Natural talent outweighs experience for football walk-on McKoy

Tucked away in the corner of the computer lab in the basement of the Illini Union sits a small office for McKinley Health Center. The room has a desk with enough room for two people to sit behind, and on this past Tuesday morning one male and one female sat with their laptops out. The room was silent except for a clock ticking away on the wall behind them.  

The male, Jonathan McKoy, has his headphones on to watch a video he found on Reddit, the site he spends most of his time on all day. 

Most students using the computer lab walk right by the office and don’t even really take a second glance at it; some fail to notice it at all. The two at the desk estimate only about one or two people will actually come in during the morning. 

A tan bin full of “Stress Relief Paks” sits at McKoy’s feet. To his right is a white board with notes to the workers, telling them: “Pregnancy tests are gone. No more Trojans. Fix Clocks.”

He’s had this job for about a year, and it helps him pay rent every month. 

McKoy plans to stay at work until he goes to work out in the late afternoon. He’s trying to gain at least five pounds this summer. 

He felt he needed to bulk up after he walked on to the Illinois football team this past February.

***

McKoy has never played on an actual football team in his life. Not in high school at Mount Carmel, never in grade school, pee-wee or even flag football.

He likes the sport, and described himself as a huge fantasy football player and Philadelphia Eagles fanatic. However, football season always interfered with soccer season, which he’d been playing since he was 8-years-old. He had some offers to play Division-I soccer, but mostly as a recruited walk-on. McKoy also took an interest in playing rugby and was a member of the Illinois all-state team in high school.

“In rugby, I can just do whatever I want with the ball,” McKoy said, laughing at the comparison between rugby and football. “In football, it’s so structured and organized, you wouldn’t think that but it’s so much detail in everything you do. Rugby it’s just chaos you just get the ball and go score with it or hit that guy.”

The junior from Oak Forest, Ill. ,has only attended three football games at Memorial Stadium. He’s not a huge drinker and can’t enjoy being around a bunch of intoxicated students. It’s one of the reasons he quit the Illinois rugby team, saying he just wasn’t into the drinking culture after the game that made him feel out of place. 

McKoy has always played sports and likes to keep busy. Right now he plays on the Illinois club Ultimate Frisbee team, and after finals on May 15 he’s going to Madison, Wisc., for the national tournament. 

“People aren’t really that athletic because it’s a club sport,” the 6-foot-2, 185 pounder said. “So it’s easy for me. ... I’m not really the best thrower, but I’m faster than everyone.”

He never thought he’d try out for the football team, or never really intended to. A friend of his, whom McKoy described as bigger and stronger than him, was trying out for the football team and asked McKoy to go with him. 

“I didn’t expect to make it at first,” he said. “I just thought I’d do it to see if I was athletic enough.”

He only went to one practice at the end of February. McKoy would learn later that he’d missed the first two tryouts and cuts earlier in February that he never even knew about, but it didn’t matter and no one ever said anything to him about it. 

When he arrived on that day he had to fill out a bunch of paperwork. Then, he made sure to watch someone else put on their pads and equipment. He said there was no way he was going to ask for help. 

He wanted to try out as a wide receiver; Illinois put him at cornerback. McKoy hadn’t even seen a playbook before they threw him on the field. A group of about 20 people tried out for the team, most of whom likely made up high school players trying to hang on to some last glory, and here was this guy who had never even played.

That first day McKoy remembers being matched with the other receivers — he still marvels at the speed of wide receiver Ryan Lankford — running through many of the football drills for the first time and participating in a full practice. 

“’Go with him. Block him’,” he recalls being commanded. “Yeah, that was tough.” 

However, McKoy actually felt confident after practice, so the next day when he got a phone call saying that he had made the team, it wasn’t a huge deal. 

“I wasn’t really shocked after the tryout because after seeing everyone else and seeing what I was doing, it didn’t blow my mind,” he said. 

His friend, on the other hand, didn’t make it. Only two others did, and one quit.

“A lot of people were like: ‘Dude, you never played before,’” McKoy said. “I guess it is kind of unheard of.”

***

Before he stepped on the field, he had to assure his mother that he wouldn’t get paralyzed while playing. 

In practice he realized he was at a disadvantage because of his strength, or lack thereof, in comparison to everyone else. The blocking drills were rough for him.

“The first two weeks was like: ‘This is really hard. This is hard stuff, and am I over my head here?’” he said. “But it gradually got easier. It’s not overwhelming anymore.” 

The most difficult part for him was learning the playbook. As a biology major, who wants to double major in psychology, McKoy approached it the same way he would as if he were reading one of his textbooks, but he said he still needs work learning how to recognize some plays. 

McKoy has had some moments he’s proud of. Once during a simulated tackling drill in practice, McKoy was supposed to act as the “dummy” and the other defensive backs were supposed to go wrap him up. McKoy was able to use his speed to get away and ran right past two of his fellow defenders. 

He’s also had some moments he’s not so proud of. 

The Orange and Blue Spring game on April 12 wasn’t really an official football game, but it was as close as he’s ever been to actually playing in one. McKoy was a member of the eventual winning Blue team — although he was disappointed in the much anticipated steak his team was awarded.

For the entire first half, McKoy stood on the sideline. He watched and waited until he got his first opportunity to play in the third quarter, after Donovonn Young’s third touchdown run gave the Blue team a 35-14 lead. On his first play, the Orange team ran a trick play. 

“I completely fell for it,” he says.

Miles Osei lined up at receiver and threw a 22-yard pass on a reverse to wide receiver Martize Barr. McKoy did recover and got a tackle, his only one of the game, but knows that he would have been able to intercept the pass if he had stayed in position. 

He’d only end up playing about five snaps. 

***

McKoy smiles when he reminisces about completing his first spring as an Illini football player. He doesn’t think it’s likely he’ll see the field during the season, but said he’s had fun so far.

He’s constantly checking his phone or scrolling on his MacBook, which has three stickers on the back. The one on the bottom says “Eat Pig Feet at Casey’s BBQ Best Soul Food,” which he thinks is funny because it makes people think he eats pig feet. One on the right side of the computer says “Just Wear It” with a blown up condom. And the other side is an Ultimate Frisbee sticker.

He’s seen his profile on FightingIllini.com. It’s nearly blank. Just his name and the number 17, which he wore in the spring, and then some of his background like height and weight and hometown.  

Usually a bio of the player is underneath that, but his just says “2013: Joined team as a walk-on during 2013 Spring practice.”

McKoy was supposed to fill out a sheet with all of his information for the website, but accidentally threw it away.

He said he’s too embarrassed to ask for a new one.

Jamal can be reached at collie10@dailyillini.com and @jamalcollier.