Draft-Night Darling Takk McKinley Is 'Having Fun and Living the Dream'

Dan PompeiNFL ColumnistJuly 19, 2017

PHILADELPHIA, PA - APRIL 27: Takkarist McKinley of UCLA poses for a picture on the red carpet prior to the start of the 2017 NFL Draft on April 27, 2017 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

RICHMOND, Calif. — Shortly after signing a contract with the Atlanta Falcons worth $10.22 million over four years, Takk McKinley did what a lot of people would do. 

His money dance.

Except he also did something most people probably wouldn't do. He videotaped the dance. And then he put it on Twitter.

Takkarist McKinley @Takk

To see my family struggle everyday growing up and now I can help change that..YES I'M HAPPY😊! Don't worry I'll be this happy getting sacks 🤗 https://t.co/LckhYSEkQ8

The player so many fans fell in love with on draft night this year just keeps getting better.

Who is this guy?

"He's a big old kid having fun and living the dream," says Alonzo Carter, who coached him at Contra Costa College. "He doesn't get too caught up in himself, and he can give you a piece."

Yes, Takk McKinley really is what he looked like after being picked in the first round by the Falcons: a kid. A 6'2", 250-pound one. With a 4.59 40-yard dash. And 10 sacks and 18 tackles for a loss last season at UCLA.

When he's not menacing quarterbacks, his favorite pastimes are watching cartoons and playing with his five-month-old French bulldog, Codeine.

Codeine? "People were saying name him Patrick because SpongeBob is my favorite show," Takk says. "But I woke up one day and thought: Codeine. That was the name." Takk wants to take him everywhere, even places dogs don't belong. When the Falcons sent a contingent to UCLA to interview and watch tape with him before the draft, Takk brought Codeine along in a carrier. After a while, Takk's position coach, Angus McClure, was asked to bring Codeine to his office and dogsit.

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"That's my little soldier right there," says Takk, who dresses him in a Falcons jersey.

"I keep my circle real small. We only like humans so much, so I got me a little puppy to talk to."

Truth is, Takk is most comfortable at home with Codeine, dancing there instead of at the clubs or just sitting in front of the TV laughing at SpongeBob, We Bare Bears or The Boondocks.

Once you know his full story, you can see why.

Cartoons long have been an escape for Takk, and he has had much to seek escape from.

Takk grew up in Richmond, a city just north of Oakland, where the thick, hazy air can be difficult to breathe. During his childhood, it was ranked one of the most dangerous cities in America.

"You couldn't even walk to the corner store because you were afraid you were going to get shot," his aunt Peggy Wiggins says. "Sometimes bullets would fly through. They'd have to dig down."

When he was five years old, he told his cousin Sylvester "Tuffy" Wiggins that he was going to be a gang member one day. "That came out of his mouth," says Tuffy, who is 23 years older than Takk and helped raise him. "He told me, very clear. And he was wearing little bandanas and marks [scarfs] on his arms."

Takk dances because he got out.

The thing Takk needed most to do was leave Richmond behind. But he never could. He came back home for a community meet and greet in June. There, he pledged his financial support to For Richmond, a nonprofit that promotes jobs, health, safety and education, and told the people who supported him that he would not forget them.

Takk, feeling oddly good to be back home again, spoke to a gathering of about 100. "I had best friends growing up who were killed, went to jail," he said. "I didn't want to be six feet under. I feel there has to be a way to change the community, to get kids to college and get them out of the city of Richmond. I don't know what I can do to change that, but I need your help to change the city. They like to say nothing comes out of Richmond. I'm from Richmond. I made it out. Let's get other people out. We have to find a way."

In 2013, he thought he was going to stay in the neighborhood and play football at Cal. He committed to attending, but his dream died when he was told he failed to qualify academically.

That's when Tuffy took his cousin to see an old friend, Coach Carter at Contra Costa, the local junior college. Takk, however, did not want to be there.

"His head was slumped down," Coach Carter says. "He wouldn't look me in my eyes. I had to bend over to talk to him."

Takk talked about working for Burger King. Or trying to become a model. Coach Carter told him if he came and played for him, he would guarantee he'd receive 30 to 40 scholarship offers.

So Takk went to Contra Costa and had 10 sacks as a freshman. The following spring, the recruiters, as Coach Carter had promised, started making offers. First Missouri, and then Miami. They poured in—Texas, Oklahoma, Maryland, Oregon, Washington, USC and on and on. Then Coach Angus took a good look at Takk's high school transcript and noticed Takk had not been given credit for some courses that would have made him qualify academically.

That fall, Takk was suiting up for UCLA.

Coach Carter understands why Takk dances. In another life, Coach Carter was a choreographer and dancer for MC Hammer on videos and tours. Now he is the running backs coach for San Jose State. Last fall, Coach Carter danced to "U Can't Touch This" in front of his team at a practice. The video of the dance darn near broke the internet.

"Dance is expression," Coach Carter says. "Have fun. Don't take this so serious.

"I've seen some of Takk's dancing. It's hilarious."

When the 2017 NFL draft becomes a blur in America's memory, one moment will remain clear—Takk's emotional interview with Deion Sanders on NFL Network after the Falcons chose him with the 26th selection.

"It means everything, man," he said, holding a photograph of his late grandmother. "It means everything. I made a promise to her. Like I said, I was going to go D-I. I was going to get out of Richmond. I was going to get out of Oakland. I was going to live my dream to play in the NFL. And I'm here, man. I completed my promise. That means every f--king thing to me. Excuse my language. Fine me later, man. Fine me later, man."

Apr 27, 2017; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Takkarist McKinley (UCLA) is selected as the number 26 overall pick to the Atlanta Falcons in the first round the 2017 NFL Draft at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL did not fine him, and anyone with a heart celebrated him.

"Pure emotion," Takk says now. "If I had to do the draft again, I'd do it the same exact way. That was me being real. A lot of guys go through the draft process and they teach them things like a robot. I'm no robot. I'm going to be me and say what I want. If you don't like it, you don't."

Why does Takk let his emotions out?

He never knew his father, and his mother never was a consistent presence in his life.

His mom left young Takk in the care of her mother, Myrtle Collins.

"He was somewhat abandoned," Tuffy says. "People who are important to you in life going in and out—that's tough on a kid. He didn't really understand it."

To Takk, Grandma took the place of both of his parents. And more. She was his world.

Instead of courting danger on the streets, Takk stayed in with Grandma and watched TV.

"I'd rather be with her watching Booker T, Kane, The Undertaker, The Rock and Rey Mysterio on Thursday Night SmackDown or Monday Night Raw than be outside looking for trouble," he says.

She would put her arm around him and take him on a search to find aluminum cans that could be sold to recyclers. Five cents here, 10 cents there—that's how they paid the bills.

"Every can counted," Takk says. "She felt it made them heavier by stepping on them, so we'd step on each one to try to get more weight."

Eventually, they had to move in with Aunty Peggy. A series of strokes left Grandma needing more and more care, and it was up to Aunty Peggy and Takk to tend to her. Sometimes it meant Takk missed school or one of his games.

"He bathed her, changed her, fed her, changed the beds, everything," Tuffy says.

"Some things I had to do as a kid that kids shouldn't have to do to their grandmother," Takk says. "She took care of me my whole life. It was the least I could do for her."

In July 2011, shortly before Grandma took her last breath, Takk sat next to her on a hospital bed and promised he would be where he is today.

Takk lets his emotions out because he has to. He has so much sadness, anger and now elation inside him, like a tea kettle with water at a full boil.

Before Grandma left him, Takk asked her what would become of him. She told him Aunty Peggy would take care of him. Aunty Peggy promised she would, no matter what.

"It was a struggle," Aunty Peggy says. "I have a lot of kids myself—eight kids. A lot of times, we helped take care of other people's kids. My pastor would put kids in our home so we could kind of guide them the right way."

They ate ramen noodles for dinner and lived in a two-bedroom apartment. At times, 10 people were calling it home.

"My mom is the type of person who won't let nobody sleep outside," Tuffy says. "We gonna work it out. Lot of times, Takk was the one sacrificing. He gave up his bed for the family. And he never had an issue with giving it up. He didn't mind sharing as long as the next person was comfortable. And I know he was uncomfortable at times."

On his recruiting visit to Cal, he overslept because it was the first time he had been in a bed in months. When he lived in a dorm room at UCLA, he threw his sheets and pillows on the floor instead of sleeping on the bed. It was what he was used to.

Aunty Peggy and Tuffy understand why Takk lets the emotion out.

Sweet Aunty Peggy made sure Takk had a conscience as well as a home. She ran a thrift store to help the family survive and somehow, even in the most desperate times, never lost the faith.

Tuffy wears a cowboy hat tilted to one side. He delivers packages by day, and in his off time he is usually in the saddle tending to the animals on the farm he cares for. It was Tuffy's approval that was most important to Takk.

At the community meet and greet, Takk took the microphone and talked about those two influences on his life.

To Aunty Peggy, he said, "You are my mother, and I love my mother." And then he turned to Tuffy. "You were the first time I had a father in my life. I never knew my own father. For you to bring me into your house when you had your own kids and take me in as one of your own, that really changed my life. It was hard for me to tell another man and look in his eyes I loved him. I want to tell you I love you. You mean everything to me."

Despite having only 3.5 sacks in 2015, Takk proclaimed in an interview prior to last season he could be the best pass-rusher in the country "without a doubt."

Takkarist McKinley @Takk

I said this and people looked at me like I was stupid🙄 I know what I'm capable of and that 4.4 is not going to shock me at all.. https://t.co/z5TKXXp4mk

And of course, he tweeted the video of the interview.

Why is Takk so bold? It was his experience at UCLA that brought out the confidence in Takk.

"It wasn't always like that," Tuffy says. "He was quiet. Coach Angus and coach [Jim] Mora started helping him through that. They let him know it's OK to be who you are. Other people have some of the same problems. You aren't the only one. He started getting help through football."

When Takk first came to UCLA, he stayed in his dorm room most of the time and was guarded with other players and most coaches. Coach Angus had his trust because he had known him since Takk was a high school sophomore. When he asked Takk why he stayed in his room so much, Takk told Coach Angus, "This is the first time I've had my own room, and I'm just enjoying it."

Coach Angus understands why Takk is so bold.

Bruin Walk cuts through the heart of UCLA's campus, from the residences to the classroom buildings. It's a little like the city around it—nice for sightseeing, but very frenetic at times with a lot of people trying to push their agendas on a lot of other people with no interest.

It can be, however, a good place for a long talk. It is on Bruin Walk where Coach Angus and Takk had some substantive conversations that helped Takk become Takk.

"We spent a lot of time with each other," Coach Angus says. "We talked about UCLA, about football, academics, his life, how he grew up, people who helped him, the challenges he had as a young guy in Richmond. We talked about everything, and there was a lot to talk about."

They'd also sit on the steps of the Wooden Center. They would talk in the defensive line meeting room after the others had cleared out and on the practice field after the final horn. There were barbecues at Coach Angus' house and team-bonding exercises.

"I'd encourage him to get to know his teammates," Coach Angus says. "Being at UCLA and meeting all sorts of students outside of athletics was good for him. Being in one of the largest media markets and cities in the United States, he had to learn to present himself. As he became more comfortable, he became more vocal."

PASADENA, CA - OCTOBER 01:  Takkarist McKinley #98 and Jayon Brown #12 of the UCLA Bruins react to a tackle during the second  half of a game against the Arizona Wildcats  at the Rose Bowl on October 1, 2016 in Pasadena, California.  (Photo by Sean M. Haf
Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Now, listening to him talk like one of those WWE wrestlers he and Grandma used to watch, it's difficult to remember shy Takk.

"He's got a big personality, a big smile and he isn't afraid of controversy," Coach Angus says.

Why is Takk so bold?

"That's just me," Takk says.

After the Warriors beat the Cavs to win the NBA championship in five games—as Takk had predicted they would—he sang "We Are the Champions" from the stands at Oracle Arena. He sang it loud, he sang it off-key and he sang it joyfully.

And he videotaped it and put it on Twitter.

Takkarist McKinley @Takk

We are the champions!!! The bay lit asf 💙💛 https://t.co/hxNfCyPpkG

Why does he fully immerse himself in the moment?

Says Tuffy: "He's that moment guy. He hits it in the moment. Then afterwards, sits back down and chills out."

The Warriors player with whom he identifies most is uninhibited, impulsive, emotional Draymond Green. "That energy, that fire—he don't care about nobody but his team," Takk says. "That's kind of how I think."

He also says he looks up to Raiders running back Marshawn Lynch, another son of the East Bay. When Takk was at Contra Costa, he met Lynch at a football camp. Lynch was lying on the ground, so Takk lay down next to him to take a photo.

"Marshawn has the same kind of attitude I do," Takk says. "He's going to be who he is; either you like him or not."

Lynch plays passionately, giving his all on every snap and not thinking about the next. Takk is the same way. "He doesn't hesitate," Coach Angus says. "He just reacts and goes."

One of the plays that convinced the Falcons that Takk was their man came against Colorado. Takk took off from the left side and shoved aside a cut-block attempt. He hit quarterback Sefo Liufau as he threw. The ball landed in the hands of UCLA linebacker Jayon Brown, who took off running. Then Takk got up off the ground and sprinted about 30 yards downfield to spring Brown with a block on the back end of a 49-yard return.

"He has amazing pursuit and passion," Coach Angus says. "He never gives up on a play."

Saints coach Sean Payton says Takk had the best motor of all the pass-rushers who were in this year's draft. Falcons coach Dan Quinn says his team gave Takk one of the highest "CT" (competitive toughness) grades in the draft.

Takk plays angry, and football enables him to release his anger in an acceptable manner. There have been times when he has released it in a less acceptable manner—like getting in scrapes with other kids in school, having disagreements with teachers and breaking remote controls for video games.

Really, how could Takk not be angry? On his first day of high school, some punks jumped him and took his lunch money. Another time, a kid leaned over a banister and spit on him for no reason. He was teased about not having a mother.

He says he is already looking forward to physically introducing himself to NFC South rival quarterbacks Drew Brees, Cam Newton and Jameis Winston. And he says he is especially looking forward to saying hello to another quarterback in Week 7 in Foxborough.

Takk could be coming into the NFL at just the right time, as the league is embracing fun by relaxing rules about celebrations. When he makes a big play, Takk will immerse himself in the moment.

At UCLA, he's done the home run swing, the crossbones and a salute to the crowd on military appreciation day.

PASADENA, CA - NOVEMBER 22:  Takkarist McKinley #98 of the UCLA Bruins celebrates after sacking quarterback Cody Kessler #6 of the USC Trojans in the third quarter at the Rose Bowl on November 22, 2014 in Pasadena, California.   UCLA on 38-20.  (Photo by
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

"I don't plan things," he says. "I don't think like, 'Let's do the secret handshake.' Whatever happens, happens. I go off my emotions. Hopefully my emotions won't get me a 15-yard penalty after a sack."

He hopes celebrations will be more frequent once his shoulder is healed. For half his junior year and all his senior year, his shoulder was injured and sometimes came out of its socket. He never addressed the injury until after the scouting combine, when he had surgery to repair a torn labrum.

He subsequently is scheduled to sit out the early days of training camp. No one will be surprised if Takk is back sooner than expected, however.

When Takk is injured, he doesn't think about the rest of the season, the rest of his career or the rest of his life. Tomorrows never are promised to a guy like Takk McKinley. He's here for now.

The doorbell rings at Aunty Peggy's apartment on a Sunday afternoon in June. She opens the door.

Takk! What a surprise.

They hug. She cries.

Aunty gets out her phone and starts texting. "Guess who's here?" All of her kids who live in the area converge on her apartment, with their kids—14 of them. Takk's home! Takk's home!

And then… "He's playin' and wrasslin' and video gamin'," Aunty Peggy says. "He just turns into a kid again, and the kids love him. They jump all over him. He lights up everybody when he comes. Especially the kids."

At the community meet and greet, Takk forgot entirely about his shoulder surgery and threw a long pass to a group of kids. The throw did not remind anyone of Matt Ryan, but to those kids, it was the greatest throw of all time.

One of Takk's gifts is his charisma. There is a reason his No. 98 Falcons jersey is the eighth best-seller among NFL rookie jerseys. He wants to use this gift for good. "A lot of people know my story and can relate to it," he says. "A lot of kids look up to me. I want to be the best Takk McKinley I can be and help kids who look up at Takk McKinley."

For that to happen, Takk can't try to be anyone other than himself.


Dan Pompei covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @danpompei.


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