NAPA, Calif. – Khalil Mack wanted nothing to do with this story.
He refused to be interviewed for it.
Sandy Mack, his father, at first liked the idea of meeting me down in Fort Pierce, Fla., where Khalil is from. Then Sandy stopped returning text messages and voicemails.
Khalil Mack gave the impression he’d rather shower with asbestos bodywash and stir three tablespoons of Drano into his morning protein shake.
We decided to write the story anyway. You can try to figure out along with us what Mack’s objection was.
The Buffalo News has covered Mack glowingly. There truly has been no other way to write about one of Western New York’s adopted sons.
Mack is the University at Buffalo program’s revolutionary, the overachiever with only one other Division I scholarship offer, who manhandled the Mid-American Conference, was drafted fifth overall by the Oakland Raiders and in just his second pro season made NFL history as the first player voted first-team All-Pro at two positions in the same season.
Lawrence Taylor never did that. Neither has J.J. Watt nor Ronnie Lott nor Reggie White nor Deion Sanders.
“That’s a pretty good player, a pretty good athlete if he can do that,” Hall of Fame defensive end Jack Youngblood told me in astonishment over Mack.
“Somebody’s got to define him.”
Is Mack a run-stuffing pass-rusher or a pass-rushing run-stuffer? He is breaking ground in a league that’s 96 years old.
He already could be the NFL’s best defensive player, especially with Watt recovering from back surgery.
The News sent me to California last month to chat with Mack about a career arc that seems to defy gravity. Upward, upward and upward he goes, thrusting the Raiders’ playoff hopes along the way.
But eight days after reaching out to the Raiders to arrange an interview with Mack, after booking the travel and about 31 hours before my flight would depart, club spokesman Will Kiss emailed to say Mack “rarely asks to decline such interviews ... but he was pretty firm in his wish to decline.”
I decided to go to Raiders training camp. If Mack didn’t want to talk, then maybe he would explain why.
There had to be a good reason, right?
‘No slacking off’
Old-school Raider royalty gathered in late July for Ken Stabler’s posthumous induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
You’d better believe they told war stories, but they also looked forward to watching a team that could reach the postseason for the first time in 14 years. Only the Buffalo Bills have a longer active playoff drought.
Mack and third-year quarterback Derek Carr have restored a proud organization’s stray swagger, a topic that would have been worth exploring with Mack at Raiders training camp in Napa.
“What I love about Khalil,” Hall of Fame defensive back Willie Brown told me in Canton, 10 feet from Brett Favre giving a casual interview the day before inductions, “he’s going 100 miles per hour and bringing everything he’s got on every play.
“There’s no slacking off, no taking a play off. His toughness and his ability to see is unbelievable at linebacker, at end.”
When Mack’s name was mentioned, Ted Hendricks’ eyes twinkled.
Hendricks, the Raiders’ monument, runs a charitable foundation that sponsors an award for college’s best defensive end. Every year, he attends the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis to keep an eye on the best prospects.
He recalled how, upon returning home to suburban Chicago from the 2014 combine, he told his foundation organizer and longtime companion, Linda Babl, the nation’s best defensive end was a University at Buffalo linebacker.
Mack last year played almost an equal number of snaps at each position in Oakland’s 3-4 scheme. ESPN Stats and Information logged him for 467 plays at defensive end, 439 plays at standup outside linebacker.
Mack amassed 15 sacks, including 10 over the final six games. He led the NFL entering the final week, when Watt’s three-sack performance stole the crown.
Football analytics site ProFootballFocus.com graded Mack – by far – the NFL’s best 3-4 outside linebacker and best edge rusher of any scheme. Miami Dolphins defensive end Olivier Vernon was a distant second. Denver Broncos star Von Miller was even farther back among 3-4 outside linebackers.
ProFootballFocus.com tracked Mack for 84 pressures (sacks, quarterback hits and hurried throws). Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett was next with 81 pressures. Miller was second among 3-4 outside linebackers with 70 pressures.
Pat Swilling is bewitched by Mack’s skill set. Swilling was 1991 Defensive Player of the Year for the New Orleans Saints, rolling up 17 sacks, an interception for a touchdown, five forced fumbles and a recovery.
Swilling emphasized Mack’s masterful hand-fighting skills – a strength usually implemented by crafty veterans – to confound would-be blockers. Swilling noted Mack is atypical in the way his feet perpetually drive forward while at the same time his hands furiously engage.
“Whoever taught him how to use his hands did him a great service,” Swilling said.
“Whoever has taught him how to line up at an angle ... Great pass rushers line up at an angle toward the outside shoulder, where they can move downhill, left to right ...”
Swilling popped off a series of maneuvers made possible by perfect angles: spin move, swim move, bull rush, rip the tackle’s inside shoulder and deliver a haymaker.
“Someone,” Swilling said, “has taught him how to do a hell of a lot of things.”
I’m unsure who that coach was, whether it was at UB or in Oakland. In likelihood there were multiple coaches.
To hear Mack talk about that would have been interesting.
Anyway, Mack’s overall grades are so high because he doesn’t merely sack quarterbacks. He also can thwart the run like few others.
Mack finished with ProFootballFocus.com’s highest run-defense grade among all edge defenders. He tallied 41 tackles against the run, 22 more than the next-closest 3-4 outside linebacker, Willie Young of the Chicago Bears.
“It’s all about attitude,” said Hendricks, pointing a gnarled right finger at his heart.
Oakland acquired another talented and versatile outside linebacker to play opposite Mack this year. Bruce Irvin’s presence should make quarterbacks even more helpless. Then again, Mack’s production exploded last year after the NFL suspended Raiders pass-rusher Aldon Smith.
“Now, everybody is trying to double-team you,” Hendricks said of what it will be like for Mack this year. “Offenses have to protect themselves.”
Then might the 2016 expectations get to be too high for Mack?
“Nah,” Hendricks snorted, “he’ll get through that, too.”
Awaiting big payday
Mack is drawing a sweet salary. His four-year, $18.6 million rookie contract is fully guaranteed. Oakland gave him an $11.9 million signing bonus.
So far, he has been worth each dime. Oakland looks brilliant for drafting him.
“But I’m going to have to pay him in a couple years,” Raiders owner Mark Davis said in the lobby of his Canton hotel. “So I don’t want to give him too much credit.”
Davis was half-joking. Three weeks earlier, Miller extracted from Denver a six-year, $114.5 million contract extension, with $70 million in guarantees.
CBS Sports columnist and former agent Joel Corry recently mused Mack could become the first nonquarterback to average $20 million a year.
I asked Davis what Mack’s ceiling is.
“I don’t know that there is one,” Davis replied. “He’s still young! He’s learning!”
Swilling, lounging poolside at his New Orleans home, laughed at a similar question. Then he volleyed a warning.
“I’ll say this because I want him to read this: If the money doesn’t ruin him, he’ll be great,” said Swilling, a real-estate developer who served in the Louisiana House of Representatives. “The money these kids make, sometimes there’s no desire to play hurt or be great. We’ll see.”
When Swilling said that, I hadn’t told him about my trip to Napa or that Mack already is frustrating many around him.
A significant part of Mack’s narrative is modesty, that he doesn’t forget where he comes from or the people who have helped him along the way.
There have been cracks in the story for unknown reasons. Raiders and UB sources – as well as some of Mack’s closest Western New York associates – have been confused by his increasingly aloof behavior.
For instance, on the second day of Mack pretending not to see me in Napa, I waited for him to leave the locker room to see what his concerns were. I’d covered Mack since the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine. In the notebook I was holding – written by Mack’s own hand a couple of months ago – were his and his father’s cell numbers.
Mack exited with a towel over his head. He tried to walk behind another teammate to hide further.
I caught up to Mack. He pretended to take a phone call to avoid a conversation. I got him to turn around. Then he hugged me and insisted he didn’t know I was at Raiders camp. Never mind the emails to Oakland’s PR staff, the multiple texts to his cell or my conversation with his father. Mack said he never received notice.
While I had given up on the interview a day earlier, I simply wanted to know why Mack wouldn’t talk to his adopted hometown paper.
“It’s confidential,” Mack replied with a grin.
Then, still backpedaling, Mack told me to call him. Later that afternoon, I did. He didn’t pick up. He didn’t respond to any of the subsequent voicemails or texts left over the next two weeks.
“That’s about maturity,” said Swilling, a Raider the final three years of his career. “When I see him in Oakland later this year, I’ll pull him aside and have a talk with him. You can’t treat people that way.
“He’ll come around.”
One former UB teammate who has played in the NFL wondered if Mack had gone big-time on Western New York. A UB booster, who considers Mack a friend, can’t get messages returned anymore either.
“Just bizarre,” the UB booster said. He requested anonymity to avoid angering Mack. “This is so unlike him.”
Mack’s continued evolution amazed Raiders left tackle Donald Penn this summer. Penn has played 11 years in the NFL, but going against Mack every day in practice has been a learning experience.
Penn said Mack, at 25 years old, has been troubleshooting the offensive linemen.
“He sees something I could be doing better and wants to know exactly why I do what I do,” Penn said on the Raiders’ practice field in Napa.
Sometimes, there is no answer for Mack’s maneuvers.
“I did a move where, a lot of other guys would have fallen on the ground,” said Penn, a former Pro Bowler. “He didn’t fall. He got low to the ground and kept going.
“I looked at my coach in the film room, and he said, ‘I have no corrections for you. Next play.’ ”
Mack has shown otherworldly, inexplicable qualities that translate to excellence. He’s in a brief conversation about the NFL’s greatest defensive players: Watt, Miller, Luke Kuechly, Muhammad Wilkerson, Aaron Donald, Tyrann Mathieu.
Mack might be better than all of them.
Even NFL legends have difficulty explaining why Mack is so impressive.
“This kid is a player ,” Mel Blount, a Hall of Fame cornerback and 1975 Defensive Player of the Year, told me in Canton. “The other thing is how much desire you have in here” – Blount pointed to his chest, same as Hendricks had done – “to go make something happen.
“That’s what separates the great ones from the good ones.”
Blount played on Pittsburgh’s legendary Steel Curtain defense, probably the most devastating unit ever assembled. Middle linebacker Jack Lambert, from Kent State, is considered the greatest defender from the Mid-American Conference.
Perhaps Mack will have something to say about that.
“Whatever that ‘it’ is, he’s got ‘it,’ ” Blount said. “Guys like that are a special breed.”
As Youngblood stated earlier, Mack defies definition. His identity will continue to evolve on the field and away from it.
The humble guy we know from UB, the special player we’ve witnessed after a couple of seasons in Oakland almost certainly won’t be who we know by the end of his career.
There will be nuance, context, perspective. If he can maintain dominance, then there might be a place for him in Canton alongside Lambert, Youngblood, Hendricks, Blount, Brown and Mark Davis’ father.
How will Mack define himself?
There’s another unasked question.
Story topics: Aaron Donald/ Derek Carr/ Donald Penn/ J.J. Watt/ Jack Lambert/ Jack Youngblood/ Ken Stabler/ Khalil Mack/ Lawrence Taylor/ Luke Kuechly/ Mark Davis/ Mel Blount/ Michael Bennett/ Muhammad Wilkerson/ Olivier Vernon/ Pat Swilling/ Reggie White/ Ronnie Lott/ Ted Hendricks/ Tyrann Mathieu/ Von Miller/ Willie Brown