ENGLEWOOD — Maybe I’m getting soft. Maybe that’s it.
Either way, this is a tough one. Not in the way that somebody lost a loved one or encountered another life-or-death scenario. This is about football, so it’s all relative to actually important things. It’s a tough one in the way that we’re all still human, and we fail. We fail terribly. One of Isaiah McKenzie’s failures just so happened to splat down in front of 76,820 at Mile High, a few hundred more than its listed capacity, and another 530,000 folks in the Denver TV market. That was against the Patriots in Week 10, and he fumbled five other times during his rookie year. McKenzie would be front and center on the poster of a lost Broncos season.
“That’s not the first punt McKenzie has muffed this year,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick allowed afterward.
Think about that. His nightmare recurred so often, opposing coaches began counting on the fact McKenzie wore butterfingers, so they made a point to punt to him. The gameplan was to give the Broncos the ball. Eight months later and McKenzie's still beating himself up about it.
“I caught it inside the 10 and I was like, ‘Why did I do that?’ And against the Patriots I should have fair caught that one.”
When I fail my front lawn turns brown and the neighbors judge me. Or the trout escapes the end of my line and I judge me. It’s significantly less visible, nothing a Google search (Do I need fertilizer?) or deep breath can’t fix. When the 22-year-old NFL rookie Isaiah McKenzie failed, he began to question everything he’s known since he first picked up a football at 6 years old. He went to a sad place that you or I wouldn’t wish on anybody, unless they play for the Raiders. OK, and maybe even then.
“I would say it came to a point where I was doubting myself. Where’s this punt going? How will I catch it? Things like that,” McKenzie said.
It was a heartfelt, sincere admission last week and makes you wonder what Vance Joseph and the Broncos were thinking when they kept putting a broken rookie on punt return duty. But that’s a column for another day.
And that’s not what got me rooting for McKenzie when the Broncos open mini-camp on Tuesday. This was. I asked Isaiah who in his life he had leaned on for support during his forgettable rookie season.
“No one, actually,” he said.
Like, no one no one?
“I just had to take it in myself. Me being in the NFL, it’s just me.”
Is McKenzie a good guy? A bad guy? No clue. I know the Broncos return man, as a rookie, didn’t assert himself as a professional. I know Aqib Talib gave him the what-have-you when McKenzie was late for a meeting. I also know he’s 5-foot-8, 164 pounds, and it’s a sports miracle to play in the NFL at 5-foot-8, 164 pounds. Really doubt he’s that tall, anyway.
Point is, I know McKenzie about as well as you know McKenzie, a fifth-round pick in 2017. We’ve talked a few times, most extensively when McKenzie told me he’s on par with Kansas City’s Tyreek Hill as the fastest return man in the NFL. Yes, that one caught me by surprise as well.
“It’s the second quarter of the season now. The first quarter was all right,” McKenzie said in Week 5. “But these next four games — the second quarter — I’m taking it by storm.”
Like life itself, the NFL takes hubris personally. Flashing airs usually doesn’t end well, which is probably why you hear calculated veterans like Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Von Miller (especially Von Miller) heap praise on players that quite clearly aren’t operating on their same level. It’s an alibi if you lose, among other things.
“It was pretty tough. But that comes back to me. I’ve got to do my job,” McKenzie told me last week. “I know inside my head nobody is going to do this job for me. If I can’t do it myself, somebody else is going to do it. It became a confidence thing. I just got to get over it.”
Unfortunately, the McKenzie mess carries a hint of Rahim Moore and the Mile High Mistake. There are certain things you don’t come back from, and you know what Moore’s doing these days? Not playing in the NFL. Isaiah McKenzie knows he has his work cut out just to make the team and isn’t looking for your sympathy, not that Broncos Country would have any. I’m not, either, because let’s be real: dude is 23 years old and made over $700,000 to fail at the one job to which he was assigned.
But I can’t get past this: “No one, really.”
I tried to think of something worse than feeling alone, and the only thing I could come up with was feeling alone in front of 76,820 people. That’s what got me. That was Isaiah McKenzie. And that’s tough.