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Friday, September 30, 2022

The Toney Express: Is he Batman? Is he Superman? Either way, Kadarius Toney plays like a superhero

<p>UF has a super hero in its football team: wide receiver Kadarius Toney.</p>

UF has a super hero in its football team: wide receiver Kadarius Toney.

Superman is near-invincible. Batman is crafty.

Superman is faster than a speeding bullet. Batman always has a plan.

They’re two different superheroes with two distinct story arcs and two separate sets of strengths and weaknesses.

Kadarius Toney doesn’t like to decide between them. He is the Dark Knight. He is the Man of Steel. The caped crusader and the man from Krypton are one in the same.

As a student-athlete at Blount High School in Eight Mile, Alabama, Toney combined all facets of each hero into his game. He made spectacular plays as the Leopards’ starting quarterback in 2016 on the team’s way to compiling a 10-2 record and a spot in the Class 6A Alabama High School playoffs.

Now, he’s the playmaking wideout for the University of Florida who has been responsible for more attention and reverence than Superman receives. His arsenal of moves puts Batman’s utility belt to shame.

Where did all of this come from? How has one man sparked so much excitement on the field and controversy off it?

 

***

 

Toney lined up in the shotgun on 2nd-and-goal from the 2-yard line. The clock ticked down further and further. Ten minutes left. Nine and change left. Park Crossing High School, a team that had rolled into the game on the strength of its 12-0 record, lined up on its goal line, expecting the athletic quarterback to make a play.

But just because you know something’s coming doesn’t mean you can stop it. Down 44-28, Toney needed this score. He had made a habit all year of taking what he wanted from opposing defenses. Entering the game, Toney had thrown for 2,401 yards and 26 touchdowns.

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But to throw near the goal line with Toney in your backfield is like asking Batman to sidestep a lava pit when he has a grappling hook. It doesn’t make sense, and it’s neglecting the resources at hand.

On top of his gaudy numbers, he had also racked up 786 rushing yards. Those stats are staggering for a quarterback who’s 5-foot-11 on his best days.

To Toney’s right on this goal line play were all five skill position players, four wide receivers and a running back. He took the snap and looked to run the ball through the middle of the offensive line. Perhaps it was designed that way. Perhaps the Batman in him wanted to stick to the plan.

He took one step with his left foot and dug it into the turf. He didn’t see a lane. There wasn’t one. There was only a brick wall of Blount white and Park Crossing blue.

He dashed toward his receivers on the right. Three of them whiffed completely on their blocks. Three defenders darted toward Toney. This wasn’t the time for Batman. Superman emerged instead.

He made a beeline for the far pylon. The defenders converged. They seemed to keep in mind an age-old lesson: You don’t tug on Superman’s cape unless you want to go for a ride.

Instead, all three defenders went low. The first man faltered in his pursuit, unable to catch up to the speeding quarterback. Two remained. They ran for the corner of the field and dove for the legs.

Superman took off.

Toney leapt into the air, right arm outstretched with the ball, his left arm relaxed to his side. The ball crossed the plane of the goal line as the defenders slid helplessly on the earth Toney had once occupied. Touchdown.

One commentator calling the game compared the move to Michael Jordan. The other said it reminded him of Frank Sinatra’s “Come Fly with Me.”

Both were wrong. You already knew what it was.

So did Toney. After his flight, he stood, began walking toward his sideline and made a move so quintessentially Superman that Clark Kent would’ve been confused.

He raised both fists to his chest and peeled them off to his sides, revealing the heart of the Blount High School football team and a giant red S laid against a yellow background.

Superman is real. His name is Kadarius Toney.

 

***

 

Coach Lev Holly remembers Toney as one of the most exciting players he has had the privilege to preside over at Blount High School.

“He’s very fun,” Holly said. “Very rewarding just to be around the kid every day, just to see how he works.”

Holly also remembers several other distinct features about Toney. Specifically, his apparel.

“He’s got like this Batman tie, his Batman socks,” Holly said. “It was never a dull moment with him.”

But the duality between Batman and Superman still permeates Toney’s outerwear today. Following Florida’s 13-6 win against Mississippi State this season, he made an appearance in the visitors’ press conference area for a postgame interview. He flashed his trademark smile, but it faltered in comparison to his jewelry.

Hanging above a gold No. 4 was a sparkling Superman “S.” The necklace was more than appropriate following his performance against the Bulldogs. He rushed for 20 yards on a pair of carries and caught one pass for nine yards. But the objective play of the game came from neither of those stats.

Quarterback Feleipe Franks took a shotgun snap and threw a lateral to Toney, who was lined up out wide to Franks’ left. Toney caught it and looked upfield.

Florida had been running wide receiver screens all game. MSU’s defensive backs began to creep up farther and farther toward the line of scrimmage throughout. Coach Dan Mullen sensed this and made the play call, “Kodak,” as it’s called.

Mississippi State’s defenders could’ve taken a lesson from Park Crossing: If you try to challenge Superman on the ground, he’ll beat you through the air. Toney heaved a pass to the back pylon and hit tight end Moral Stephens in stride for the eventual game-winning touchdown.

“It kinda was an easy one,” Toney said. “I played quarterback, so it like kinda came back in a rhythm.”

It wasn’t exactly an easy throw. One Bulldogs defender noticed — albeit too late — the trickery going on and tried to drop back. Anything other than a perfect pass could’ve been picked off.

But the thing about Superman is that even when you think you have him pinned down, he’ll find a way to make you pay.

“I really just saw an opportunity,” he said. “Like, I knew I could probably fit it in there, so I just had to do it.”

Superman is real. His name is Kadarius Toney.

 

***

 

Eight Mile is appropriately named. It’s eight miles northwest of Mobile. The median income in Eight Mile is $8,000 lower than the state median. And for eight years, Eight Mile dealt with the stench of rotten eggs and natural gas after lightning struck a storage tank and spilled about 500 gallons of chemical odorant that leaked into ponds, groundwater and soil.

The odorant, a toxic chemical known as mercaptan, can be fatal in large enough doses. Hundreds of families have filed lawsuits against the company responsible for the natural gas tanks.

“I ain’t gonna say it’s rough,” Holly said. “Every neighborhood has its issues. But I think (Toney) was well-grounded in his faith. Parents raised him to be a man. And hey, coming from a place where a lot of people don’t have everything, but what they have, they cherish it.”

Eight Mile — including its neighboring city of Prichard — saw about 18 violent crimes per 1,000 residents in 2017, according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program. To put that in context, Alabama as a whole saw about five violent crimes per 1,000 residents last year. These violent crimes include murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault.

All that’s to say that those statistics could lead to a young man in fear of his life.

Toney landed in hot water over this past offseason. On July 22, Toney and cornerback Brian Edwards were pulled over by Gainesville Police. The officers found a loaded AR-15 rifle in the back seat of the car.

Charges weren’t filed by the State Attorney or by GPD. Him carrying the rifle didn’t violate open-carry laws since it wasn’t “easily accessible” to him in the back seat.

Earlier, on May 28, Toney was involved in another off-field incident when he and several of his teammates were cited for carrying airsoft rifles in response to a dispute with a group of Gainesville residents.

Toney — along with defensive tackle Kyree Campbell — were referred to UF’s Student Conduct and Conflict Resolution department for policy violations. Toney was suspended for the Gators’ season-opener against Charleston Southern. He made his way back onto the team the following week against Kentucky.

Since the offseason, the public has hardly heard a peep from Toney. The only time he has spoken to the media was after the Mississippi State game. Beyond that, nothing.

That may suit him just fine. Toney is naturally quiet. After his Superman leap and into the end zone and logo revelation against Park Crossing, he walked to his sideline and sat behind his teammates, hardly saying a word.

“At the end of the day, he’s just a kid who just wanted to play the game at a high level and just wanted to get out,” Holly said. “And he’s out. He’s making the best of his opportunities.”

 

***

 

There is one instance when Toney isn’t quiet. When the Pride of the Sunshine strikes up “Orange and Blue” after Florida touchdowns, Toney can be seen dancing along. Superman has Supergirl. Batman has Robin. Toney has this bop.

“It’s just that pride. It ain’t really about rhythm. It’s just that pride,” he said. “You’re just in the moment. You’re feeling it. You know what’s behind the fight song. You know what all went into (it) like, Gators before you got here. So it’s like all that coming together.”

Superman is real. Batman is real. Their names are Kadarius Toney.

 

Follow Morgan McMullen on Twitter @MorganMcMuffin or contact him at mmcmullen@alligator.org.

UF has a super hero in its football team: wide receiver Kadarius Toney.

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