By Lisa Zimmerman, Player Engagement Insider
His grandmother, overcome with emotion, was crying, but wide receiver/returner Isaiah McKenzie could only smile after he received the call from the Denver Broncos making him their 2017 fifth-round Draft pick out of the University of Georgia.
Drugs and violence were always right outside his door in a rough Carol City, Florida neighborhood when McKenzie was growing up. He experienced people shot and killed on his own doorstep. And some of those issues didn’t skip his own family. McKenzie’s mother has struggled with a variety of challenges, and has been absent for much of his life. He does not know his father. However, McKenzie progressed through his childhood virtually unscathed, in large part due to the influence of his grandmother who raised him.
“My grandma kept us on the right path,” McKenzie said of himself and his siblings. “She did everything she had to do to be a great parent. I wouldn’t say I followed every rule in the book, but whatever she told me I knew it was important. I took heed to when she told me something.”
He also had the help from a neighbor who took McKenzie under his wing and, after watching him play football with other kids in a nearby park, signed him up for youth football when he was nine years old. Although he fell in love with the sport, at that time, college football (indeed, college in general) didn’t even seem like a possibility, let alone the NFL. But then things changed.
McKenzie was given the chance to attend American Heritage High School in Plantation, Florida, which offered more resources and opportunities. It was an hour bus ride each way and McKenzie, along with his grandmother who found a job at the school, arose each day at 5:30 a.m. to make the trip.
Although small (even now he is listed at just 5’7” and 173 lbs.) from the moment McKenzie joined the school’s football team, he made an impact. He was dubbed “Joystick” for his ability to dart back and forth across the field on punt and kick returns evading tacklers.
As McKenzie matured and continued to improve on the field, colleges began to take notice, and much to McKenzie’s surprise, by his junior year he started to receive offers. In addition, a new head coach arrived: former NFL cornerback Mike Rumph, the San Francisco 49ers’ 2002 first-round Draft pick, also a Florida native. Rumph added another layer of support and inspiration to help propel McKenzie forward.
“[Rumph] used to talk to me every day. He knew how I grew up. All the coaches did the same thing. He just told me go to college and try to do the right thing, that I can be the one to change many lives. He used to tell me every day to stay on the right track.”
As for Rumph, he knew immediately that McKenzie had something special, although initially he wasn’t sure McKenzie could play at the next level.
“My initial impression was he was extremely fast and he was fearless,” Rumph recalled. “He’s very strong for his size. That’s one of his biggest attributes. But he was small and undersized. It didn’t transition to me that he could be an NFL player until he started getting some (college) offers.”
After considering multiple offers from Division I schools, McKenzie selected Georgia to stay as close as possible to his family in Florida. By 2016, he was the team’s leading wide receiver and is the Bulldogs’ record-holding returner with five punt returns for touchdowns and six kick returns for touchdowns. All of that culminated in McKenzie declaring for the Draft after his junior year and ultimately being selected by the Broncos.
“I was so happy,” Rumph said of his reaction when the Broncos selected McKenzie. “I thought about everything he’d been through and what a good situation Denver would be for him. He’s going to make them that much better. It was a great pick by Denver. He’s a touchdown waiting to happen.”
As for McKenzie, on that April day when he finally heard his name called, he reflected on the road that got him there.
“I was just thinking about the life I had before and that my whole life and my grandma’s is about to change.”
It already has. In early May, McKenzie signed a four-year contract worth $2.65 million.
And, how did he react to that? “I just smiled a lot.”
Lisa Zimmerman is a long-time NFL writer and reporter. She was the Jets correspondent for CBSSports.com, SportsNet New York’s TheJetsBlog.com and Sirius NFL Radio. She has also written for NFL.com.