RIVERVIEW — Tyrone McKenzie remembers the exact moment he realized he had the potential to make it big in football.
It was the summer before his senior year at Riverview High School. He had finally recovered from the broken leg that sidelined him the previous season when he burned three defenders on his way to the end zone during a scrimmage.
"From that moment on, I knew I was back," said McKenzie, who graduated from Riverview in 2004 after an illustrious career as a running back.
About five years and three Division I colleges later, McKenzie, 23, is on the verge of accomplishing a dream even he didn't think was possible as a kid playing Pop Warner football in Brandon: getting drafted in the NFL.
McKenzie, now a linebacker, played a year at Michigan State and two at Iowa State before transferring to the University of South Florida, where he started 24 games and led the Bulls in tackles the past two seasons.
Several mock drafts have McKenzie going late in the second round of April's draft. He'll get a chance to improve his stock Saturday at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., where he'll be scouted by coaches and general managers from all 32 NFL teams. Players in the All-Star game accounted for 88 first-round draft picks and 712 overall picks from 2000 to 2007, according to Senior Bowl officials.
"If he goes there and does well, he could move up as much as a round," USF defensive coordinator Wally Burnham said. "Like I told him: 'You're in, now you have to go there and prove that you belong there with those kind of guys and do well.' "
A long path
At the age of 9, Tyrone McKenzie lost his dad, Rupert McKenzie, who died after a two-year battle with colon cancer. After seeing her son struggle, Ruth Sloley-McKenzie signed him up with the Brandon Broncos, hoping football would help fill the void.
"He had lost his best friend, the person he could lean on, the person he identified with," she said. "To me, that's the best thing I could have ever done for him."
McKenzie began to flourish a couple of years later when he switched to the Brandon Steelers.
"It's like he went out there, and it was as if he had been born with the ball," Sloley-McKenzie said. "Everybody told me from that point on 'He's going to be somebody.' "
At Riverview, McKenzie hoped to get the attention of college recruiters as a junior, but he suffered a season-ending broken left leg during the second game of the year.
"It taught me a lot," said McKenzie, who received a business degree in December. "Before I broke my leg, I was thinking I was untouchable. (It) helped me realize that I could be gone at any moment."
McKenzie rehabbed in time for his senior year. He rushed for more than 1,400 yards and 16 touchdowns, earning a scholarship at Michigan State. He had four 200-yard games his final year, something that still impresses former Riverview offensive coordinator Barry Jacobs.
"It's the most amazing thing to see where he came from and how hard he had to work to get back," said Jacobs, who still has the metal rod that was in McKenzie's leg.
As a freshman at Michigan State, McKenzie played in 11 games, but left for undisclosed reasons, although it wasn't disciplinary related. In 2006, he had a breakout redshirt sophomore season at Iowa State, finishing eighth in the nation with 10.75 tackles a game.
McKenzie's success continued after transferring to USF in 2007. He racked up 237 tackles in 26 games playing outside linebacker for the Bulls and earned First Team All-Big East honors in 2008.
"He was a great addition to our football program when he came in here from Iowa State," Burnham said. "He solidified that position for us, and he has made a lot of plays here in his career."
When McKenzie transferred to USF, his motivation was to be closer to his mom, who was ill at the time. Playing at USF allowed her and his three sisters to attend home games. It also gave him the chance to give back to the community.
Since his return, McKenzie has spent time visiting hospitals and volunteering at a local soup kitchen.
He recently went back to Riverview and gave a motivational speech to the entire school.
"No matter where I end up in life (and) in the NFL, I'm always going to remember where I came from," he said, "because through tough times and good times, that's where I started.
"At Riverview High School, nothing was given. Everything was earned. So since high school, I've always learned to work really hard."
Jacobs, his high school offensive coordinator, is excited about the influence McKenzie could have in Riverview if he reaches the NFL.
"If Tyrone could make it at the next level, he's the type of guy who would come back," Jacobs said. "We'd all be fortunate enough to say, 'We knew Tyrone McKenzie.' "
Sloley-McKenzie said there has to be a sense of pride from the community as her son tries to make it to the NFL.
"Every achievement that he's made and every accomplishment has been with people around this area," said Sloley-McKenzie, who plans to be there when McKenzie plays in his first NFL game. "I'm going to be smiling and crying at the same time."
Kevin Smetana can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 661-2439.