We will never know what led Kenny McKinley to take his 23-year-old life Monday evening in Denver. What we do know is that McKinley led a life that left a lasting impression, a life that should not soon be forgotten.
His teammates and coaches sang his praises Tuesday, to a person mentioning an infectious smile that made everyone want to be around McKinley. They also talked about a player who overcame his lack of size with quickness and an uncanny knack for getting open as a receiver.
McKinley departed the University of South Carolina following the 2008 season as the all-time school leader in receptions, receiving yards and compliments by teammates and coaches on his determination, grit and friendly nature.
Tori Gurley was a freshman in his redshirt year during the 2008 season when McKinley was a senior. Gurley said Tuesday that McKinley was like a big brother to the younger players on the team, a seasoned veteran who led by example on and off the field.
“He wasn’t the biggest guy, but he had a big heart,” said Gurley, who was talking about McKinley both as a player and as a person.
Gurley recalled standing on the sideline in Raymond James Stadium in Tampa on New Year’s Day in 2009. It was not a stellar afternoon for South Carolina, which was pasted by a vastly superior Iowa team. But one play remains etched in Gurley’s memory.
“I watched him take a hit across the middle of the field . . . and jumped up and got in the (Iowa) middle linebacker’s face,” Gurley said.
“That’s when I realized that he was special, and he was a total team player.”
McKinley apparently made the same impression on the new South Carolina coaching staff led by Steve Spurrier in the fall of 2005. McKinley arrived at South Carolina as a string bean who had played quarterback at South Cobb High School west of Atlanta. He was listed in the 2005 South Carolina media guide as a “back,” which usually translates to a player without a position.
McKinley signed with South Carolina because he read a newspaper article about how Spurrier was to resume his college coaching career in Columbia. “I knew the ball would be in the air and I’d get a chance to play wide receiver,” McKinley said, according to Spurrier.
Spurrier and his staff surely must have wondered what exactly they had in McKinley since he stood 6-foot and weighed a mere 150 pounds. Then McKinley began running routes as if he had been doing it throughout high school and displayed amazing foot speed.
“He knew how to get open. That’s what he did best,” Spurrier said. “He was pretty fast, now. He had a quick step, getting open, running slants, fades. He was one of the best at that, one of the best ever.”
Unaware that athletic department rules called for a five-year waiting period, Spurrier announced following the 2008 season that McKinley’s No. 11 jersey would be retired during the next spring game. Even though the ceremony never occurred, it told everyone of the high regard Spurrier had for McKinley.
Part of the respect McKinley gained from coaches, teammates and the media grew from his interaction and treatment of others.
In a tweet Tuesday, Sidney Rice, a former South Carolina player and standout receiver for the Minnesota Vikings, referred to McKinley as “My Lil Bro Kenny Mc.”
Maybe that is why McKinley’s death is so difficult to comprehend. We want so badly to remember him forever as the football player and person we knew and grew to admire. It is not easy, but as time passes we can only hope those fond memories of McKinley will overtake the prevailing question of “why?” that surrounds his death.
That would be the fitting tribute to him.