Feb. 16, 2017
By Steve Kornacki
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Reggie McKenzie, both on and off the football field, has always been about giving rather than receiving, and being a leader of men.
McKenzie was a powerful offensive guard at both the University of Michigan and for the NFL's Buffalo Bills and Seattle Seahawks. The Wolverines established a school rushing record in 1971 with 3,977 yards while going 11-1 with him leading the way, and two years later O.J. Simpson referred to the Michigan All-American as his "main man" while rushing for an NFL-record 2,003 yards in what were then only 14-game seasons.
When McKenzie was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2002, Michigan coach Bo Schembechler told MLive.com:
"His last two years we lost only two games. As a pulling guard, you couldn't find a better one because the guy could run and had a very strong upper body. He would just run over people.
"And he was a great leader. Some guys you might say 'He's a quiet leader,' but (McKenzie) wasn't quiet. He was a vocal leader, mad if you lost, but he didn't play in too many losing games."
The yardage was credited to the running backs, such as Wolverines teammate Billy Taylor, while McKenzie and the other blockers paved the way with their timing, technique and power.
McKenzie established himself as an All-NFL player, worked in Seattle's front office and founded Reggie McKenzie Industrial Materials just outside of Detroit in Livonia. All the while, he was giving back with the Reggie McKenzie Foundation. He established football camps for inner-city youths that also stressed education, and placed many campers in summer jobs.
He became a civic leader as well as a lead blocker, and for that the Big Ten Conference office selected him last November as the 2016 recipient of the Ford-Kinnick Leadership Award, named for President and Wolverines football standout Gerald Ford and Iowa's 1939 Heisman Trophy winner Nile Kinnick, who died as an aviator during World War II.
"I spent half of a day with Gerald Ford when he was going around the country introducing himself to people before he took over for Richard Nixon," said McKenzie. "So, this is real special for me because I got a chance to talk to him and ride with him to meet-and-greets, and we talked a lot about Michigan.
"We met before when I was in Washington, D.C., to accept an award for O.J. after he gained the 2,000 yards. So, I was able to break bread with him and share conversations, and then to get that award, I'm really humbled and proud. It's about leadership and getting it done.
"It's from one 'Michigan Man' to another, and it's nothing but joy."
McKenzie started his foundation in 1974.
"I wanted to give back to the community that I was a product of and started with a football camp," McKenzie said. "I did it for the recreation department and Bo. Bo gave me the footballs and the cones (for drills). All he said to me was, 'Just make sure I get back my footballs!' "
McKenzie chuckled at the memory of his gruff but loving coach, adding that eventually Schembechler had Wolverines football equipment manager Jon Falk call to inform McKenzie that he could keep the footballs because they were being put to such good use.
Pro Football Hall of Famer Jerome Bettis and Wolverines All-America wide receiver Braylon Edwards, who like McKenzie are from Detroit, are two of his program's star pupils. The McKenzie Foundation drew the attention of then NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who directed the NFL Foundation to support youth initiatives through football.
"I'm really proud of the camp," said McKenzie. "We've been doing it for 43 years! The NFL youth football program, they tried to model after mine. Paul Tagliabue took me to one of the owners' meetings, and he introduced me to the owners and told them about what we were doing in Detroit. He said, 'A lot of kids are coming into the league out of Detroit, and it's because of what Reggie's been doing.' That's how the league got started on this.
"I told the owners, 'If somebody asks you what kind of kids to expect in five years, you can't tell them because you aren't doing something on the front side. You get them, and then you try to educate them on what you're looking for, and it's probably too late.' "
He joyfully recalled Bettis and Edwards, whose father, Stanley, was a standout Michigan running back who also played in the NFL.
"I got more success stories than you can shake a stick at," said McKenzie, "and I'm just tickled to death about the young people who come through the program."
He got other NFL stars to work in the youth programs, including current Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh.
"I've got nothing but great things to say about Jim Harbaugh," said McKenzie. "He came to help when he was playing at Michigan, and after he was in the NFL. He brings the do's and don'ts of not only what to expect in football but in life."
McKenzie recognized for his College Football Hall of Fame selection (left) and with Jerome Bettis (right)
The foundation's web site, www.ReggieMcKenzie.com, describes its mission with a quote from the Bible's book of Proverbs (22:6): "Train up a child in the way he should go when he is old, and he will not depart from it."
McKenzie said, "God has been good to me, and none of us get anywhere by ourselves. Whatever contribution you can put back into what you came from seems fair, and guess what? It works!"
Thirteen of his 17 coaches at last year's camp were once campers themselves, and so they're paying forward with the next generation just as McKenzie had done for them.
McKenzie credited the Ford Motor Company for funding a Saturday program that allows him and his staff of volunteers to take the message beyond football, teaching basic academic and life skills, including instruction on taking college entrance exams.
"Now," said McKenzie, "we have a lot of guys going to colleges as well as playing on Sundays."
McKenzie was an All-NFL selection in 1973 and 1974, spent 13 seasons in the NFL, and is best known for leading the way for Simpson.
"You know, when I got to Buffalo," said McKenzie, "they were starting to call O.J. 'Stutter-step' because he was stepping back because he had no blocking."
However, the Bills added McKenzie (1971 second-round pick) and other talented linemen such as future Pro Football Hall of Famer Joe DeLamielleure (1973 first-rounder) and Simpson finally had holes to step through.
McKenzie, a 6-foot-4, 232 pounder at Michigan, said Schembechler was the one who prepared him for the rigors of the NFL:
"He said, 'Do it right every time, all the time and the first time.' He was the one who really prepared me both physically and mentally to go on and play on Sundays, and take that same attitude out in life."
McKenzie teamed with some great linemen at Michigan but none greater than Pro Football Hall of Fame tackle Dan Dierdorf, now the radio analyst for Wolverines games.
"We did have a lot of fun playing together," said McKenzie. "I'll never forget one time Dierdorf and I double-teamed a guy and drove him at least 15 yards down field. We ran back to the huddle and I looked at Dan and he looked at me, and we said, 'What the hell!' We buried this guy."
McKenzie would pull out of his guard spot and come around the tackle to lead the way. What enabled him to do that so effectively?
"It was the fact that I had speed and quickness," said McKenzie. "I had the natural ability to do that, and it was something we did often in that offense."
He recalled assistant coach George Mans visiting with him as a senior at Highland Park (Michigan) High, immediately north of Detroit, and opening the doors to his career.
"One man from Michigan State said I wasn't a football player," said McKenzie, "and then George Mans came in and said, 'Reggie, I'm George Mans from the University of Michigan. We want you.' So, I went up there with a chip on my shoulder. I knew I could play; I did a lot of fighting growing up. And that's all football is -- a little fist fight. You had to hit people in the mouth and have fun doing it."
"People don't understand the camaraderie and the feeling that you have when you are called a 'Michigan Man.' It's a special, special, special thing. You don't get it until you leave, and then it's special, special, special."