Return of the Mack
The story of how linebacker Khalil Mack went from unrecruited nobody to certified superstar
Published: Friday, August 30, 2013
Updated: Saturday, August 31, 2013 18:08
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).