Emotional win brings big man McKenzie to tears

As a barrel-chested, 6-foot-4, 305-pound defensive tackle, Ralph McKenzie is a hulking bear of a man. Yet as the final seconds ticked away in Vanderbilt's season-opening win over Wake Forest, the big lineman was suddenly, unexpectedly overcome by emotion. In this exclusive Q&A, he talks about the win over Wake Forest, and the challenge of stopping Arkansas' formidable rushing attack.

As a barrel-chested, 6-foot-4, 305-pound defensive tackle, Ralph McKenzie is a hulking bear of a man. Yet as the final seconds ticked away in Vanderbilt's season-opening win over Wake Forest, the big lineman was suddenly, unexpectedly overcome by emotion.

While other Commodores were leaping and dancing in a riotous postgame celebration, McKenzie was spotted down on one knee, given to quiet reflection. As he thought back on all the hard work that had gone into this joyous moment, he found himself no longer able to hold back the tears.

"I saw him and I was like, Ralph, we won, man!" said teammate and fellow senior Andrew Pace. "He was crying tears of joy."

McKenzie? Tears? Later that night, in the happy aftermath of the first road win of his Vanderbilt playing career, the big man felt no need to deny the truth.

"You kidding? I was crying on the field... in the locker room... after the game," he said giddily. "These are happy times, man. Sometimes you just can't hold it in."

For the first four years of his career, including a redshirt season in 2001, the happy times were too few and far between. The wins came mostly over inferior competition, against teams over which the Commodores were prohibitive favorites. Teams like Eastern Kentucky, UT-Chattanooga, Connecticut and Furman.

Beating Wake Forest was McKenzie's first taste of winning against a formidable opponent-- and this time VU's much-maligned defense, which had squandered so many leads last season, finally hung on to win a game in the fourth quarter.

It had been a long time coming.

"It means a lot," McKenzie said. "This is what we've been working for, to finish a game. It was huge for me. I'd never played in a road win before.

"It was a special time, and we wanted to live it up, before we get back to business."

The most glaring statistic to emerge from the win was the 254 rushing yards posted by Demon Deacon tailback Micah Andrews, who started only because of the suspension of starter Chris Barclay. Doubters have been quick to pounce on the ugly stat, forgetting that the Commodore defense kept Andrews out of the end zone, and forced two critical second-half turnovers (the last one on downs).

With Ray Brown out due to injury, and Herdley Harrison still adjusting to a new position at defensive end, McKenzie is playing the role of veteran leader on the Commodore defensive line. It's a role he is coming to relish.

"People's spirits are up right now," he says. "It's a totally different mindset. Once you get a taste of wins, you just want to keep getting them."

The Commodores (1-0) hope to make it two in a row Saturday as they face Arkansas (1-0) at 6 pm CT in Fayetteville, Ark.


Q & A with Ralph McKenzie

Q: One thing that people may not know about you is that you joined a fraternity. How in the world does a football player have time to join a fraternity?

A: Well, most of the time you don't! It's just something that I kind of wanted to do. I like to do extracurricular things. I like working in the community. Fraternities help promote that, and I'm a big advocate of that.

Ralph McKenzie (95) chases after Wake Forest's Benjamin Mauk (8) (AP Photo/Chris Keane)
Q: Are you graduating in December of this year, or will you be around until the spring?

A: I'll be around until the spring. One of my majors will be finished in December, and the other one I'll finish up in the spring. I'll have both an Economics and a Sociology major.

Q: A double-major from Vanderbilt! What do you think the future holds for you after that?

A: Hopefully the next level (pro football). I'd love to get a chance at the next level and just see how I measure up, see what I can do. I'm planning to play as hard as I can this year.

Q: The defensive tackles have had a few injuries in preseason. Are you worried at all about the depth there as you get deeper into the season?

A: We have a good group of guys, and we have a whole bunch of guys rotating in. At our position you just kind of expect that you're going to need a breather now and then. It's gonna happen, so we just take them as we get them. Gabe Hall, Lamar Divens, Theo Horrocks, Brandon Holmes, all of them should get in the rotation. We're still waiting for Ray Brown to come back. Ray has a foot injury, but we're expecting him back real soon.

Q: If you have six capable defensive tackles, that is some pretty good depth.

A: That's something we haven't had a lot of. We've had to play around injuries the last few years. It's really nice to finally have some depth this year.

Q: Theo Horrocks is a guy who played end last year. How would you assess his play at tackle thus far?

A: We're lucky to have a guy like Theo. He can do it all. Most of his work in the preseason was at tackle, but he can play some end too if we need him. We've got a lot of different guys who can work at different areas if they have to. My freshman year I did some work at end, so I could play there too if I had too. We have a lot of versatile people.

Q: I've been talking to some of the offensive linemen today, and they say that in practice they've been winning most of the battles.

A: (Laughs) They would say that! I'm going to have to disagree with that.... just on principle. Come on, now. It's not near as one-sided as they make it out to be. Really though, we have great competition in practice, and it's good to have that competition. We help make each other better.

Q: What's your favorite part about being a college football player?

A: I think it's the fans, and events where we can interact with all those fans who show us the love. That's probably the greatest thing you can have as a college football player, is fans who appreciate all you're doing.


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