McGary Looking For His Own Spot

When high school college football players tell reporters that they chose their college destination because it was close to home, we don't bat an eyelash. It makes perfect sense. Family is most important, and will always be the most important thing for any person, so to give loved ones an opportunity to minimize travel to see games in person is a route often taken.

Kaleb McGary, when it came down to making that all-important college choice, was really no different than a lot of prep stars put in a similar position. "Being this close they can come up, I can go down," he told Dawgman.com matter-of-factly. "My parents and my grandpa can see me play; my uncle I can hang out with him if I need to. If I'm having a bad day and I can't go or do what I need to do I can always go home. I have more things at my disposal to help me."

McGary, the 6-foot-8, 280-pound man-child from Fife, has always belied the traditional footballing stereotype. He has always been thoughtful with his words, careful because he understands their import. So when he mentioned family as a big reason for choosing the University of Washington over schools like Washington State and Wisconsin, you knew there was more to the story. And like the stature of the man himself, there was a lot more that went into McGary's thought process.

Track back three years to Battle Ground, Wash., McGary's home at the time. A budding two-sport star for the Tigers, McGary suffered two knee injuries in a short span of time. By his count he only played four games' worth of football.

"Up until mid-way through the year I hadn't heard anything from anybody, so I figured that's kind of it," McGary said. "I didn't know anything about the process. I heard about Zach Banner and stuff like that and I really didn't give any more thought because I didn't think it was that realistic of a goal. I always wanted to go to college; that was my whole goal. I didn't really necessarily see it happening."

The following spring, his father Justin gave him some advice that changed Kaleb's perspective 180 degrees. McGary was rehabbing and getting healthy, and Justin told him he should still check out some football camps. His knee was cleared by doctors by that time and he had resumed lifting and training.

"My Dad said, ‘If you've got the time, why not? What's it going to hurt?'" said McGary. "I didn't know that it was going to happen. I had no idea if anything was going to happen or come about because of sports. I didn't get down on myself or mope or anything like that - I went back to work. But there was always that thought in the back of my head that it's not going to work out."

But Kaleb took his father's words to heart and went down to a camp at Oregon State in the spring of 2012, not really knowing what to expect. He left camp with a scholarship offer.

"I was absolutely ecstatic, I was off the walls," McGary said about the early offer. "That was like a dream come true for me. The pros would be a bonus; my whole goal was to get to college because I know if I could get a degree I could get a decent life. I would be able to set up for myself and live the kind of life that I'm after. It doesn't have to be flamboyant, but I'll be all right if I can get a degree."

Things couldn't have been brighter for McGary at that point. Football was back in his life, he had a way to pay for college, and he wouldn't have to go far to achieve the dream of a degree. But then disaster struck the McGary family.

"Go figure - we lost the farm," McGary said.

It was a hurricane of events that blew his family's life to bits. They lost a substantial amount of money in the wake of his grandmother's death, and a subsequent lockout for Justin and fellow union workers in Vancouver meant another unforeseen financial disaster. It was a series of body blows that few could recover from.

"That killed off a lot of work," McGary said. "Things just went downhill from there. The mortgage company certainly wasn't helping us out."

Struggling for options, the McGarys migrated north to Fife to be with Kaleb's grandfather, Michael Soulier. There they would live on the property in RV's while they put the pieces back together.

In a matter of weeks McGary's life went from perfect to perfectly awful. The big man with the ten-gallon hat that had a smile on his face and shoulders broad enough to handle the heaviest weights was knocked over with the news that he would have to move.

"I was so upset about it," he said. "I was leaving my friends, my girlfriend. In the adult world it's not a big deal because you know things are going to happen, but at that time that was my world. Being able to do the things I could do in that environment - it was going away. I wouldn't get to do any of that again."

McGary is an unabashed country boy, and the outdoors his playground. Bordering the family farm in Battle Ground was 70 acres of unlocked timber land, pure. It had a stream running through it, as cliche as a Robert Redford film. It was McGary's Robert Redford film, his own slice of heaven to deal with his share of hell.

"Whenever I was having a bad day I could take my bow or rifle or whatever I needed - my knife - and I could go and just get lost for a couple hours, just think about life and find myself," McGary said. "That's what being in the woods turned into - a sanctuary. It was somewhere I could go where there weren't people, there weren't things I had to worry about or deal with. I could go there and get right with myself and the things I was having trouble with."

During these last two years in Fife, McGary found sanctuary in football. Instead of trees, he got lost in a forest of bodies on the field, playing the game he loved and could escape to on Friday nights. "It turned into the only place I had left," McGary said. "That was my world. That's where I'm king. That's where I can be me. I don't have to worry about the rest of the world…troubles, school, family. It doesn't matter. That's it's own entity."

In the world outside football, McGary picked up a part-time job at Les Schwab to pay for gas money. His Ford pickup is a gas-guzzler, and he wanted to make sure he could get to school and back without having to ask his parents for money.

"Things are just that tight," he said.

That's what made McGary's scholarship to Washington doubly valuable. It not only kept Kaleb close, but it freed his parents from another financial burden. "I ended up choosing U-Dub because I wanted to be close enough that if something happened I could be right there," he said. "That goes along with the support. I saw more overall opportunity there than I did at Wazzu. The only place I honestly thought could have been better than U-Dub would have been Wisconsin, but that was 1800 miles away and I just couldn't do that."

But Seattle is more concrete than conifers. It has streams running through it in the form of sewers. It's one of the prettiest metropolitan areas in the country, awash in views of Puget Sound and the Cascades that would make New York and Chicago blush. But a country boy is supposed to be allergic to city life; at least that's what McGary initially thought. He'd complain about the tickets amassed during trips north, an unfortunate byproduct of not being able to drive the way a country kid wants to drive.

His family were strong Washington fans, and there was always the proximity to home - but would Kaleb fit in if he went to Montlake?

The answer came in the form of Chris Petersen, the new Washington staff and the people he met during his official visit. McGary, ever since his Battle Ground days, has been searching high and low for that place he could go to, a new refuge. The unlocked timber land is gone, but there's lakes and mountains within short drives that Kaleb will explore. Seattle may not have been his ideal situation, but there never was going to initially be an ideal situation.

"Whether it's the woods or the lake or something, it's going to be important for me to have somewhere that I can just go, have something I can do," McGary said. "Whether it's through my roommate or something else, it's going to be important.

"I think that (Chris) Petersen, being the individual that he is, I think he is understanding enough that if I need to he will help me make time for that kind of thing. That coaching staff understands that part of me very well. That's what I'm hoping for. I've gotten to go out really hunting once or twice in the two years I've been here, and there's places available - it's just a matter of time. It's not as simple as it used to be where I could walk out my front door and I could just go."

McGary mentioned future teammates like Ben Riva and Drew Sample as friends of a feather, teammates that can help him adjust to new challenges and adventures. "That was a very big deal to me, as much as finding a place," he said. "Having people around that are like me, having that familiarity will help a lot, people that I can relate to. I won't feel like an outsider.

"I won't feel like that big guy in a hat just walking around. I can feel just like another person."

Like most big guys that naturally stand out in a crowd, finding peace with that side of your life is monumentally important. Hopefully that's where Kaleb McGary will have his happiest times as a Husky - lost in the moment and doing his thing.


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