The Atlanta Falcons traded up to take McKinley, a 6-foot-2 defensive end, with the 26th overall pick, and after hugging those with him backstage, he picked up a large framed photo of his grandmother and carried it with him down the stairs and onto the stage, where he met NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and the thousands of fans in downtown Philadelphia.
After posing with his red No. 1 Falcons jersey, the 21-year-old looked into the nearest camera and began a stream-of-consciousness outpouring about his grandmother, Myrtle Collins, who raised him until her death in 2011.
“Let’s go, man! Come on!,” McKinley shouted. “This is who I do it for, man. I made a promise to her and I stuck to it. I made that promise, man. I told her, before she passed away, I was going to win my dream, I was going to go D-I, I was going to get out of Richmond [California], I was going to get out of Oakland, and I was going to go to the NFL. I made that promise to her, man, and 30 seconds later she passed away. This is who I do it for!
“Get to the damn quarterback! We’re going to get to the quarterback!”
As he was pulled in by Deion Sanders, who handles the on-stage interviews for NFL Network, McKinley finally took a breath.
And then promptly dropped an F-bomb on live television.
“It means everything, man. It means everything. I made a promise to her,” McKinley said. “Like I said, I was going to go D-I, I was going go get out of Richmond, I would get out of Oakland, I was going to win my dream to play in the NFL, and I’m here, man. I completed the promise. That means every-[expletive]-thing to me.
“Excuse my language. Fine me later, man. Fine me later. This means everything to me.”
After Sanders told him to channel his emotion “in the right direction,” McKinley looked down at the photo, still in his arms.
“I love you, grandma. It’s only the beginning,” he said.
In a November profile on McKinley in the Los Angeles Times, it’s written that his father was never a presence in his life and his mother abandoned him when he was 5, reappeared when he was 17, and then disappeared again. The constant was Collins, an aunt, Peggy Wiggins, and a cousin, Sylvester Wiggins.
When Collins was on her deathbed, McKinley promised her that he would play football at the Division I level and make it to the NFL. Just moments after his pledge, she died.
But when McKinley didn’t qualify academically for the University of California, where he was offered a scholarship, he enrolled at Contra Costa College. His spirit broken, he quit the football team a couple of times and started applying for jobs at fast-food outlets.
It was Sylvester Wiggins who told McKinley: get a job or get back to football. McKinley re-focused on the pledge he’d made to his grandmother, and after some work, he was offered the chance to play at UCLA.
One promise was fulfilled that day in 2014. On Thursday night, McKinley fulfilled another promise to his grandmother.
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