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Growing up in Atlanta, Vikings' Jerick McKinnon was fueled by doubters

Minnesota Vikings running back Jerick McKinnon (21) carries the ball against the Washington Redskins at FedEx Field in Landover, Md., on Nov. 12, 2017. Geoff Burke / USA TODAY Sports

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Vikings running back Jerick McKinnon will be thinking this weekend about the middle school coach who told him he was too small to play football and would get hurt.

He'll remember college recruiters who bypassed him because of his size.

McKinnon, who grew up outside of Atlanta in Cobb County, will return home for Sunday, Dec. 3's noon kickoff against the Falcons at Mercedes-Benz Stadium

Football has worked out well for the 5-foot-9, 205-pound McKinnon. In his fourth season in Minnesota, he's third on the team with 390 yards rushing and fourth with 36 receptions for 261 yards.

Since he was kid, McKinnon has been fueled by doubters, and he developed a work ethic his former high school coach called the most impressive of any player he has coached. McKinnon remembers when it really started in his hometown of Marietta, Ga.

"I had a coach at (Marietta Middle School)," McKinnon said Friday. "I remember it like it was yesterday. He said I was too small and I was going to get hurt. He said it to my dad because I wasn't playing much that season and he asked him about it.

"I've got a chip on my shoulder that I carry with me since back then, and that's why I work so hard. It goes back to big schools saying (during recruiting), 'He's not big enough.' ... When I'm home (this weekend), I'll reminisce about those things, and how far I've come."

After realizing he wasn't going to play much at Marietta Middle School, McKinnon transferred to J.J. Daniel Middle School following the sixth grade. At Marietta's Sprayberry High School, he had a coach who believed in him.

McKinnon played quarterback, running back, wide receiver and defensive back under Billy Shackelford, now the coach at nearby East Paulding High. Shackelford will be at Sunday's game.

"I've had better athletes, and I've had guys who are taller and might be a little faster, but I have never had anybody that outworked Jerick," he said. "He was always the first-in-the-weight room and the last to leave. He always had something to prove. I think he took it personally that people didn't think he was big enough. It ticked him off."

Shackelford remembers when an assistant coach from Illinois was deciding between McKinnon and another player during the recruiting process.

"He liked a kid from Chicago and he liked Jerick," Shackelford said. "So, he flew down just to measure his arm span. And he said, 'Coach, I feel these guys are almost equal in ability, but I've got to go with the guy who was the longest.'"

Then there was a Georgia Tech coach, who recruited McKinnon and another quarterback from Cobb County, Synjyn Days of Hillgrove High School. The Yellow Jackets offered the 6-2, 231-pound Days a scholarship to direct their triple-option attack.

"After (Days) had already committed, that coach watched Jerick play in a playoff game for us (as a senior), and he just took over the game," Shackelford said. "He said, 'Coach, we made a mistake. We offered the second-best quarterback in Cobb County.'"

After also getting offers from Appalachian State, Furman and Tennessee-Chattanooga, McKinnon chose Georgia Southern. He mostly played quarterback in the Bulldogs' triple-option attack before switching to tailback as a senior. He also returned kicks and played in the defensive secondary.

McKinnon rushed for 1,817 yards in 14 games as a junior and 1,050 in 10 games as a senior. The Vikings selected him in the third round of the 2014 draft.

"I was always labeled as a smaller guy since middle school, and I was kind of on the back burner when bigger schools were recruiting me," said McKinnon, who has rounded up 23 tickets to Sunday's game for family and friends. "But as I look back, I see that as a blessing in that it added an extra element to my work ethic. It's not where you start, it's where you finish."

McKinnon erased some of the doubts with his play at Georgia Southern. Still, he was able to find something else that he continues to use as motivation.

"There was an article when I was coming out that said I was a jack of all trades but a master of none," he said. "That kind of rubbed me the wrong way, 'a master of none.' So, I've got it on my screen saver on my phone. I look at it every day. It fuels me."

The Pioneer Press is a Forum News Service media partner.

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