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THE CALLS KEEP coming in the middle of the night, the voice on the other end hushed, pleading. Peggy Wiggins, living in West Oakland, California, doesn’t know what to do. From what she can gather, her younger sister Tedjulla and Tedjulla’s three children are being held against their will in Mississippi. Really, the baby boy is the problem, Tedjulla eventually explains in one of the calls. The man who thinks he is the child’s father won’t let him go. Tedjulla and her two other kids are free to leave, but the baby stays.
Peggy finally decides it’s time to get them. She gathers her mother, Myrtle Collins, and her adult son, Sylvester, and they cobble together enough money to fly across the country. They rent a car and drive deep into the Mississippi backcountry with nothing to go on except Tedjulla’s patchy, whispered directions. After a few hours, they close in on the isolated country house and wait until the man leaves.
He finally does, in the late afternoon. Tedjulla makes the call. Peggy, Sylvester and Myrtle pull up slowly. Tedjulla comes outside, but she’s accompanied by an unsmiling older woman. These are my relatives, Tedjulla tells her. They’re just stopping by on a road trip to the family home in Alabama, she says. The woman greets them cordially, but her stiff facial expression says she knows something is wrong. She suddenly makes for her car, saying she’s going to get her son so he can meet everybody.
They know that isn’t why she’s going. She knows what they know. This is now a race.
When the woman is out of sight, the heist is sprung. They hustle suitcases and the three children into the car and take off. The woman’s car returns, a few seconds too late. “We were gone. We didn’t stop until we crossed over into Alabama,” Peggy says.
Years later, when Takkarist McKinley’s family tells him the story of his rescue, he’ll remark in wonder, “Man, y’all been fighting for me my whole life.”
“Man, y’all been fighting for me my whole life.”
TAKK, AS HE’S known, is sitting around his apartment in the Westwood neighborhood of Los Angeles watching Nicktoons when we meet. He’s 21 now, wearing gym shorts and a white tank top, and his right shoulder is still in a sling, fresh off surgery to repair a torn labrum and fractured glenoid. The fact that he basically competed with one arm for two seasons in college, and that he insisted on working out and performing his drills at the 2017 NFL combine before surgery, had people there talking. So did his performance: elite times among defensive linemen in the 40-yard dash (4.59 seconds) and the 10-yard split (1.61 seconds).
He’s coming off a breakout senior season at UCLA, where he finished first-team All-Pac-12 and was one of the nation’s most productive edge rushers, amassing the kind of sack and tackles-for-loss numbers that 2016 NFL defensive player of the year Khalil Mack put up before going to the Raiders as the fifth overall pick in 2014. Takk is what scouts refer to as a “riser” — the more you look at him, the more you like what you see.
What sets him apart — one of the main reasons he’s vaulted to a probable first-round pick — is that he plays hungry. Listen to any assessment from scouts, TV commentators or coaches and you’ll inevitably hear about his “hustle,” “finish,” “effort,” “motor.” One NFL Network commentator at the combine referred to him as an “edge zombie,” who “will not stop ever.” And if that all sounds like scouting cliché, just watch him play. In a loss to Colorado last November, Takk hit QB Sefo Liufau as he threw, causing an interception, then scrambled to his feet and sprinted to the sideline to make a diving block that sprung the pick returner an extra 30 yards.
“That play sums up who Takk McKinley is as a player,” says Angus McClure, his defensive line coach at UCLA. “Are there a lot of fast guys? Yes. But he does not give up on plays, and that makes him different.”
“Are there a lot of fast guys? Yes. But he does not give up on plays, and that makes him different.”
UCLA defensive line coach Angus McClure
Takk links his desire on the field to his upbringing, to what he feels he owes his family and coaches, and to Richmond, California, the city he had to survive.
But that upbringing left other marks as well. He can be withdrawn to the point of sullenness. “It was hard for me to trust people,” he says. “I still feel that way.” He can also suddenly swing to playful and boyish, a young man who laughs with all his teeth. His face is open and delighted when he recalls sitting with Myrtle to watch professional wrestling (a word he still pronounces with a drawled rasslin‘, a verbal stamp of the Southern grandmother who raised him). “When you get to know me, I got a huge personality,” he says. If you get to know him. He has retained almost no friendships from his childhood.
Now, on the cusp of likely being a first-round pick, he takes a moment, reclines into his couch, turns down the volume of “The Fairly OddParents” and lets himself look back on all he’s already lived through.
“I’d probably be dead,” he says, thinking back to Richmond. “Growing up in that area, you’re either going to make it out or you’re not going to make it.”
TAKK’S MOTHER LEFT him for the first time when he was around 5 and never truly came back. Tedjulla, whose family hears from her only every few months and doesn’t know exactly where she lives, says she struggled with drug abuse. “It just had her,” says Peggy’s daughter, Asenath Wiggins. “She didn’t know how to stay.”
Takk doesn’t know who his father is. The man Tedjulla followed to Mississippi soon after Takk was born was not his biological father, the family says, even though he bears the man’s family name. And so when Tedjulla left, it fell to his grandmother Myrtle and aunt Peggy to raise him.
The two women lived next to each other in West Oakland, but after Peggy lost her home, she moved to nearby Richmond. Myrtle, unable to pay her bills by collecting bottles and cans, soon followed, moving in with Peggy when Takk was a young boy.
It was in Richmond, at Kennedy High School, that track and field coach Carl Sumler took notice of Takk’s athleticism on the football field. He tells of watching the then-junior defensive end miss a sack, only to chase the quarterback downfield, blowing past everyone and erasing a 15- to 20-yard head start to make a touchdown-saving tackle: “I said, ‘Oh my god, this boy can run.'”
It sounds like a school-yard tale, but then Coach Carl, as everyone calls him, plays a clip of Takk — whom he’d convinced to come out for track — running the 100 meters. Takk, already over 6 feet and 220 pounds, looks extraterrestrial next to the short, wiry teenagers in the starting blocks beside him. And when the gun goes, it’s as if his image has been superimposed on the screen. His start is lumbering, but about two-thirds of the way through the race, he has reached his top end, turning over his long stride, closing the gap and accelerating past the other kids. Ultimately, it was Takk’s success as a sprinter that would bring him to the attention of Pac-12 football coaches.
Despite his two-sport success, life at Kennedy was rough. Richmond has long been a violent city. A few years ago, it made headlines because of an anti-crime program that involved identifying about two dozen people most likely to shoot someone or be shot and basically paying them to stand down. Takk says he was robbed by gang members in the lunch line on his first day of school. He recalls daily fear: “When you walk outside, you got to look left and right, because you never know if somebody’s outside waiting to take your head off.”
“An hour or so later you hear, ‘Such-and-such got killed across the street,’ and the meet continues.”
“I’ve had track meets where right in the middle of the meet you hear ‘ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta,’ and everybody gets silent,” says Coach Carl, who’s lived here 53 years. “Then you hear sirens. The kids gossip. An hour or so later you hear, ‘Such-and-such got killed across the street,’ and the meet continues.”
It took intense vigilance from the adults in Takk’s life to keep him from the violence. Often, when Takk would visit his girlfriend’s house, he’d call Coach Carl to drive him home at night because it was too dangerous to walk the few blocks. And Myrtle kept a close watch over her youngest grandchild. “She kept him right under arm,” Peggy says. “That was her baby.”
But as Myrtle aged and suffered several strokes, Peggy and Sylvester increasingly took charge of Takk, becoming his legal guardians. Takk calls his father-son relationship with his cousin Sylvester, 44, “probably the best thing that ever happened to me. To have a man in my life changed my whole perspective.”
Peggy also built routine and responsibility into Takk’s teenage years by asking him to help after school at the family’s tiny thrift store. Eventually, she also asked him to assist in taking care of his weakening grandmother. “I told him that if he did all that, he would be blessed in the end,” says Peggy, who talks about Takk with a kind of heartbreaking tenderness. “He gave all that up. He gave up a childhood.”
Myrtle Collins passed away in July 2011, the summer after Takk’s sophomore year. Before she died, Takk sidled up to her hospital bed and promised to escape Richmond and play football at a Division I college. He remembers her nodding faintly. She died minutes later. Takk tore his shirt and wept in Peggy’s arms.
“She was the one who was always there since he was a baby. She never left,” Asenath says. “He was angry,” recalls Sylvester. “It really hurt him.”
THERE WAS MORE heartbreak to come. The senior signed a commitment to Cal in February 2013 — only to be told later that he wasn’t an NCAA academic qualifier. His sense of not only failure but of betraying his promise to Myrtle was overwhelming. He was ready to quit. He applied to fast-food restaurants, but no one responded. Sylvester persuaded him not to give up and to instead play at nearby Contra Costa College, where he had 33 tackles and 10 sacks as a freshman.
In the end, it would take one other person to help Takk make it to D1 football: Angus McClure. The UCLA defensive line coach took a hard look at Takk’s transcripts in the summer of 2014 and saw a discrepancy that others had missed. Summer school classes he’d taken were improperly determined to be middle school courses. The grades should have counted. McClure passed the paperwork to his compliance department, which concurred. The rest was a months-long process in which Takk and McClure obtained letters from Kennedy’s principal and tracked down teachers to verify the grades and explain the mix-up.
A few weeks into the 2014 football season, the NCAA completed its review and declared him an academic qualifier.
Peggy and Sylvester packed Takk into their car and drove him down to Los Angeles, where he immediately joined the Bruins on the field. McClure remembers being worried initially that his recruit wasn’t adjusting, spending too much time alone in his dorm, only to be told later by Takk that he was just so happy to finally have a room and bed of his own.
Slowly he emerged. Kenny Clark, now a defensive lineman for the Packers, recalls the transformation of his former UCLA teammate from a closed-off, quiet kid to someone whose commitment and trash-talking on the field and fun spirit off it made him one of the team’s most magnetic figures. “When you get comfortable, your real self comes out,” Clark says. “He’s a fun guy when he’s telling jokes and doing stuff with the team. Sometimes when he’s just sitting there it’s funny.” His favorite memory is of seeing Takk kick-push-coast his massive 6-foot-2, 250-pound body around campus on a scooter, wearing that big smile and joking with everyone in sight.
Takk opened up in other ways too. His junior year at UCLA, he organized a trip for Kennedy student-athletes to come see him play and tour the campus, and he gave his number to some so they could call him when they have questions. “I want them to know I’m real,” Takk says, “to know there’s more than Richmond out here.”
What radiates most powerfully now from Takkarist McKinley is a sense of hard-earned self-possession. “He’s got goals, and he’s not afraid to tell you his goals,” says McClure. At the NFL combine, he mounted the podium and brushed aside questions about whether his shoulder could cost him time as a rookie. “I’ll say it again,” he said. “I feel like I’m the best pass rusher in this class. One year doesn’t determine who’s the best pass rusher — 10-plus years determines who’s the best pass rusher.”
Back at his Westwood apartment, the midafternoon turns into late afternoon, in that peculiar L.A. way in which time passes but shadows do not lengthen, and the stoic, resolute Takk re-emerges: “I’ve always been the under-the-radar player, and I like to keep it that way. I was a no-star. I went to community college and I was a nobody. Even going into my senior season, most people didn’t know who Takk McKinley was. It motivates me.”
He offers that assessment of his career with the same matter-of-fact intonation he deploys when contemplating the difficulties of his past. His voice contains no self-pity, simply the resolve of someone who had to learn before his time that the way forward is hard but worth fighting for.