Isaiah McKenzie fell asleep in class. He fell asleep during team meetings. An assistant coach in high school once found him passed out on a weight bench.
Loud noises didn’t rouse him. Neither did shaking him. Neither did snickering teammates carrying him to other rooms while he snoozed, leaving him to awaken disoriented by new surroundings.
“It was almost impossible to wake him up,” said New England Patriots running back Sony Michel, McKenzie’s teammate in high school and college. “Like, it’s almost like he was dead.”
McKenzie, a 5-foot-8, 173-pound wide receiver and return specialist, is quick-witted and fast on his feet, a trash talker and sparkplug on the field. He won track and football state championships at American Heritage School in Plantation, Fla., and streaked to a school-record six career touchdown returns at the University of Georgia, leading the Bulldogs in receiving yards and receiving touchdowns as a junior.
The talent was evident. When he was awake, no one could catch him. But McKenzie always struggled to concentrate in the classroom. And when he sat still, he’d often slip into a deep sleep at inappropriate times. Now McKenzie is standing at his locker at the Buffalo Bills’ practice facility, recently claimed off waivers, surrounded by microphones and cameras and, he says later, fighting a powerful urge to zone out.
McKenzie, 23, never dreamed he’d make it to the NFL. Not as a kid, even though he was raised in the shadow of the Miami Dolphins’ stadium, the Jumbotron within view of his apartment complex in hardscrabble Miami Gardens, Fla. The overall crime rate in town has notably dropped in recent years, but the murder rate remains more than five times the national average and there are at least a dozen known gangs operating in its borders, according to the Miami New Times.
McKenzie and his youngest brother, two of five scattered siblings, lived in a one-bedroom apartment with their grandmother, Valerie Mitchell, who worked in a school cafeteria and struggled to make ends meet.
McKenzie said he once returned home to see a body outside the building, a crowd standing around a man clutching a bullet hole in his stomach, murdered on his doorstep. Grandma hurried him through the door. McKenzie didn’t sleep for very long that night. Or any night, for that matter. An average of two or three hours, he guessed.
The next morning, he sidestepped blood-soaked concrete on his way to school.
“And he said it like it was nothing. Like nothing,” said University of Miami cornerbacks coach Mike Rumph, McKenzie’s coach in high school. "And I’m like, ‘No way.’ He was like, ‘Yeah, there was a guy dead on my porch and the cops came and whatever.’ And that was a typical thing that he saw in his neighborhood, so he was kind of numb to it.”
As usual, McKenzie was wired that day. Until he crashed.
“He’s a million miles an hour or he’s sleeping,” Rumph said.
McKenzie was never diagnosed with a medical condition. But he never sought one, either.
“When I was younger, people would say I had ADD. But I was just a hyper kid,” McKenzie said. “I would stay up to three, four in the morning and I’d have to be at school at 6:30, 7 o’clock. So I’d go the whole school day hyped up and everything, and when the day ends – and it’s hot as hell in Miami anyway – when the day ends and it’s time to cool down and things like that, or before we have meetings or something like that, I’d try to get the biggest nap in I can ...
“I never tried to look into it because I kind of understood why I was going to sleep. But I couldn’t help when I went to sleep, and if I went to sleep, there was no waking up.”
McKenzie initially committed to Notre Dame, but insufficient grades became an issue. He ended up following Michel to Georgia, where he played three seasons until academic issues jeopardized his eligibility and he declared for the NFL draft.
The Broncos, enamored with his return ability, traded up to draft him in the fifth round. They handed him a four-year deal with more than a quarter million dollars guaranteed.
McKenzie had to pinch himself.
He quickly became the talk of training camp and was awarded the Broncos’ return job before the first preseason game. But his rookie season became a nightmare.
One day, during a 15-minute break between meetings, McKenzie stretched out along a row of chairs.
“I laid down like two seconds and I was knocked out,” he said.
A video on social media shows McKenzie awoke, slowly lifting his head from a fog, to Emmanuel Sanders pouring a bottle of water into his ear.
“That was the only time it happened,” McKenzie said, “and that was the last time I did that.”
— Zack Kelberman (@Kelberman247) August 8, 2017
It’s a bet
McKenzie met Michel the first day he stepped on campus for a workout before his freshman year at American Heritage School, a private, budding football powerhouse.
McKenzie didn’t know Michel had vaulted onto the national recruiting radar playing varsity in eighth grade. But he was awestruck by the sight of the chiseled teen in the weight room.
“I’d never seen a human like that,” McKenzie said. “A kid, my age, that size. He was 5-10, 180 pounds, but he was all muscle. There was no way.”
McKenzie stood about 5-5 and weighed 145 pounds.
“And I’m walking past and Sony is squatting, and there’s 500 pounds on the bar,” McKenzie said. “And I’m like, ‘Yo, he’s only in eighth grade. He’s not even in ninth grade yet.’ And I was like, ‘Coach, I can’t come to this school.’ ”
McKenzie recalls Mario Perez’s next words.
“Why not?” the offensive coordinator said. “All I need you to do is run.”
“Look how big this man is!” the boy said. “These people are too big.”
“No. I just need you to run. Just catch the ball and run.”
McKenzie quickly found his niche on kickoff returns, and Michel offered a wager. Whoever had the most kick return touchdowns at the end of the year would win $50 for each return.
McKenzie never returned kicks in his youth football league. But he ran circles around other kids.
The first game at Heritage, McKenzie ran one back. Michel did, too.
In the next game, McKenzie scored on the opening kickoff, tearing down the field, and began to believe he could play at this level.
When McKenzie took a kick to the house for the third week in a row, Michel called off the bet and paid him $150.
Coaches and teammates began to call him “The Human Joystick.”
McKenzie’s growing confidence bordered on arrogance, his mouth running faster than his legs.
“He might have felt that at first, man, ‘I don’t belong out here,’” Heritage strength and conditioning coach Mike Smith said. “But as soon as he started making some plays and felt like he belonged, oh, man, after that, you couldn’t tell him anything. Because when he saw that he could play on the same level as Sony, he knew. That’s when he knew. The size doesn’t matter. Confidence is everything.”
Coaches attempted to instill discipline by making McKenzie run, a dose of extra work as punishment for falling asleep or talking too much trash. By senior year, it proved impossible.
“The term was always, ‘too easy.’ It was ‘too easy,’ ” Smith said. “He was like, 'Mike, it’s too easy.' And I had him running 40-yard sprints, 50-yard sprints, thinking that I’m punishing him. And he’s yelling at me the whole time, ‘Mike, it’s too easy! Matter fact, back it up some more, Mike! C’mon!’ And I’m trying not to laugh, because I’m trying to make it a serious moment and get these guys focused.”
McKenzie and Michel went on to win state track championships, and as seniors in December 2013, the state title in football, the school’s first of four in five years.
McKenzie had developed into a four-star recruit, but finding success in the classroom was more difficult.
His grades became a problem for Notre Dame, and on national signing day in February 2014, McKenzie placed Ole Miss and Virginia Tech hats before him on the table.
Once Michel signed with Georgia, McKenzie, ever the showman, took the Bulldogs hat from his buddy and placed it atop his head, too.
McKenzie looked up to Michel, and correctly thought he’d be a first-round draft pick.
McKenzie signed with Georgia without visiting the school, accepting a last-minute scholarship offer sight unseen. He wanted to stick with Michel in college, meet the people he met, draw the attention of pro scouts by continuing the rivalry they’d developed in high school.
They were good friends but had radically different personalities. McKenzie liked joking around. Michel was always very serious. And while it was assumed they’d room together at Georgia, Michel decided against it.
Still, they remained tight.
And McKenzie remained confident. And sleepy.
“He had a couple of times at Georgia when he overslept,” Smith said. “And he had his punishment for it. But (Bulldogs coach) Mark Richt loved him. Mark Richt absolutely loved him.”
McKenzie made an immediate impact as a freshman.
“Joystick” scored three times on special teams, twice on punts and once on a 90-yard kickoff return. And he proved a consistent threat, averaging more than 12 yards per punt return and 28 yards on kickoffs. But he finished the season on the shelf, suspended for the Belk Bowl against Louisville in December 2014.
“It's not an academic eligibility issue, it's not a drug issue or anything like that,” Richt told reporters at the time. “It's more an in-house, taking-care-of-business issue. But he'll be back in January. He'll miss this game.”
Michel took over kickoff return duties. Sophomore Reggie Davis handled punts.
The Bulldogs won, 37-14.
McKenzie caught just 16 passes for 190 yards over his first two seasons, but had scored twice as a runner, his speed translating to success in a gadget role on offense.
Once Kirby Smart replaced Richt as coach, McKenzie became Georgia’s leading receiver as a junior, grabbing 44 passes for 633 yards and seven touchdowns. He also rushed for 134 yards and two scores on 19 carries, scoring on average once every seven times he touched the ball.
He also set the school record with six career touchdown returns, including five on punts.
Georgia finished the regular season with a 7-5 record.
And McKenzie absorbed a punch to the gut.
A death in the family
The same day McKenzie met Michel at American Heritage, before the friendly rivalry and state championships and the nickname and SEC stardom, back when he was just a poor kid from a bad neighborhood who didn’t think he was good enough to play high school ball, he met Dallas Perez.
Dallas was the son of Mario Perez, and he and McKenzie became fast friends. They were about the same size. They both played wide receiver. On defense, McKenzie played nickel corner. Perez played dime linebacker.
“Even though we were from a different race, different culture, we were like brothers,” McKenzie said. “Dallas was my best friend. I would spend the night at his house. We’d play video games all night together, stay up all night, talk on the phone all night, just have conversations and stuff like that.”
During his senior season in high school, McKenzie spent so much time with Dallas and his family that it was like their home was his.
“Isaiah came from a very impoverished area in Miami,” Mario said. “He lived in a pretty bad area of town, and he had nothing. … We’re all born into different sets of circumstances. And those circumstances either lay the foundation that increase or decrease the possibility of you being successful. If you have a child like Isaiah, who’s born to non-existent parents, raised by a grandmother that has the best intentions but no resources and limited education, what would be the chances for Isaiah succeeding in a strict academic setting?”
When McKenzie and Michel left for Georgia, Dallas went to Appalachian State.
But he didn’t stay long, returning home to play college baseball at Nova Southeastern University, helping the Sharks win the NCAA Division II national championship.
Dallas died in a car accident one late night in December 2016, his car flipping down an embankment and bursting into flames. He was 21 years old.
McKenzie was on the way to practice when he first heard from Mario.
He didn’t believe it at first. Then he broke into tears.
“I started crying,” McKenzie said. “Yo, that’s one of my best friends. It was kind of hard, but, you know, he’s in a better place. I play for him. He’s ‘Dallas Strong,’ just like Mario says. We’re ‘Dallas Strong.’ He’ll stick with me for the rest of my life.”
McKenzie did his best to bottle the emotions. He didn’t make it home for the funeral as Georgia was preparing to face TCU in the Liberty Bowl.
He tried to focus.
A case of fumble-itis
McKenzie declared for the NFL draft after his junior season, he’d admit later, because he would have been academically ineligible to participate in spring practice.
His 4.42-second 40-yard dash was the fifth-fastest at the NFL combine, and his three-cone shuttle, measuring agility, was second-best among prospects.
McKenzie dazzled in the Broncos’ offseason workouts and training camp and raced 31 yards on his first career punt return in the season opener against the Los Angeles Chargers, a moment that, for McKenzie, was akin to those first kick return touchdowns in high school.
“I was like, ‘I can play with these guys,’ ” McKenzie said. “As time went on, the first five games, I was confident.”
And then he started to zone out.
McKenzie’s issues with concentration had never crept onto the field.
But now he began to press and make poor decisions, muffing six punts and losing three in 11 games.
“When I started muffing punts, my confidence level kind of shot down. I don’t know if I can do this,” McKenzie said. “It was so hard, because I was making bad decisions. I was letting the ball hit the ground and things like that.”
McKenzie was benched for two games mid-season, but returned for a Dec. 3 game at Miami, just blocks from the apartment complex where he was raised.
The Broncos lost 35-9, their eighth loss in a row.
McKenzie muffed a fourth-quarter punt, recovering in the end zone for a safety.
It was the last punt he’d field for the rest of the season.
“It’s not all about having talent,” Broncos coach Vance Joseph told reporters at the NFL owners’ meeting. “It’s about decision-making. When to catch the ball, when to take your chance, when to fair-catch the football to get it back to the offense. We have to be flawless there. Obviously, McKenzie was drafted to do that job. His issue is not catching the football. It’s not. It’s decision-making. He has to make better decisions.”
McKenzie set out to get his mind right during the offseason.
His plan included getting more sleep.
“This year came around and I was like, 'OK, I’ve got to make better decisions,' ” McKenzie said. “I can catch. I can run. I can do all the things a bigger receiver can do. I’m just smaller. I can do everything a punt returner can do, because I have the speed. I’ve just got to put it all together and be smarter with the football.”
But he received little additional opportunity in Denver.
The Broncos slipped McKenzie through waivers twice, first at the final cutdown to the 53-man roster. They resigned him for a week before releasing him again in September.
When McKenzie cleared a second time, the Broncos stashed him on the practice squad, where he remained until Oct. 25, when he was promoted, filling the roster spot vacated by the release of Chad Kelly after the quarterback was charged with felony trespassing.
The day after McKenzie was told the promotion was imminent, the Bills attempted to sign him off the Broncos’ practice squad, according to his agent. McKenzie opted to remain in Denver because he knew the offensive scheme and didn’t have to move.
He appeared in just one game, returning two punts for 13 yards.
The Broncos released him again on Nov. 2 to promote practice squad wide receiver River Cracraft, who hadn’t played an NFL game. Denver needed depth at receiver after trading Demaryius Thomas to the Houston Texans and losing DaeSean Hamilton to a knee injury, and they viewed McKenzie strictly as a return man.
The Bills pounced and claimed him off waivers, eager to inject more speed into their lifeless offense and take advantage of Josh Allen’s rocket-launcher arm.
Michel suddenly realized they were in the same division and sent a text.
“I congratulated him because I think it’s always cool when you get a fresh start at things,” Michel said, then laughed. “I just told him that I’m going to get on special teams just to tackle him.”
A second chance
McKenzie returned kicks and punts and served as a receiver and rusher in his debut with the Bills, piling up 121 total yards on nine touches in a 41-10 victory against the New York Jets on Nov. 11.
In the next game, after the bye, McKenzie scored his first NFL touchdown on a 6-yard jet sweep in the first quarter of a 24-21 victory against the Jacksonville Jaguars on Nov. 25.
“That’s the type of play that I kind of designed my offense with him in high school,” Rumph said, “just getting the ball in his hands. He can easily run deep ball routes and run digs and slants, but you could just hand the ball off.”
In the fourth quarter, McKenzie skirted disaster. He lost the ball on a punt return but recovered.
McKenzie was less fortunate last week, when he again returned to Miami for a game against the Dolphins. He estimated 150 people from his old neighborhood and high school came to the game. He handed out many of the tickets personally.
McKenzie had a career-high four catches for 46 yards, but he muffed a punt late in the second quarter, calling a fair catch but running into a teammate.
The ball struck his forearm and was recovered by Miami at the Buffalo 36.
The Dolphins scored a touchdown on the short field. The Bills lost 21-17.
McKenzie was back on the field before the end of the game. He snared a big catch for 23 yards on the final drive, which could have ended in a game-winning touchdown had Charles Clay been able to secure a wobbly pass at the goal line.
McKenzie has since said he’s been instructed to shout “Peter” when trying to field a punt in traffic, to alert teammates to move out of his way. He also received a lesson in situational awareness. McKenzie learned in film study that he stepped out of bounds with 2:02 remaining in the game, thinking he needed to stop the clock as the Bills ran the two-minute drill. But he could have gained additional yardage had he turned upfield, and the clock would have stopped at the two-minute warning, regardless.
The Bills, with a 4-8 record and an eye toward the future, will continue to feed McKenzie opportunities after releasing veteran receivers Kelvin Benjamin and Andre Holmes this week.
McKenzie has a month remaining in his second season to prove he belongs in the NFL.
There’s no time to rest.