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Former Bucs first-round draft pick Keith McCants dies at 53

The No. 4 overall draft selection in 1990 died of an apparent drug overdose, authorities said.
Former Bucs first-round draft pick Keith McCants had left hip-replacement surgery earlier this year. He died early Thursday morning at age 53 in St. Petersburg.
Former Bucs first-round draft pick Keith McCants had left hip-replacement surgery earlier this year. He died early Thursday morning at age 53 in St. Petersburg. [ MENGSHIN LIN | Times ]
Published Sep. 2
Updated Sep. 3

TAMPA — Former Bucs first-round draft pick Keith McCants, whose six-year NFL career was followed by a downward spiral of self-infliction that included a dependence on painkillers and eventually other drugs, died Thursday in St. Petersburg.

The cause of death appears to be a drug overdose, though an investigation continues, the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office said.

A twice-divorced dad of four, Mr. McCants was 53.

“It appears it was a drug overdose, but we are awaiting confirmation from the Medical Examiner’s Office,” sheriff’s spokesperson Amanda Sinni said. “This is still an open investigation.”

Earlier this year, Mr. McCants had left hip-replacement surgery and spoke openly of using his backstory of drug use and numerous arrests as a cautionary tale for youngsters. Mr. McCants had been arrested at least a dozen times in the past two decades on charges of possessing drugs or drug paraphernalia and had at least three convictions.

“I’m still shocked that a guy who’s 53 years old can be gone who was a titan of his peers,” said St. Petersburg mayoral candidate Robert Blackmon, who befriended Mr. McCants more than a decade ago and helped defray costs of his recent surgery.

“But also from where he was when I met him, I’m happy we were able to get as long as we did. I just wished he could’ve found more peace and happiness on earth.”

Deputies responded at 5:10 a.m. Thursday to 2833 62nd Ave. N in St. Petersburg, a duplex at which Mr. McCants resided with a roommate. When officers arrived on scene, Mr. McCants was deceased, the Sheriff’s Office said.

A unanimous first-team All-America linebacker as a senior at Alabama in 1989, Mr. McCants was selected by the Bucs with the No. 4 overall pick in the 1990 NFL draft. He required knee surgery two days after the draft, which, in addition to being shifted from linebacker to defensive end in Tampa Bay, stymied his pro career.

In 88 career games, the Mobile, Ala., native totaled 13½ sacks. Once his pro career ended after a lackluster season with Arizona in 1995, Mr. McCants’ financial and legal troubles mounted.

During an interview on bay area sport-talk radio, Mr. McCants said he lost more than $17 million. In a video produced by Vice Sports, he acknowledged he attempted suicide more than once, and at one point consumed 183 pills a week to alleviate the pain resulting from nearly three-dozen surgeries (primarily on his right knee, right elbow, neck and left shoulder).

He appeared in the ESPN 30 for 30 Broke, an examination of athletes whose wealth vanished within years of retirement.

“Unfortunately, it isn’t that big of a surprise, because Keith has been going through some tough things throughout the years,” said Ian Beckles, a former Bucs offensive lineman who was selected in the same 1990 draft class as Mr. McCants and now co-hosts Beckles & Recher on WDAE-AM 620.

“But Keith was just a guy who got drafted too high. He didn’t ever pan out to his draft pick, obviously. He went through some tough times. For sure, he was going through some situations. … You hate to hear that, but he’s gone too soon, that’s for sure.”

Former Bucs first-round draft pick Keith McCants, left, walks with former St. Petersburg City Councilman Robert Blackmon along the river walk at Coffee Pot Park in St. Petersburg in early June.
Former Bucs first-round draft pick Keith McCants, left, walks with former St. Petersburg City Councilman Robert Blackmon along the river walk at Coffee Pot Park in St. Petersburg in early June. [ MENGSHIN LIN | Times ]

Still, his life recently seemed on an upward trajectory. During a lunch interview with the Tampa Bay Times in June, shortly after his hip surgery, Mr. McCants spoke of scuba diving again (he became the first Black marine police officer in the state of Alabama after his football career ended) and returning to the gym regularly.

Early last week, at the dawn of St. Petersburg’s primary election day, Mr. McCants phoned Blackmon to inform him he was trying to drum up support for the candidate. Blackmon earned enough votes to face Ken Welch in the Nov. 2 general election.

“I’d seen the happiness in him for the first time, and he seemed like a different guy than I had ever known,” Blackmon said.

“We were really discussing, ‘Hey, you’re going to be around for a long time now.’ … We were just getting his last legal problem in his life cleared up, which was his old child support. We had a deal on that; the judge approved it. So he was basically free.

“I don’t know what to say.”

Times staff writers Rick Stroud and Natalie Weber and information from the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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