McLean embodies Palisade's toughness on and off the field
The McLean Farms fruit stand on Elberta Avenue closed for the season in late August.
“We open when the first peach gets ripe,” says a lady in the warehouse, wiping a towel over Granny Smith apples before placing them in boxes, “and close when we sell our last peach.”
Nothing to do now but pick and pack apples and prepare the fields for next year. Lila McLean will continue these duties 12-to-14 hours a day. She just turned 70.
Long hours on the farm is how the family business has thrived. And it’s one way Palisade High School football players are trained. The toughest 11 start. Luke McLean, grandson of Lila, is one of them. The quarterback. One of the toughest.
Since the thousands of peaches have left their trees slumped and awaiting Lila’s nurturing, the McLean family’s focus shifts.
“Pretty much sports and kids from here on out,” says Mike McLean, father of Luke McLean, the Bulldogs 6-foot, 180-pound quarterback in a fullback’s body.
Luke is plum-tired of eating peaches. But not of playing football. He thinks about Class 3A’s No. 2-ranked Bulldogs (5-0) in class, at night, and on the Palisade Park basketball court, where he shoots in random patterns and lets his thoughts find their own zone.
It’s always been this way. When McLean was a freshman, Palisade coach John Arledge saw McLean’s farm-toughness.
“We find out real quick watching them in freshman football who’s a tough kid,” Arledge said. “Watch how he acts. You could tell Luke was a kid I wanted and we wanted. ... In our world if your leader isn’t tough in the game, how are your teammates going to be tough?”
McLean came to Arledge ready-to-order. In sixth grade, McLean began working the farm.
“So many jobs on the farm,” McLean says, leaning against a wall in a hallway bustling with football players, who, despite a 7 p.m. matchup tonight with No. 1- ranked Rifle, are mostly quiet and definitely calm, just like their quarterback.
“Carrying boxes,” McLean continued, “picking. ... I’d say it helped a lot because you definitely can’t be weak on a farm.”
His shoulder pads broke in the first week against Central. A new set protected his dislocated shoulder. McLean played on. Palisade won, 41-6.
“As a leader he’s one of those tough guys that no matter what’s going on he’ll be out there to lead the team,” Palisade fullback Caden Woods said. “No matter if he’s hurt, he’ll be there to take us to victory.”
They called McLean “Tebow” as a sophomore, the first year McLean started at quarterback. McLean just seemed to fit the mold of New York Jets and former Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow.
“When he was a sophomore, he played a lot like that,” Palisade offensive coordinator Matt Borgmann said. “He’s a solid leader, a good runner, and he’s a big kid who understands the game well, but like Tebow he’s not a quarterback as far as passing goes.”
But like Tebow, he continued to improve. McLean this season has completed 36 of 49 passes — a 73.5 percent completion percentage — for 465 yards, seven touchdowns and two interceptions. Of course, he’s the run-first type, as 387 yards rushing, seven touchdowns and an 11.4 average per carry attest.
“He just understands our system much better,” Borgmann said. “He knows what we want as far as his reads, his looks, where he should be delivering the ball.”
Some leaders, it seems, also are born football players.
“It really seems like he knows the game,” Rifle coach Damon Wells said. “Knowing Palisade over the course of a year, it seems like he’s the type of kid they feature in different ways.”
Primarily they feature him as a leader, an example of the “Palisade Way.”
“I’d say a lot of it’s natural,” said Luke’s older brother by two years, Zach, who was a linebacker and defensive lineman for Palisade. “People have always followed him.”
And they’ve watched him.
“He likes to eat all the time,” Bulldogs wide receiver and cornerback Spencer Jackson said. “Every time I see him, he’s eating. But he hates peaches, actually. He does not like peaches. I guess he’s had enough in his lifetime.”
McLean doesn’t necessarily want to work in the orchard like the three generations that preceded him. He wants to major in engineering and play football in college. But he knows there are only a few moments, or rather, at least five games, to store away. The harvest has wound down. So will the football season. Packing for the winter works both ways.
“A lot of players have told me the most fun you’ll have is playing for your high school team,” Luke McLean said, “so I’m just focusing on playing with all of my best friends.”