"Everything I've managed to hit with my face, hit that spot."
The list of objects that may lurk at eye level isn’t a pressing issue for most. For Kaleb McGary, it’s always at the front of his mind: Doorframes. Barbells on weight racks. Ceiling fans — which he usually breaks.
He calls that “winning.”
Over time, a thick knob has grown on the bridge of his nose — faint scars dance across it. One is from his old locker room, wherein the seats of the lockers opened up to allow for storage below. McGary thought he had balanced the old, oaken seat upright before peering underneath; he was covered in blood and getting stitches a few minutes later. Another is from the bleachers of the Fife High School gymnasium, where McGary collapsed in the fourth quarter of a basketball game, his heart beating 300 times per minute.
“If you look, there is still a mark on that bench,” McGary says hastily as he recalls the story. It’s a detail he’s unwilling to forget. “I think I won that.”
McGary is 6-foot-7 — well, 6-foot-6 and 7/8ths of an inch was his measurement at the Reese’s Senior Bowl in January, but he’ll get measured again on Wednesday in Indianapolis during the NFL Combine. Maybe he’s grown in the last six weeks.
It’s not out of the realm of possibility: back in middle school, McGary’s parents, Cassandra and Justin, got a call when Kaleb was on a month-long trip for travel basketball. The team was in Florida; Kaleb was okay. His coach had needed to buy him a new pair of shoes; the size 17s he had left home with no longer fit.
That height is what got McGary involved in sports young — football first. He wasn’t allowed to play in Pop Warner football because he was so much bigger than all the other boys, so he played in a community youth football league. Where Kaleb went, Cassandra and Justin followed — and with them came Kaleb’s birth certificate, which opposing coaches asked for with uncomfortable regularity.
One day in middle school, a coach saw McGary on the football field and encouraged him to try out for travel basketball, so he did — in muddy football gear and bare feet, so his cleats wouldn’t damage the hardwood. By seventh grade, Kaleb was playing both football and basketball — he claims that by then, he was 6-foot-7; Cassandra thinks he was closer to six even — but that’s only a few inches of water under a rather large bridge.
Sports came easy to McGary, but the social life surrounding them didn’t. McGary was regularly asked by coaches to never go all-out, for the risk of injuring the smaller kids who were playing alongside him. Because he was big, he was strong and physical — but he was also assumed dumb, a hulking brute. When McGary entered Battle Ground High School in southeast Washington, girls were afraid to talk to him; the boys who didn’t know him personally kept far abreast. After a particularly difficult day, he told his mother that he felt like a freak.
But life wasn’t all school and sports for McGary — outside of Battle Ground was a little area called Amboy, where you could find all five and a half acres of the McGary farm; all the fishing, hunting, and hiking a growing boy could ask for. They had chickens, pigs, goats, and at one point, a very happy donkey named Molly.
McGary loved farm work and the lifestyle it demanded. Every morning he fed the pigs on his way to the school bus, managed and maintained the fields he knew so well. If a felled tree was small enough, McGary didn’t like going through the business of getting the tractor out, tethering it up, and dragging the tree out to chop it for firewood — he just grabbed it by the trunk and did it himself.
“Only the kind of average, regular trees,” he says. “About a foot across.”
The farm forged Kaleb McGary, raising him as it hardened him with tireless work. That’s what made the summer before Kaleb’s junior year so difficult: that was when his parents’ battle with a rising tide of mortgage payments reached an untenable tipping point, and they were forced to give up the farm.
“I was angry.” McGary says. “I was just so angry at the world and people. It was absolutely infuriating to have worked so hard on that farm and fix it up, make it a home. And it was just ripped — ripped away from us by people who didn’t care about us or who we were.”
An angry McGary said goodbye to Amboy, to his family’s farmhouse, to Molly — and traveled two hours north, to the city of Fife. Cassandra and Justin had grown up and met here, and Cassandra’s father owned a house that could fit the family. But it could also fit something else.
Stuff. A lot of stuff. Wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling amounts of stuff. 100 black garbage bags to open the front door amounts of stuff. And in the words of McGary, "rat piss everywhere."
So Justin and Cassandra parked an RV in the front yard and piled their three kids inside. Kaleb, the oldest and biggest, got the bed over one cab; his parents got the master on the other side. Savannah and Jonah, his younger siblings, took the foldout beds that doubled as the couch and the kitchen table at dinner time.
There was no insulation, so they had to hardwire the RV to the house and run heaters throughout the night. In the coldest months, they’d wake with the backs of their pillows frozen to the walls — and more often than not, McGary’s nose would find the low ceiling of his upper bunk. A brutal reminder that he had been built for a different life; a life stolen from beneath his size 18 feet.
That junior year for McGary was the worst. He stewed and he brewed, becoming progressively more upset with the hand that he had been dealt but didn’t deserve. “Selfish. I was so selfish,” he remembers. “Trying to help my parents but also help me; how can I help me?”
He started his junior year at Fife High School — not Bellarmine, the prep school a little further away, where his father wanted him to go. Bellarmine had the better football program; but Fife would let him wear his cowboy hat. He thought they were more his speed, reminiscent of what he had lost — but there’s bad apples in every bunch, and he quickly began feeling like the outcast again. In Amboy, he could vanish into the hills with his friends, and mosey back to the farm at his leisure; in Fife, his parents wanted to know where he was, who he was with, and how long he was going to be gone — and McGary hated that adjustment. He was suffocated by changing space, shackled by circumstance. Nothing was right, and everything was unfair.
McGary remembers the day that things began to change for him. His father pulled him to the side in the middle of his junior year and told him point blank: “I don’t know if you realize this but you’ve really become selfish. You’ve become self-interested and you’re not helping anybody but yourself right now — and I don’t even think you’re helping yourself. You’ve really been making an ass out of yourself here lately.”
Justin’s glad to hear that Kaleb remembers the ass remark distinctly. “I say that a lot,” he chuckles, in a voice that unmistakably belongs to the McGary men. “Truthfully, the whole experience has made sure that Kaleb and all of my children have become adults. Wasn’t in my head, but it worked that way. Adversity isn’t a bad thing to my children; they know how to deal with it.”
Kaleb finally began adjusting to a reality he couldn't deny. At Fife, he quickly transitioned into the big man on campus, both literally and figuratively — a budding football and basketball star, McGary found it easiest to forget about a horrible world by dominating a simple one. Behind a facemask, one thing mattered; under a squat rack, one thing mattered; in the low post, one thing mattered. McGary’s game flourished, and the sports that he once ran from, he ran towards. Being exemplary once brought frustration, limitation — but as his technique caught up to his size, it brought more and more relief.
Football felt good. Basketball felt good.
Then it felt dizzy.
Exhausted. Maybe dehydrated or under-fed, McGary thought, as his head spun during the first quarter, second quarter, third. At one point, he passed out on the court, but a jolt from the opposing power forward knocked him back from the black. “Holy shit, where am I? Basketball game. Defense. Go.”
Cassandra knew something was wrong from the stands. McGary was stumbling across the court, taking longer to gain his balance each time he peeled himself off the paint. She told Justin that Kaleb wasn’t alright; Justin said that of course he wasn't, he was watching instead of playing, he needed to get moving out there. Cassandra made her way down to the bench to insist that the coach pull Kaleb out — she’s proud of the amount of games she’s been kicked out of for interfering with the coaching staff — and McGary waved her away, the embarrassing mom, the attention he didn't need as he made his way to the bench.
The coach told him to take a seat. McGary headbutted Row 1.
It's black for a bit. Quieter, too.
It was a heart arrhythmia called AFib — atrial fibrillation. It sent McGary’s heart into overdrive, beating so fast it was tremoring instead of pumping. McGary wasn’t getting blood anywhere — limbs, organs, brain — as his heart quivered.
“No blood flow means no activity, which means nap time.” McGary chuckles.
Loaded into an ambulance and taken to a local hospital, McGary passed out again en route, and woke up to a conversation between his father and a heart surgeon. It was midnight on a school night; Savannah, Jonah, and Cassandra were waiting back home to hear news on Kaleb’s recovery. The surgeon told Justin they were ready to replace a chamber in Kaleb’s heart; Justin told him if they did, it would be their last day on the job.
“These kids have been told the same thing their whole lives,” Justin says, remembering what it was like to see his son collapse, to be told there was a chance he'd never compete again. “We get through the issue, we walk through this, and then we’ll do what we have to on the other side. There is no more fear on that day than every other day, cause you know what? One snap is your last game. That’s all there is to it. That’s the honest to God truth.”
So Justin took Kaleb up and down the Pacific coast, from specialist to specialist -- the walk through the issue. For months, McGary wasn’t allowed to sweat unless he was strapped into sensors on a treadmill in a lab. They did what they could to induce another arrhythmia, but it never came back.
Through his senior year of high school, through his recruitment to the University of Washington, it never came back.
McGary had a secondary arrhythmia in his redshirt freshman year at college, despite the fact that he was taking medicine to keep things steady. Later that year, he went in for his first of two surgeries to burn away the unnecessary scar tissue around his heart. And since those operations, his rhythm is predictable, his ticker strong, and the knob on his nose just a little bigger for the ordeal.
Healthy and hardy, Kaleb McGary was suddenly a redshirt junior right tackle at the University of Washington, fresh off a first-team Pac-12 honor and holding a mid-third round valuation from the advisory committee. His family had just been able to move out of the RVs and into a couple rooms of the house -- only a few weeks later, half the house caught fire in the night, burning through the time, money, and resources McGary's parents had already poured into the bottomless project. McGary scraped together an NCAA-sanctioned GoFundMe, but it hardly made a dent -- and he was faced with a choice.
Should he declare for the NFL Draft?
If Washington had won the Pac-12 championship -- it would have made them back-to-back champs -- he just may have.
The deliberation was long and heart-tugging, demanding of prayer and introspection. But McGary just couldn’t shake the dissatisfaction he felt with his final season at Washington. He didn’t want to leave on 10-3, an inglorious finish, his friends returning for one more year. He wanted to finish what he had set out to do.
So McGary stayed, recognizing that his decision put the check off for a year. But that year ran its course, and McGary can't imagine regretting his decision. Now, the check is finally around the corner.
“It’s going to help the family, man,” he says. “I’m going to fix my truck up because that poor girl desperately needs some love, and then it’s going to help the family.” Justin and Cassandra aren’t necessarily on board — their problems belong to them, they insist, and Kaleb is responsible for what brings him his own happiness, regardless of the paycheck involved.
But Kaleb’s happiness is tethered to his parents’, his roommates for two years, his fellow farmhands and guiding forces. “They're responsible, more than really just about anybody else, for getting me to where I am today. I would not be the person I am or have done the things that I have done if not for the guidance of the incredible people that I am lucky to call my parents. I can never give them back their time and effort, but I can…I can give them this. So I want to.”
And who is the person that Kaleb has become? If you ask his father, he is that and only that: a person. “He is just a people,” Justin says. “He is just a people.”
This is the second mark you find on McGary. The first is on his nose, and it betrays stumbles: unsteady locker seats, unseen ceiling fans, unsettled heartbeats. The second is deeper, harder to find, and it betrays the lessons learned. McGary can’t talk about a bash, bump, or bang without first telling you how funny you’ll find the story; later telling you how little it really hurt. With every fall and subsequent rise, McGary’s selfishness became humility, and humility does not jump at successes, balk at failures, or yip at mere flesh wounds. The second mark is the humility, the even keel of the ship that’s weathered many rough seas, and the first mark is the blow across her bow, proving just how dangerous a storm she endured.
Combine week approaches — a battle of endurance for many prospects. But this week will hardly register on McGary’s radar, given the storms he’s taken on and survived. Instead, it’s another box on a long checklist of battles — perhaps even the final one — that stood between Kaleb McGary and the league he’s fought so desperately to join. And when that first check cashes, it will stamp a new reality, one that McGary made for himself: he has finally made it, through everything, to the NFL.
We call that winning.