His teammate, cornerback Tavarus McFadden, nicknamed him Joystick because “the moves Isaiah makes on the football field belong in a video game.”
All of 5-8 and 170 pounds according to his coach, American Heritage’s Isaiah McKenzie may not have the ideal size every major college football program is looking for in a receiver, cornerback or return man (the University of Miami has yet to offer him a scholarship).
But there’s no denying he’s special. After all, how many high school seniors have made ESPN’s Top 10 plays list twice in the same season?
“Isaiah is one of those players you can try and game plan for, but you can’t really defend,” said blue-chip running back Sony Michel, a University of Georgia commitment who has watched his teammate return five kicks for touchdowns while also rushing for 246 yards and six scores and leading the Patriots in receiving (37 catches, 806 yards, six TDs).
“First off, he’s as strong as I don’t know what (275-pound bench, 425-pound squat),” said McFadden, who lines up next to McKenzie on kickoff returns. “He’s so quick (4.42-speed in the 40) and he has a good low center of gravity so he doesn’t go down easy. Whenever Isaiah gets the ball in his hands you know something amazing is about to happen.”
Friday afternoon, the Patriots (13-1) will take on Green Cove Springs Clay (9-4) in the Class 5A state title game in the Citrus Bowl in Orlando. McKenzie, an Under Armour All-American committed to Notre Dame since mid-October, hopes to add to an already amazing highlight reel while leading Heritage to its first state title.
Win or lose, though, how McKenzie has managed to survive a rough upbringing in Carol City and get this far is a far more impressive story his coach says. “Forget football; he’s survived Afghanistan,” Heritage coach Mike Rumph said.
Raised by his grandmother since he was 5, McKenzie said he never met his father. And his mother, who has been in out of rehab he said, has not been a big presence in his life, either.
“I grew up in a two-bedroom apartment right across the street from Carol City High School, and where I was, there was always a lot of stuff going on,” McKenzie said. “My grandma kept me and my [younger] brother Denzel inside the house when she felt it wasn’t safe and we shouldn’t go outside.”
What would go on outside — and sometimes inside his grandmother’s apartment — are what scare and motivate McKenzie today to escape South Florida.
“I’ve seen three people get shot and killed right in front of me,” McKenzie said. “I would be sitting on the porch, hear a shooting right down the hall and I’d turn around and it’s right there.”
McKenzie said he was 10 years old the first time he saw someone get shot. It all happened the same morning he and his brother witnessed their mother get beaten and thrown off the second floor of their apartment building by her abusive boyfriend.
“Football made it easier,” McKenzie said of dealing with his environment. “I had something to do during the week, something to do on Fridays and Saturdays to keep me out of the neighborhood.”
McKenzie said Heritage offensive coordinator Mario Perez came to him four years ago — after spotting him in a little league game at Scott Lake Park — and asked him if he would be interested in attending Heritage on scholarship. The offer, McKenzie said, has saved his life.
“Isaiah has an incredible heart and he’s a bundle of energy,” said Perez, who has helped serve as a father figure to McKenzie. “Everything he does in his life is fast. You saw it from the beginning — he just needed an opportunity.
“From Day One we knew what a tough situation he was in. I put him underneath my wing and told him ‘If you can take care of the schoolwork and the football, we’ll take care of the rest for you.’”
McKenzie, who thought up until last year he was too small to play college football, has 35 scholarship offers now. The next step is qualifying for college. McKenzie said he has a 2.7 GPA and recently took the SAT last weekend with the hope of scoring an 850 (what he needs to qualify at Notre Dame). If he doesn’t get the test score he needs, McKenzie said he can take the test one more time.
“I do worry about my grandma and my brother if I leave,” McKenzie said. “She’s sick now, and my brother is only 15. Where would he go if something happens to her?”
Those are the problems McKenzie said weigh most on his mind these days, not graduation, not Friday’s state title game. But he said he has faith things will work out in the end.
“As long as she’s still living and I can speak to her, I’m fine,” McKenzie said of his grandmother. “I’ve made it this far. I can’t stop now.”