and Christian McCaffrey are the best high school athletes I’ve ever seen,” Johnson summarized. No argument.