Return of the Mack
The story of how linebacker Khalil Mack went from unrecruited nobody to certified superstar
Senior linebacker Khalil Mack headlines The Spectrum's 2013 football season preview. Photo Illustration by Brian Keschinger, The Spectrum
UB provided Mack's only Division I offer, though he wanted to play for a Florida school. Meg Kinsley, The Spectrum
Mack sacks Kent State quarterback David Fisher in 2012. Nick Fischetti, The Spectrum
Mack runs back an interception against Stony Brook in 2011. Nick Fischetti, The Spectrum
Mack jokes around with his close friend and training partner, senior running back Branden Oliver, at UB's 2012 Media Day. Meg Kinsley, The Spectrum
Khalil Mack chose No. 46 for a reason.
Before Mel Kiper ranked him No. 25 on his 2014 NFL Draft big board, before Mack was on pace to break two all-time NCAA records, before scouts flooded UB Stadium and fought for a sight of the hulking specimen dubbed "All-American" - before all of that, Khalil Mack chose his jersey number for a reason.
No one wears 46, he told himself. He thought it was ugly, too. But Mack wanted to wear it, he'll tell you, because it meant something to him.
"The video game, man," he said with a laugh. "It did it to me."
The year was 2010. The game: NCAA Football. His overall rating: 46 out of 100.
"I was like, 'Aww, I think they're trying to tell me something,'" Mack said.
It was, and continues to be, part of Mack's immense motivation - a motivation fueled by disproving doubters that dates back to high school.
It seems analysts have publicized every detail of Mack's life since he has burst onto the national scene. He has a hard time thinking of one question he hasn't been asked this offseason. But there is quite a bit more to Mack than the average scout or fan knows.
Spend some time with him and you'll discover he's one of the most eccentric football players you'll ever meet.
He's a soft-spoken, 'yessir/yes ma'am' Southern gentleman with 17.5-inch biceps - that's the size of an average coconut. He's a barber who cuts his teammates' hair for free - and fades his own signature Mohawk, surrounded by mirrors in the bathroom - and enjoys crooning to John Mayer while strumming his guitar. He could do 100 push-ups before he was 10 years old and started doing crunches at age 6 when he saw how much girls liked Usher's abs.
He is simply one of a kind.
"I really don't care about football as much as I want to grow as a person," Mack said.
But the scouts care about the physical characteristics. Mack is 6-foot-3 and 255 pounds of shredded muscle, and he runs a 4.6-second 40-yard dash. Some might say the two-time All-Mid-American Conference first-teamer is a freak.
Sandy Mack Jr. prefers to call him "little brother."
"This is nothing new to me because as he was growing up, I could tell that Khalil was a lot stronger than any other guy his age," Sandy said. "He was born with muscles everywhere, man. The man had muscles poppin' all out his arms, my mama said, when he came out. He just looked so strong."
Waides Ashmon, Mack's high school coach, aptly describes his exploding abdominals, which were the focal point of a Sports Illustrated photo shoot last year.
"I think they start at his back and they actually come around to his chest and go down," Ashmon said. "It's like, 'Man, come on, what do you do, 7,000 crunches a day?' He had probably about a 12-pack in high school."
Mack's physical prowess has become a legend on its own. Sandy will tell you Mack was 25 pounds when he was born, and he won't laugh.
Mack blows past offensive linemen and drops quarterbacks like rag dolls. He has the speed of a tight end, the power of a defensive tackle and the mind of a defensive coordinator. He is quite possibly the greatest athlete UB has ever had.
"Sometimes you watch film, and even now I'm kind of rotating his position and I'm trying to do what he does, and sometimes you just can't do what he does," said junior linebacker Jake Stockman. "He'll take on a block or make a block miss in a way where you're just like, 'Wow, I wish I could do that.'"
Mack has created a buzz around UB Stadium, as media stations and NFL scouts have occupied the sidelines every day of summer and early fall practice.
"It's unlike anything I've seen in my 11 years at UB," said head of athletic communications Jon Fuller.
But rewind six years and Khalil Mack was no legend. He didn't have superpowers, and he wasn't on anybody's radar - not even UB's. Mack wasn't playing football. Then Waides Ashmon showed up.
Ashmon became the head coach at Westwood High School when Mack was a junior.
One of his assistants told him he needed to find Mack, a hulking, athletic basketball center built to play - and dominate - on the gridiron. Ashmon went right to his class.
"When he came walking out of class, I was just like, 'Oh my goodness. What do I need to do to get you on my football team?'" Ashmon said. "He said, 'Coach, you need to talk to my dad.'"
Ashmon called Mack's father, Sandy Mack Sr., right in the hallway. Mack Sr. was hesitant because Mack had torn his patellar tendon playing basketball as a freshman. Then Ashmon made an assurance that convinced him to let Mack join the team.
"I was like OK, we're talking about college, and we're talking about free tuition," Ashmon said. "I promise you right here and right now, Mr. Mack, if you let him play for me, I promise you he'll go to school free."
And boy, did Mack make Ashmon look smart. He led the team in tackles (140) and made third-team all-state in the football-rich state of Florida.
But getting recruited to a Division I college isn't that simple. There is a process. You prove yourself over time.
While offers poured in for Mack's friends and teammates, scouts passed on Mack. He had only played his senior year, and he was overshadowed by other linebackers in the county like Nick O'Leary (Florida State) and Matt Elam (Baltimore Ravens).
Division I-AA Liberty offered Mack a partial scholarship. That was the only offer. Ashmon was beside himself.
"No disrespect to Liberty, but it was like, oh man, he's so much better than Liberty," Ashmon said. "If he actually goes there, they are getting a steal. They are getting one of the top linebackers in the state of Florida at rock-bottom price."
But then a Liberty assistant by the name of Robert Wimberly joined Turner Gill's coaching staff at UB. He let UB in on the secret that was Khalil Mack.
The Bulls flew Mack up to Buffalo in one of the final weeks before the signing deadline in the spring - he even missed his basketball team's senior night game against Martin County, the best squad in the area - and offered him a scholarship. It was Buffalo that had gotten one of the top linebackers in the state of Florida at rock-bottom price.
"We felt like if we could have had one more year with him, he would have been without a doubt one of the highest recruits in the country," Ashmon said. "It was gut-wrenching, at times, because you sit there and you see nothing but the ceiling for this kid. You know what his potential is. Just being around him and watching him in the weight room on a daily basis, you know what the potential is.
"And I kept hearing, 'Well, coach, I don't know - he has no previous years film, he's kind of stiff in the hips.' One more year, and it's not a better player in the country."
Ashmon is not at all surprised by Mack's emergence. He said Mack isn't done developing yet, either.
"He's going to wear a gold jacket one day," Ashmon said, referring to the NFL Hall of Fame, "just because of his work ethic."
It's the taboo topic surrounding Khalil Mack, the story everyone heard but few like to talk about.
The 2012 season did not start well for him. Mack was excited to play in UB's season-opener in Georgia, the game closest to his Miami hometown since he left for Buffalo, but he made a mistake.
Mack got in a fight in UB's locker room. After tension had built during practice, he punched senior receiver Fred Lee. Mack was suspended for the first game, a 45-23 loss.
It was a surprising incident to most everyone who knew Mack, the gentle giant - surprising especially to Ashmon, the high school coach who talks to him all the time on the phone and was planning to attend the Georgia game.
"I was heartbroken," said Ashmon, who did not go to that game but will attend the season-opener at Ohio State Saturday. "But at the same time, he's such a humble kid and he's such a mild-mannered kid and he's such a good kid. And I know him, and I know him so well. I can honestly say I know him just as well as anybody else knows him. And for him to get to that point, it had to be really, really something bad to get him to that point. He's a kid that's not going to say too much, but if you cross that line, you can keep sticking the bear if you want to - eventually that bear is going to fight back."
Ashmon calmed Mack down on the phone when the linebacker explained what had happened. He told Mack to take it as a learning experience.
Lee, the recipient of the punch, is one of Mack's closest friends.
"Khalil just made a mistake," Lee said. "He acted out of anger and rage ... I know that's not the type of person he is and we've all made mistakes in life."
Many NFL teams have interviewed Bulls defensive coordinator Lou Tepper about Mack, but the coach said most teams do not think the fight is an issue because "it hasn't been a consistent pattern for him."
Mack put up ridiculous stats in 2012 - 94 tackles, including 21 for loss, eight sacks and four forced fumbles - though he missed that first game.
"The biggest lesson I learned last year probably was to stay true to myself and I serve a higher power," Mack said. "I have to stay true to that and stay focused on what I needed to do as far as school and on the field and off the field."
Mack talks often about his Christianity. Growing up, his father was a deacon.
The family spent much of their time in church, and Mack is thankful for his upbringing.
Away from the pews, he and Sandy, his older brother, were inseparable.
Sandy was a standout running back who averaged over 10 yards per carry as a senior in high school, and he took it upon himself to toughen his little brother up. When Mack was 7 years old, Sandy took an iron and put a mark on Mack's right biceps. The 'M' brand is Mack's only tattoo.
"We were in the house playing with the iron and it started with one little burn mark, so I was like, 'You might as well let me make it into a little M with that line right there,' so I took the iron and I just touched a couple times to make a little M," Sandy said. "And he took it like a little G."
Sandy and his cousins started calling Mack 'Ghetto Strong' because he was so muscular and tough, even as a child, and he ate all the food in their house.
That didn't intimidate Sandy, though, who is 6-foot-1 and 210 pounds. Mack Sr. is 6-foot-2 and 275 pounds of muscle. When they were kids, their friends thought he played for the Miami Dolphins. The boys inherited their father's tough nature.
"We always went hard every time we challenged each other," Sandy said. "With Khalil, you know, with me being his big brother, I feel like he can pretty much do anything because I used to be really hard on Khalil."
Perhaps the best picture of their competition came when Mack was 12 years old and Sandy was 16. Sandy was calling Mack soft because he avoided contact in Pop Warner football - Mack was an electrifying kick returner those days - and the little brother didn't like that. So they went into the backyard with their football pads on.
The four-year age gap didn't matter. They went full speed, head to head, at each other.
"I tried to hit him and he ran me over three times, and my nose started bleeding," Mack said. "I tried everything. I tried to hit him as hard as I could. It's the worst feeling I've ever felt in my life, probably."
Mack never brought him down that day, but Sandy learned something - his brother was far from soft.
"Khalil didn't ever give up," Sandy recalled. "Every time, he stood up, no matter how hard we hit. Whatever we did in any sport, Khalil never gave up. He would always be ready to get back up and go again."
Lou Tepper has coached football since 1967.
UB's defensive coordinator is one of the most respected defensive minds in the game. He has written the book "Complete Linebacking," and he has coached three Butkus Award winners - the prestigious honor given to the best linebacker in the nation.
Tepper said Mack is one of only four linebackers he has coached who could play all three linebacking positions at the next level. Even Simeon Rice, the No. 3 draft pick in 1996, was not a complete linebacker.
"[Mack] is in exclusive company," Tepper said.
In addition to his versatility, Mack has something most star linebackers Tepper has coached simply cannot attain.
"He's got great humility," Tepper said. "Most people with the talent that he possesses, they think they're better than others."
Tepper constantly reminds Mack to embrace the Bible verses Philippians 2:3-4: "Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility, value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others."
Though people notice the sacks and tackles for loss, Tepper said Mack has improved the most in the past two years in coverage. It might be scary to consider, but Mack was still learning Tepper's newly implemented defensive scheme last year - and he finally has it down.
"He feels more confident," Tepper said. "Last year was difficult for everybody."
Entering this year with confidence could mean big things for Mack - perhaps even historic things.
It seems everyone wants to talk about the records.
Mack said he has been asked the most this offseason about pursuing two all-time NCAA records. He is 19 tackles for loss shy of the all-time mark and has averaged 18.7 per year, and he is three forced fumbles away from the record and has averaged 3.7 per year.
But the records, he insists, don't mean much. What means more to him is the 9-27 record his team has accrued the past three seasons - and the much loftier goals he has for this, his final season.
"It's nice, but I just want to win," he said. "I want to win a MAC Championship."
The expectations for this year's team are vast - a title, rather than thought of fleetingly, is considered a realistic goal - and those expectations are higher for nobody than Mack. Head coach Jeff Quinn thinks his star is built to handle the hoopla.
"He's got an instinctive nature to his ability to play the game," Quinn said. "He sees things; he can react pretty quick. He's been blessed with a lot of power, strength and the ability to explode. His passion and leadership have been very solid - the best is yet to come."
Saturday's season opener against No. 2 Ohio State means a little bit more to Mack than most games.
"That's somebody I've admired since I was in middle school," Mack said of Meyer. "He was the reason I wanted to go to the University of Florida. He's a great coach. I really want to go against some of the best programs. That's always been my mindset: I just wanted to show I was good enough to go to those big schools that overlooked me.
"Being from Florida, I wanted to go to a Florida school, and they looked over me and didn't recognize my talent at the time. Even though I only played one year of varsity at Westwood, it was bittersweet. At the same time, it was more reason to go out and prove that I deserve to play at that level."
Some of Mack's teammates, like his cousin Luther Robinson, a defensive lineman at Miami, got scooped by major Division I programs. Mack, of course, did not.
"For Khalil, I think that left a real bitter sting in him," said Ashmon, his high school coach. "He definitely should have been one of those kids who went on to play at a Florida, at a Florida State, somewhere of that nature, and I think he kind of felt like he was robbed. And he is proving every single day that, 'Everyone, you all made a mistake. I am a big-time player.'"
Saturday is another chance at redemption. The Bulls are 35.5-point underdogs, but that doesn't faze Mack. Asked who on Ohio State he is most looking forward to facing, he is transparent: "Urban Meyer."
Try getting inside Mack's head.
Ashmon says it's impossible. He attempted to rattle the young linebacker every day in grueling practices and never succeeded.
"South Florida football is tough," Ashmon said. "We try to break our kids down and build 'em back up, and he has that look on his face like 'bring it on,' and he's gonna keep working and keep working to the point that he's going to make you tired because he's working so hard."
You might not be able to unnerve him, but you can get a glimpse into what he's thinking in the heat of the moment.
Here is one play through Mack's eyes. The setting: Saturday, Nov. 10, 2012, versus Western Michigan at UB Stadium. First quarter. WMU ball. Third and 5. 7-0 Bulls.
Before the play, I'm gonna sweep through if [Steven Means] doesn't beat me there. I'm going to strip him, and I'm going to pray that Steve gets the ball because I'm not even going to look to see if I can get it.
I looked up, and I knew the lineman wasn't going to get lower than me. He was like a little fat guy, a little fat left tackle. He's not fast enough! I'm going to get him! Then I dipped and came free and grabbed the quarterback's arm.
Mack sacked quarterback Alex Carder and forced a fumble.
Ashmon calls Mack the smartest player he has ever coached. That's not just an on-the-field attribute.
When he finished high school, Mack had earned a full academic presidential scholarship offer from Indian River State College in Fort Pierce, Fla. His major at UB is psychology, and he wants to pursue sports psychology after football.
Mack has fulfilled Ashmon's prophecy that he would become one of the most elite players in the nation.
A July USA Today headline posed the question, "Is Buffalo's Khalil Mack the best player you haven't seen?"
But before a legend developed and there was hype and a fight and records within reach and NFL attention, there was just a redshirt freshman linebacker. He was ranked 46 overall in NCAA Football 2010, and that bothered him. He had been passed up by Urban Meyer and Florida State and every other Division I program, too.
He hasn't forgotten about that. He still feels the need to prove himself.
"I don't think I'll ever lose that," Mack said.
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