Isaiah McKenzie was sitting on a stool in the visitors’ locker room, still catching his breath.
It was the day after Christmas and his Buffalo Bills had just captured their biggest win of the season over the Patriots in New England.
McKenzie, a 26-year-old receiver, emerged as the star of the game.
Meanwhile, in the coaching booth, where Brian Daboll has called plays for the Bills since 2019, the offensive coordinator began his run to that same locker room. When he arrived, McKenzie and the team had already settled in. He scanned the room and found McKenzie.
“Dabes is running towards me in the locker room with the biggest smile on his face, like jumping, knees up,” McKenzie explained. “I’m like, ‘Damn, boy, what’s up with you?’ He hugged me and slapped my hand and hugged me and said, ‘I love you and I’m proud of you.
Daboll had good reason to be so proud.
Five weeks earlier, McKenzie had been benched after fumbled on a kick return against the Indianapolis Colts. He did not play for two games. When he returned, he had been stripped of kick return and punt return duties. Sean McDermott expressed his lack of confidence in him as a returner, even though he led the NFL in kick return average. He even earned an All Pro vote for his return performance this season.
In a high-stakes season like this (the Bills have been Super Bowl favorites several times this year at Las Vegas sportsbooks), mistakes are amplified.
McKenzie had to persevere to get back on the field. He had to pull himself together after the disappointment that came after a spring and summer spent working tirelessly to be the Bills’ comeback. He had to work to get back on his feet and regain his place, not only on special teams but also on offense.
He came roaring back in that Patriots game, and has since settled into a slot timeshare with veteran Cole Beasley. He’s played so well the Bills can’t get him off the field, and Daboll is using him again as he has in the last few seasons.
His teammate, Levi Wallace, said McKenzie reminds him a lot of Tyreek Hill, whom Buffalo will face today when they play the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC divisional round.
“I’m sitting on the sidelines like, Yo, Isaiah has real Olympic speed,” Wallace said. “And it’s crazy, it’s so hesitant…how can it stop on a dime and start all over again. People are born with that, you can’t teach that.”
McKenzie is beginning to earn the respect of the league. Some pundits are comparing McKenzie’s game to San Francisco’s Deebo Samuel or Los Angeles’ Cooper Kupp. But he’s quick to remind anyone who asks that he’s been playing this role for the Bills for a while now.
“I see [Samuel and Hill], and I love their games. But also, I’ve been doing that since I came into the league,” he said. “I just feel like I’ve been doing it in practice and now it’s coming out because you’ve got guys in the league and now they’re doing it and it’s remarkable. And like I said, I have a lot of respect for those two guys’ games. But I feel like I’ve been doing it and they’re noticing me.”
Daboll noticed McKenzie almost immediately when he arrived in town. He had to store some of his belongings in the team locker room. His things were thrown in a pile in the middle of the room, because he lived in a hotel. He didn’t know how long he would be with the Bills and was just trying to earn a spot on the team.
“He does not live in an easy world,” Daboll said on Dec. 27. “This is a fish tank, so to speak.”
McKenzie remembers that first season in Buffalo and Daboll’s immediate interest in him. The 46-year-old coach talked to McKenzie every day and helped “keep him awake” as he battled for a spot. One day, Daboll saw McKenzie alone in the locker room and invited him over to his house.
“We’d have barbecue and the sun would come out and we’d be outside having fun, he’d take his shirt off, and that’s a sight to see,” McKenzie said with a laugh. “He says: ‘You eat what you want and you can come when you want.’ I didn’t know him that well or that he was that great as a coach, inviting us and stuff. I was just getting to know him. But as time went on and I kept going there and eating and he took me in like a son. … He was my coach, but he treated me like a son and I appreciate him for that.”
Daboll is now one of the top head coaching candidates in the NFL. That’s mostly due to the work he’s done with quarterback Josh Allen. But the bond he has with players like McKenzie, who was a fringe member of the roster when he arrived, illustrates how he’ll be able to connect with players as a head coach.
McKenzie never knew her parents. His grandmother raised him. Bills coach Sean McDermott said after a Week 10 win over the New York Jets that McKenzie was one of the reasons the Bills are who they are.
“He doesn’t come from much, but he has offered a lot to our soccer team,” he said.
People around the league are beginning to notice how much McKenzie does. The Athletic’s Robert Mays watched it against the Patriots in the playoff game. McKenzie only had six touches in the game, but the way Daboll used it jumped off the screen.
“You look at the ways they used it in this game. It feels like they’re using it as a combination of Deebo Samuel and [Los Angeles Rams receiver] Cooper Kupp,” Mays said on The Athletic Football Show. “Those were the things he was being asked to do in this game. Multiple different times they lined up with him in the backfield or had him in a split-back stare with [Reggie] Gilliam like a H-back, the way the [49ers] I’d use Kyle Juszcyk trying to get some numbers on the perimeter like that. And they were just giving the ball to Isaiah McKenzie.”
McKenzie has played 58 games for the Bills, including five in the playoffs. He has scored nine touchdowns and has become a player that teams have to plan the game for because of his great performances.
Bills tight end Dawson Knox said McKenzie is one of the most loved guys in the locker room.
“People always joke that he’s a bit dirty and that he’s a little brother that recruits bring to their officers. [school] visitors and he’s excited to be around the building,” Knox said with a laugh. “But he’s also extremely talented. We have all the confidence in the world in him too. And I think the whole building feels the same way. Having to deal with some of those ups and downs has only made him a better player because that mental toughness that it takes to go from being benched to getting back to a big level of championship play is what we always talk about here.”
Daboll saw the McKenzie resurgence coming.
When McKenzie was benched, Daboll reached out to him and made sure the young receiver had the right attitude.
“He was the first to come to me. He said to keep my confidence high and, ‘I still believe in you and you’ll get your chance.’ … It gave me confidence that when it’s my turn I’ll be ready,” McKenzie said. “Thanks to him. He also gave me the chance when it was my turn and I appreciate that. He’s an amazing guy.”
The feeling is mutual.
“You appreciate people in your organization, whether it’s a player or a coach, who can handle things,” Daboll said. “Go through tough times because those tough times make you better in the long run, as long as you have the right focus, the strength of good mental health about yourself and the ability to continue to believe in what you do, your craft, your experience, your technique. We trust Isaiah. I certainly do with anything we ask it to do. And he has been nothing but a good professional.”
McKenzie doesn’t know what Daboll’s future holds, whether he’ll be in Buffalo or become head coach. But he’s going to miss the man who offered that important belief in a young player struggling to make it.
“He has done everything he can for me and I love him for that,” she said. “I don’t know what the end is for him if he’s here or somewhere else, but I love him and will always appreciate him no matter what.”
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George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism