Takkarist McKinley is A Reason to Love Sports

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April’s NFL draft introduced fans unfamiliar with his UCLA exploits to Takkarist McKinley. The defensive end and first-round draft pick made quite an impression, dedicating his selection to the late grandmother who helped raise him, and letting out a curse word on-air amid the emotional celebration.

That’s Takk. And it’s an example of why the new Atlanta Falcon personifies the best of sports.

Takkarist McKinley is real. The eruption of emotion on the NFL draft stage may have seemed foreign to some watching at home — but then, that’s why they were just spectators. McKinley reached an accomplishment the magnitude of which few can ever understand, and did so climbing from depths just as few have ever faced.

Ben Bolch’s feature on McKinley in The Los Angeles Times last November is a must-read. It illustrates the significance of reaching UCLA after junior college, and his mission to fulfill a promise.

What McKinley displayed for the nation to see on NFL draft night was real emotion — just like the real joy he shared Thursday, tweeting this celebration after receiving his first NFL paycheck.

I can’t say I’m surprised he notes he’ll celebrate just as heartily when he makes sacks for the Atlanta defense. I covered Takk for a few seasons during his time at UCLA, and he consistently stressed how he could improve as a player. In his first media availability in the 2014 season, after an impressive showing at Cal, McKinley was his own harshest critic.

“I made some good games, I made some bad plays. I wish I can replay it and make up for the bad plays I made,” he said. “I missed a couple tackles I could have made in the backfield. It’s a whole new level: It’s D-1. You’ve got to really finish a tackle. Then in the fourth quarter on the final drive, I had Jared Goff for a sack, and I didn’t get it. That’s what I’m here for: to get sacks.”

Well, he got plenty of them in his three seasons as a Bruin — 17 in total, including 10 in the 2016 season. But even coming out of a game like last October’s with Utah, when he made three sacks, McKinley always emphasized his areas for improvement — individually, and for his team.

Fans gravitate toward a certain ideal of hard work. Never mind the already unfathomable dedication necessary to reach the NFL, or even a college roster; the concept of hard work welcomes a certain mythos. Maybe it’s not genuine emotion or honest that draw a fan to an athlete, but rather that ideal of effort. That, too, is Takkarist McKinley.

McKinley joked on that October morning in 2014 about teammate Owa Odighizuwa having forearms the size of McKinley’s own biceps.

“Hopefully by the time I’m senior, I’ll be as big as him, strong as him. Fight off offensive linemen like him,” McKinley said.

And he did that. He put the time and energy into the weight room to bulk up from a somewhat slight frame his first year at UCLA into a prototype NFL defensive end physique. UCLA head coach Jim Mora also praised McKinley’s dedication.

“He came in as an incredibly talented but raw player in terms of understanding the game, and having the fundamentals that matched his skill set,” Mora said last month. “He worked incredibly hard with [defensive line coach] Angus McClure. He worked incredibly hard with Sal Alosi, our strength and conditioning coach. He worked incredibly hard with his mentors back home: Coach Carter, who’s now at San Jose State, and others.

“He just had a persistence to him, and an attitude and a mindset and a drive that’s rare,” Mora added. “That’s why you saw him make the progress he made. He was willing to do the work no matter what.”

Having worked with McKinley for three seasons alongside several other NFL talents — like Odighizuwa, Eric Kendricks, Anthony Barr and Myles Jack — and having coached in the NFL previously, Mora has unique insight into the pro potential Takkarist McKinley takes across the country to the ATL.

“I think he’s going to be a dynamic NFL player,” he said, adding that the NFL draft night demonstration was very much the real Takk. “We all saw the type of passion he has. We saw that every day — not necessarily dispalyed like that, but we saw a passionate young man [who] really cared about being the best he could be.

“The Falcons got themselves a guy [who]’s going to be really special, in a lot of ways,” he added. “He’ll do great things in that community, and he’ll do great things in that new stadium.”

The Atlanta Falcons got a special player, and pro football fans got someone who embodies the very best of sports.