Seattle Seahawks

The astounding story of how UW lineman Kaleb McGary got from farm to Fife to the NFL combine

Kaleb McGary’s eyes got nearly as wide as his shoulders.

At 6-feet-7 and 317 pounds, that’s wide.

McGary’s big-eyed response was to a question at the NFL scouting combine this week: What has he overcome to become a bedrock offensive tackle for the Washington Huskies, the 2018 Morris Trophy winner as the Pac-12’s best offensive lineman and an all-conference stud?

For sure, McGary has a tighter grasp on life’s basic, more important things than most who participate in this over-hyped NFL draft process.

McGary turned NFL heads this week in Indianapolis for his 33.5-inch vertical jump. That tied for the combine’s second-highest among offensive linemen tested (Joshua Miles of Morgan State jumped 36 inches Friday). McGary’s 7.66 seconds in the three-cone drill of changing directions was the sixth-fastest among blockers. He’s got NFL-ready size, plus athleticism that is rare for a man as big as he is.

But the incredible story McGary has to tell teams during their 15-minute interviews at the combine is far more impressive, more telling— and more important — than any numbers in a drill or on a scale.

“Oh boy. OK!” McGary said, with a sigh, then a chuckle.

“So fair warning: It’s basically a country song.”

It begins in Amboy, which is north and east of Vancouver.

“We had a family farm in southern Washington. And in the 2008 and 2009 recession, we lost it,” he said. “We just couldn’t keep up with the payments anymore. The company kept trying to charge us more and more. We got to a point where we just couldn’t afford to live there. So, sure enough, instead of working with us, they foreclosed on us.

“Couple weeks later, Dad (Justin McGary) got involved in work accident, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

“My girlfriend broke up with me. My dog died.

“And then we had to move into an RV.”

That was upon the family relocating from its foreclosed farm to Fife, for Kaleb’s final two years of high school.

“(The RV was) at my grandfather’s front yard,” he said. “We couldn’t afford to rent an apartment. We couldn’t afford to buy a house. We didn’t have good enough credit to take out a loan. And the house my grandfather had was unlivable, because him and my grandmother were hoarders during their lifetime. So, if you can imagine 60 years worth of hoarding, it was quite literally stuff from the ground to the ceiling.

“So for the last two years of high school, I lived in an RV. With four other people.”

Months into life inside that cramped RV in Grandpa’s front yard, attending a new school among classmates and teachers he didn’t know, McGary collapsed while playing a basketball game for Fife High School.

“I had an arrhythmia,” he said.

Oh.

“All that means is your heart beats kind of funny,” he said, nonchalantly. “Think of it like an electrical circuit and there’s like a wire frayed, so the circuit kind of goes in an odd pattern.

“It’s not nearly as exciting as it sounds, fortunately.”

Brushing that off like it was the common cold, McGary was the South Puget Sound League’s 2A defensive lineman of the year as a senior. He was also all-league at tight end and on the defensive line. The News Tribune named him to our all-area team in 2013, as a tight end.

He signed with Washington as part of coach Chris Petersen’s first UW recruiting class, two months after Steve Sarkisian bolted the Huskies to coach USC.

While McGary was redshirting in 2014 he had a heart procedure at UW Medical Center, then another the following year.

“All they did,” he said, “was they went into an artery with a wire and burned out the short-circuit.”

That’s all.

“I’ve been problem free ever since,” he said. “Played all four years, even with it.”

The quarterback he protected in 47 starts in four years at Washington says McGary and his soldered heart practiced more than any other Husky in their four seasons together.

“Mr. Consistent,” Jake Browning said inside the Indiana Convention Center Friday. “I think he took more practice reps than anybody who was there my whole time at U Dub—including me.

“O-line, physical position, and he was able to play a ton of games for us, be very productive. Obviously, he’s a freak athlete. You just look at him and realize that. Some of the things that he is able to do physically is very impressive. And the presence he was in the locker room... always being genuine, always being himself, yet continued to find the best version of himself. He continued to work hard and always set a precedent.”

All this, with a soldered heart.

The medical staffs of NFL teams at this combine, including and perhaps most of all the Seahawks, know all about that part of his story.

But that’s not the end of it.

In January 2018, McGary was sleeping in Seattle when his phone rang.

“I got a phone call from my neighbor at 5 a.m. saying, ‘Hey, you know your house is on fire?’” McGary said.

“No, no, I did not,” he responded, deadpanning in retrospect. “I do now, though. Thank you.

“That was quite an interesting wake-up call on a Friday morning.”

His parents had managed to clean out a room in his grandparents’ hoarded house, enough that they could move out of the RV in front yard and into the house. If they hadn’t, they still would have been in the RV when the fire occurred a couple weeks later.

As it was, the grandparents’ house they had just moved into burned, too.

“A wire combusted and the RV actually burned to the ground and caught half house on fire,” McGary said. “The only thing that woke (my dad) up was the ammunition in a house and an RV going off. And that’s the only reason they woke up for a fire.”

McGary and friends in and around UW tried immediately to set up an online fund-raising effort to help his parents to repair the house. The NCAA, in its infinitely black-and-white, no-context ways, told him no.

“Through an unreasonable amount of difficulty, we were able to clear a GoFundMe (account) through the NCAA, and we got some money raised to help,” he said. “The unfortunate thing, though... I didn’t realize is just how expensive home repairs is.

“Holy crap! You would not believe how fast $16,000 can just vanish. It did. And soon as the money ran out, labor dissipated, material—everything just grind to a halt, really. So we’ve been kind of stuck for a little while.

“Slowly but surely now, piece by piece, I believe they have now repaired a room in the upstairs and the half of the house that was not burned that they have moved back into now. So they are in a house, sort of. Half a house. Room of half a house again.”

And NFL teams think they can challenge McGary’s resolve with a three-cone drill and some 15-minute sit-down interviews? He’s handled a lot from life already.

“More than anything, it gives you perspective that someone who hasn’t had these experiences just doesn’t, or can’t, have,” he said. “Because, experiences is experience. You have to have it to have it. It’s something that I’ve taken from a lot of that is perspective and resilience.

“Fortunately, nothing tragic happened. Yeah, it was pretty crappy at the time, and scary and all that. But no one died. Everything that can’t be replaced made it. Nothing that couldn’t be replaced was lost.

“So it could always be worse.”

The success he had in front of NFL scouts at January’s Senior Bowl, his combination of athleticism and brute strength, his extraordinary resilience in life and now his performance this week at the combine have a team likely to select McGary in the middle rounds of April’s seven-round draft.

Yes, the Seahawks know his story. McGary confirmed he met with them as one of Seattle’s 60 player interviews in Indianapolis.

His is a case for what football can be for a kid. The future and very existence of the sport is under siege. McGary plays in an era of heightened and overdue awareness about concussions, of CTE and long-term quality-of-life problems from playing the sport. More and more parents won’t allow their kids to play it.

Kaleb McGary doesn’t know where he’d be without football. He sure as his story is astounding wouldn’t be in Indianapolis this week, impressing the NFL and taking a huge step toward a new career.

“Football has been tremendous for me,” he said. “During some of the rough patches in my life, especially my junior year of high school, when I was dealing with all that stuff that happened with my family, it basically became the only place that I had to run to that I could ignore how difficult the world was around me.

“Football became kind of a haven for me. It became somewhere that I could just I could just be one thing—and that’s the tight end for Fife High School, the defensive end. I could just be me. I didn’t have to worry about anybody else.

“Football has taught me more life lessons than anything else. I have had to work with an innumerable amount of different personalities, from coaches to teammates. That’s real world experience that translates into the job, and the job industry. There’s leadership roles that you have to assume as a football player. You don’t even realize it within a team, especially becoming an upperclassman when the freshman come in.

“It’s just a tremendous amount that football has given me.”

By now you may have surmised McGary might be the most appreciative player at this combine.

You’d be correct.

“Wow, how easily I could not have any of this,” he said.

“Being technically homeless for two years will make you see things a little differently.

“It’s given me a tremendous amount of appreciation and excitement, really. It’s almost hard to believe that that this is a dream I’ve had since the fourth grade. As my life has gone on, all I’ve gained is more motivation, more drive, more reasons to continue and push on.

“And now I’m finally knocking on the door of that dream.”

Gregg Bell is the Seahawks and NFL writer for The News Tribune. In January 2019 he was named the Washington state sportswriter of the year by the National Sports Media Association. He started covering the NFL in 2002 as the Oakland Raiders beat writer for The Sacramento Bee. The Ohio native began covering the Seahawks in their first Super Bowl season of 2005. In a prior life he graduated from West Point and served as a tactical intelligence officer in the U.S. Army, so he may ask you to drop and give him 10.
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