Mike McKenzie quietly goes about his business of shutting down the opposing team's best receivers
Mike McKenzie has turned into Green Bay's best-kept secret. Everybody knows Brett Favre. Ahman Green is morphing into one of the game's biggest players and even Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila has made a name for himself on the national scene. Very rarely do you hear about McKenzie.
Why is that? Here's a start: McKenzie was the third of three cornerbacks drafted by the Packers in 1999. Antuan Edwards was Green Bay's first-round choice and Fred Vinson was selected in the second round, both ahead of McKenzie.
Call it the Randy Moss draft. All three players were picked in hopes of containing the Minnesota wide receiver who torched the Packers with 13 receptions, 343 yards and three touchdowns in two 1998 meetings. To this day, McKenzie still knows why the Packers drafted so deeply at cornerback that year -- to shut down Moss and the Vikings.
"We go into the (Minnesota) game understanding that this is the team we were drafted large in part to defend against," McKenzie said.
During their rookie season, few days went by in which the papers failed to mention all three picks together. Sometime during that first training camp, one of the three picks broke away from the others.
The Packers entered the '99 draft with formidable questions as to whether they could stop opposing receivers. The answer emerged from the third round. Here's how it all shook down. McKenzie eventually beat out his fellow rookies and incumbent cornerback Craig Newsome for a starting spot in the secondary. Newsome was deemed expendable and traded to San Francisco.
As for Edwards, the team moved the first-rounder to safety, grooming him to eventually replace LeRoy Butler. Edwards had been steadily improving until suffering a season-ending injury Sept. 30.
Vinson is another story. He was traded to Mike Holmgren and Seattle in April of 2000 for a sparely-used running back...Ahman Green. Vinson never played again in the NFL after suffering injuries and Green, well...you get the picture. Maybe someone should thank McKenzie for playing so well that the Packers could trade one of their corners for one of the NFC's top running backs.
Actually, McKenzie would just politely shrug off any such adoration. One of the reasons he's not as well known outside of Green Bay is that he doesn't feed off the media limelight, like other players. The cornerback position has become a breeding ground for media darlings and Deion Sanders, or "Primetime," is a major reason for that. Even today, players such as the Giants' Jason Sehorn get a lot of face time on camera, but McKenzie prefers to leave everything on the field.
The Green Bay secondary is no stranger to this trend either. Butler is known for his loquacious demeanor with the media and Darren Sharper has gradually become a spokesperson for the Packers defense. McKenzie prefers the low-profile approach.
"When you have guys who don't mind being in the spotlight, it definitely helps a guy like me," McKenzie said, "because they (the press) don't have to worry about coming to a guy like me, trying to get a story or what not."
Opposing quarterbacks must trust the papers more than game film, because they always seem to throw in his direction. That's good for Packers fans because McKenzie always seems to come through with big plays. When Keyshawn Johnson broke free streaking toward the end zone at Lambeau Nov. 4, it was McKenzie who successfully made up that distance, knocking the ball away before Johnson could haul in a crucial scoring pass. The Packers eventually won, 21-20.
Aside from his play on the field there are two things for which the Miami native is known: his unique hairstyle and his growing collection of classic cars. The easiest way to identify McKenzie on the playing field, aside form his number 34, are the dreadlocks that flow out past the edge of his helmet. This hairstyle has become an NFL thing for him.
"I had the braids back in college," McKenzie said. "The braids were pretty good to me. I did the Afro, the braids and the low fade. I kind of naturally grew into the new look. Chances are they're going to be with me for a little while."
The hair is the most identifiable thing that the everyday fan can see, but McKenzie has a deep affection for tinkering with old cars. At age 15, he got one of his high school friends to sell him a 1982 Chevy Impala four-door for around $800. It was all he could afford at the time, but he changed a few hoses and belts and eventually had the car purring.
McKenzie is a partially self-taught car junkie. His uncle worked as a body man to fix cars. The car enthusiast picked up things here and there, learning the rest he needed to know on his own. The older the car the better because he knows where everything is, thus making it easier to work on.
So, along with the '82 Impala in his collection, what else is there? In college, he bumped into a friend who was moving and didn't want to take his car. Hence, McKenzie scored a 1968 Chrysler Newport. During his rookie season in Green Bay, he picked up a 1966 Buick Electra 225 convertible. He also added a 1971 Chevy Impala.
McKenzie shares his love of old cars with fellow teammates Gilbert Brown, John Thierry and Tyrone Williams, but he keeps most of them at homes in Miami and Memphis.
"It's more of a summertime ride," McKenzie said.
With his stellar play on the field, McKenzie is certain to get more notice by, at least, opposing coaching staffs. His infamous dreadlocks and passion for classic cars may distinguish him from other players, but chances are he'll still fly relatively low on the media radar screen. While McKenzie is a relatively quiet guy off the field, he will never be accused of not cooperating with the media.
Essentially Mike is Mike. He's an easygoing person, a very mellow guy who seems to derive pleasure out of just living everyday and enjoying his job. Anyone would be hard pressed to find somebody with something bad to say about him -- except maybe for the opposing receivers he lines up against each week.
McKenzie likes to have fun and that can even parlay into some interesting locker-room high jinx. Favre, a reputed locker room prankster, was playing a joke on wideout Corey Bradford that accidentally got McKenzie wet, too. The often-reserved cornerback bided his time and struck when least expected. Not to divulge too many secrets, but Favre was treated to a Gatorade-cooler style cold shower just before he was set to do an interview with a writer from ESPN.
Easy going off the field, McKenzie works as hard as anyone on the field. After 14 weeks of the regular season, his name is being thrown around in Pro Bowl discussions. He only has one interception this season, but has recorded 50 tackles with 16 passes defensed. More importantly, he provides the Green Bay coaches and fans with a sense of security when defending the most dangerous of receivers.
"These days it pretty much seems like it's a popularity contest," McKenzie said about the Pro Bowl. "I'm not a guy that's going to be all up in the media. Naturally if you play the game you'd love for the fans and your peers to feel like you're the best out there. I don't pay it much attention at all, but if I got to go it would definitely be nice."
Born in Miami and going to college in Memphis, McKenzie likes the warmer climates. That doesn't like northern Wisconsin, but he's definitely had to get used to the colder weather. He'll take all the cold weather Mother Nature can dish out to be a part of the tradition and success of the Packers.
"I think playing here in Green Bay you're not going to get a richer tradition of football," McKenzie said. "I would definitely love to be right here in Green Bay."
McKenzie might not be the most well known player outside of Green Bay, but the Packers cornerback will be an important factor in the team's late-season push this year and for years to come. Just call it one Green Bay's little secrets.
Editors Note: This article appeared in the Green Bay Packers Gameday Magazine on Dec 23, 2001.