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
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.