Shai McKenzie captured the attention of college scouts with his elusiveness and big play ability. His junior season highlight tape shows Washington High School’s all-time leading rusher scoring touchdown after touchdown while switching speeds to avoid tacklers before shifting to another gear to outrun opponents.
As fate would have it, a play where McKenzie was not touched by a defender put his future in question.
The Prexies’ were facing conference rival Charleroi in Week 3 of last season when McKenzie took a handoff from quarterback Jonathan Spina. He cut into the open field with the end zone in sight when he fell to the turf grabbing his right knee.
The diagnosis was grim: a torn ACL. The days following Wash High’s 66-10 win over the Cougars were filled with doubt and regret for McKenzie. The running back who captivated the Washington community and earned more than 30 scholarship offers was done for the season.
His high school career was over.
“When it happened, I pretty much knew there was something seriously wrong,” McKenzie said. “When I went down, I felt bad at the time, but just knowing that people come back from ACL reconstructions and come back healthier, that made me not worry as much about it. It’s something I never want to experience again.”
The 2012 Observer-Reporter Player of the Year when he rushed for 2,689 yards, scored 41 touchdowns and helped the Prexies to the WPIAL Class AA championship game at Heinz Field, McKenzie had to watch most of his senior season from the sidelines. Before the injury, he was on pace for one of the best seasons in WPIAL history, rushing for 650 yards and 11 touchdowns in less than 10 quarters while averaging 18.1 yards per carry.
McKenzie couldn’t escape the shroud of depression that injured athletes experience. Anxiety increased with the thought of scholarship offers being pulled. McKenzie saw the same injury end his brother’s football career and it still affects him to this day.
A conversation with Prexies head coach Mike Bosnic helped alleviate the dark thoughts. The two went over the list of college and professional running backs who came back from the dreaded injury. With improvements in the medical procedure, proper rehab and hard work, the days of reconstructive knee surgery ending careers are over.
Three days after the injury occurred, McKenzie finally received the diagnosis he expected: doctors recommended season-ending surgery. McKenzie burst into tears.
“I was worried at first. I was really concerned because he was really down about it,” Bosnic said. “You could see that after the first couple of days and after the surgery, he had the right attitude and I could sense the results by looking in his eyes and hearing what he was saying.”
McKenzie spent three days a week strengthening the knee at the Wilfred R. Cameron Wellness Center.
College coaches called McKenzie and Bosnic to keep tabs on his recovery and the scholarship offers remained intact. The 5-11, 220-pound tailback made his decision official Dec. 20 by signing his letter of intent to play for head coach Frank Beamer at Virginia Tech.
He began jogging three days later and arrived on campus three weeks later to rehab the injury – he made it a six-days-a-week process – and learn the Hokies’ playbook. Missing another football season was not an option.
“(The injury) really allowed me to work a lot harder,” McKenzie said. “I knew I had to. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t come back as strong. I saw how it affected my brother. I wanted to come off of that and had to get back to where I was.”
McKenzie was forced to sit out Virginia Tech’s spring football practices, but on Aug. 4 when he stepped onto the football field for the first time since that forgettable night at Cougar Stadium.
On his first day of practice, McKenzie flashed his ability to do damage between the tackles or get outside to make a big play. His performance earned the praise of Beamer and his son, Shane, the Hokies’ running backs coach.
“Shai has been very business-like since he got here,” Shane Beamer said. “He’s improved each day and he’s now back to running with violence. I’m really excited about him and his future here at Virginia Tech.”
Thirteen days later, McKenzie made his first appearance in a scrimmage and was exceptional. Starting at tailback for the maroon squad, McKenzie took a handoff on an inside zone and dashed for 50 yards. A few plays later, he lowered his shoulder and scored from three yards out.
The kid who became the Prexies’ first prized recruit since Brian Davis in the 1980s was back. He ran seven times for 66 yards and a touchdown.
“I was nervous about taking a hit and how my knee would react to it,” McKenzie said. “I took a few hits, and it wasn’t too bad. I was a little sore, but I was feeling good. I wanted to go out, have fun and do what I can do.”
After signing with Virginia Tech, common sense indicated McKenzie should be a sure-fire redshirt in 2014. Nothing about McKenzie is common. On Monday, Hokies head coach Frank Beamer announced McKenzie will play as a true freshman.
After 351 days, McKenzie will appear in his first game Saturday against William & Mary. The comeback story of one of Wash High’s greatest players has just begun.
“It’s an honor to be able to play at the Division I level after the injury,” McKenzie said. “I know guys can lose their scholarships from an injury like that. I’m just going to continue doing what I’m doing and try to earn the jersey.”