Khalil Mack went from playing one year of high school football to becoming the fifth pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. The Oakland Raiders rookie retraces his steps and dishes on teammates, his biggest motivation and the QBs on his sack list
A few weeks ago, I was out on the field for one of my first practices with the Raiders, and I looked around the huddle: LaMarr Woodley. Antonio Smith. Justin Tuck. Charles Woodson. Pat Sims. That’s when it hit me: Wow, I’m going to be on the field with these guys. It was kind of surreal. It wasn’t too long ago that I was waiting to find out where I was going to be drafted, and now I’m part of this team, working toward a common goal. It’s extremely crazy, but I’m crazy enough to think it's normal.
I’ve been taking it day by day, learning a lot, keeping my ears open and knowing that I don’t know it all. That’s how I got to this point. I only had one scholarship offer coming out of high school, probably because I only played one year of football in high school. My journey to the NFL was unique. Let me retrace those steps to tell you how I got here:
Life at a small school
Although it wasn't a powerhouse program, I loved my time at Buffalo. I invested a lot of hard work and time there to get myself to this point. We were not featured on national television as much as other Division I football programs, so I had to be even more impressive in my workouts, practices and games to dominate and distinguish myself as a player.
I played pretty well against Ohio State early in my senior season, and I think that went a long way in showing NFL teams I could thrive against tougher competition.
The NFL Scouting Combine
I spent weeks getting ready for the biggest job interview of my life. The pressure of performing in front of 32 potential employers was high, but at that point, you have to trust your preparation, instincts and confidence. It is a grueling process, and while we understand that millions of dollars are on the line, players are also faced with the reality that even if we achieve our dreams, we might only get to do it for a few short years.
Between the drills, the medical exams and interviews, the thing I remember most about the combine was the feeling of brotherhood among the prospects and respect we all had for each other. The competition for jobs was high, but we had a common bond and mutual respect that I know will continue in the NFL.
The draft was a blur
The NFL draft was a special experience and it went by fast. I tried to soak up every minute of the different activities the NFL set up for us, but admittedly, it was hard to focus on anything other than where I was going to be selected. That speculation, combined with the overwhelming media interest, was indescribable. Only at the draft did I truly understand the expectations and promise we as draft prospects are bringing to a team and to a city. You realize in those few days that you are not only playing for yourself, your family and your teammates, but for the fans and the city that invest so much to support your success.
The night before the draft, the Mack family joined together for a private dinner. We ate family style at a steakhouse in New York’s Meatpacking District. It was a way for me to celebrate my accomplishments to this point, thank them for all the support and prepare for the next step in my career. I remember DeMaurice Smith stopped by and made a surprise visit to meet my family that night and the feeling of support he gave me was important. It made me realize that there are others in the business of this league beyond my family, like my agent, my union and eventually my teammates, who have my back.
The NFLPA Rookie Premiere
The NFL is a business. We know that as players, but the experience that hammered that home for me the most was the NFLPA Rookie Premiere. The event, driven by top sponsors and licensees, brought some of us together again, but this time officially as NFL players. Our union sets up this event annually to introduce us to NFL partners, sponsors and licensees. The demands and rewards of the business are tied together and it is amazing to see how many people are behind the scenes working every day to help connect us with our fans. For three days we were up from dawn through the evening taking pictures, doing media interviews, signing cards and memorabilia and most importantly, understanding the size and scope of the business of football. Being an NFL player entails so much more than just playing football, and we are in a unique position to take advantage of the popularity and interest in our sport. We have a responsibility to being the best possible professionals we can be and at the NFL level that means taking advantage of every opportunity we can to build our personal brand and help grow the game.
Finally hitting the field
Only after all of those experiences did I finally get to spend some time with my new teammates in Oakland for organized team activities and minicamps. The opportunity I have with an historic franchise is a special one. The fan base here is incredibly supportive and there is certainly merit to the traditions and mystique of Raider Nation. We have a good team, and I feel fortunate to learn from players I admire and respect. I want to learn a lot about what it takes to be successful and the work I put into honing my craft can only be enhanced by what I can learn from the coaches and players around me. It takes a tremendous amount of personal responsibility and commitment to succeed both on and off the field in the NFL and I am confident that my teammates and I can achieve great things.
10 THINGS I THINK I THINK
1. I think I’m at my best as a wild card on defense, being used at multiple spots on the field, as strange as that might sound. That’s what the team has laid out for me, and I think that will be a good thing. I like the idea of being the guy other teams have to look out for.
2. I think I’m still figuring out which pass-rush moves will be most effective in the NFL. I usually use a dip-and-rip off the edge, and it’s pretty effective, but at the same time I have been learning a lot from Tuck and Woodley since I got to Oakland. I have a long arm that I think will be effective as well. We’ll see when we get into pads. But I have to be careful what I say for my opponents who might read this.
3. I think Tuck makes rushing the passer look easy, and he’s helping me get there. He told me I need to work on using my hands off the edge, because if I don’t, I’m making it a lot harder for myself than it needs to be. That’s what I was working on from that day on, and I think it was helping. I’m going to try to meet up with him during the break before training camp to keep working.
4. I think I want to cover tight ends like Woodley does. He was telling me that he had success on tight ends by just bullying them. “Are you strong enough to bully them?” he asked me. I told him, “I’m strong enough to bully them.” He said instead of using finesse coverage, he just beats them up. I can do the same thing.
5. I think I have a couple guys on my sack list: AFC West resident Peyton Manning, fellow Class of 2014 member Blake Bortles, and I’ve got to put Tom Brady on there. Brady is going to pass the ball more than 36 times a game, so that's a lot of opportunities for me.
6. I think my biggest motivation is something my dad always told me, even back in elementary school and middle school: There is somebody out there working harder than you and trying to take what’s yours. In the NFL, that rings even more true. There are guys working every day to take your place and your role, so when your name is called, you’ve got to make the most of it.
7. I think my first impression of Oakland was, “Wow, the weather out here is nice.” It’s a lot different from where I was in Buffalo.
8. I think one of the games I’m most looking forward to is our trip to London in September to play the Dolphins. That’s going to be pretty unique. It will be my first time in England, and to be going there as an NFL player is a blessing.
9. I think as a rookie it’s important not to keep making the same mistakes. During OTAs and minicamp, I did whatever I could to avoid that. I’d come into the facility during my down time to watch film or work back at the hotel, trying to fix both the big things and the little things.
10. I think I need to memorize a song before training camp, just in case. There was a day when I had to take a physical right off the practice field, so I came into a meeting a little bit late. I started getting booed, and the guys had me walk to the front to sing a song, but I was nervous and I couldn’t think of one. I’m probably going to have to make up for that.