Former UCLA defensive end Takkarist McKinley is a man of few words. He walks around the EXOS's training facility in Phoenix with a quiet intensity. His sweatshirt hood is up, and he keeps largely to himself. It's almost as if he's reserving every ounce of his energy for the exercises and drills he's doing in order to prepare for the 2017 NFL Scouting Combine. It isn't until the whistle for a drill blows, or he goes under a barbell to lift, that his entire demeanor changes and he he becomes a force to be reckoned with.
"He's a great guy . . . always wearing his hoodie on start of the session, pretty quiet, but there is a beast inside of there," says Jonathan Barlow, the strength coach at EXOS who oversees the Combine training program. "He's got a bit of a ferocious side inside of him, you don't see it too often but when you do, look out."
McKinley's quiet intensity and ferocity are the result of an unrelenting desire to make it to the NFL, fueled by a promise he made to his grandmother.
Against All Odds
Growing up, Tak (Takkarist's preferred nickname) had the odds stacked against him.
His father wasn't part of his life. His mother abandoned him when he was 5. His hometown of Richmond, California was one of the most dangerous cities in the country.
Through it all, Tak's grandmother Myrtle Collins was his rock. "My grandma took care of me when I was little and all through my life," he says.
Collins kept Tak focused when he had opportunities to be led astray. She kept his eyes on the goal of playing in the NFL. She pushed him when times got tough and never let him give up. Collins passed away in 2011.
"I made a promise to her right before she died that I'll go to college and achieve my dream, which is NFL," he says. "Ever since then, when there are days that I want to quit, I always talked to my granny and that motivated me to just keep going and stick with it. No matter how tough or hard things get, I just do it for her."
Tak memorialized his grandmother's legacy and her impact on his life with tattoos on his arms.
"It says, your wings were ready but my heart was not," he explains. "It basically means that she was ready to go but my heart wasn't ready."
Despite his tragic loss, things were still looking up for Tak on the football field. He was credited with 60 tackles and 11 sacks in his senior season at Richmond, and he received an offer to play for the University of California. However, he received devastating news that he was academically ineligible to play football in college.
"When my senior [year] was over and I found out that I'm not going to Cal because of my grades, that hit me pretty hard. From there I went to community college, and even going there was pretty hard," he recalls. "I let my grandma down. I was so over it so I decided to apply to jobs in McDonald's and Taco Bell. I was seriously over football."
His intuition told him to give up, but his grandmother's memory and his last promise to her told him to persevere.
Tak attended junior college at Contra Costa College for one year, dominating with 10 sacks, and he was named first-team all-league. He took this time to get his academics in order and was able to attend UCLA the following season.
"I've had a great career, but that was the hardest time I had with football. It was like, 'Do you want to keep playing or just give up?' That was the roughest for me," he says.
No doubt, Tak had to overcome significant obstacles in his life. At times, the lows tested his desire and dedication. However, he believes these experiences have set him up for success when times get tough in the NFL.
"Not too much can faze me, just because I have been through a lot with my grandma and a lot of other things when I was growing up and when I was little. Not much can really faze me as much as it will faze someone else," he says. "If you get to the hard point of NFL, it won't be a problem with me because I have been through harder things in life. All I have to do is look at my tattoo and think of my grandma."
Tak is a massive man. He weighs in at 250 pounds of solid muscle and with a gigantic and intimidating set of traps and sculpted arms. During the workout at EXOS, he squats 625 pounds and makes it look easy.
But when it's time to run, he moves more like a defensive back or receiver. He has an explosive stride with precise and fluid technique that helps generate the power needed to move his huge body at alarmingly high speeds.
Tak told us he was gifted with speed from an early age. He was encouraged to run track at Kennedy High School. At 230 pounds, you would be excused for thinking he'd have no chance of competing with prototypical sprinters who are smaller and lighter. But his sprint times turned heads.
"I tried in my junior-senior year and made the state in the 100 and 200 finals. It came naturally for me," Tak says. "I was also the biggest guy there."
In his first year running track, he posted a personal best of 10.58 seconds in the 100-meter sprint, while weighing 40 pounds more than his fellow racers. He ended up placing seventh in the 2012 State Championships.
Tak believes his speed gives him a leg up over other defensives ends, and he wants to show his doubters that he can run with some of the fastest athletes at the NFL Scouting Combine.
"Most people was like, 'Nah, he's too big,'" he says. "But I know what I am capable of."
He posted the third fastest 40-Yard Dash time for defensive ends at the NFL Combine with a 4.59.
A Promise Kept
As the 2017 NFL Draft approaches, Tak feels confident in his body of work on the gridiron.
"I think my film pretty much proved that, but I'm just out there going as hard as I can with everything they want me to do," he says. "I mean everything they want me to do, I'd go 110 percent at it."
Draft analysts seem to agree. Most mock drafts have Tak selected in the first round. Some have him going in the top 10—despite a recent shoulder injury that will sideline him until training camp.
"All that hard work, stress and tears are finally paying off," Tak says. "For all those that said that 'he can't make it,' or 'he can't do it,' I just proved them wrong. I am able to live my dream, which is playing in the NFL."
For Tak, this is more than just living his dream. It's a promise kept to his grandmother. It's a promise that wasn't easy to keep, but his focus and hard work made it a reality.
"I might break down in tears. I won't say I'm soft, but I'm a real emotional person," Tak says. "Just crossing that stage and everybody cheering for you, a little booing, but I don't really care about that. It's just a dream come true."