A country song with an NFL verse: Kaleb McGary's rocky, inspiring life

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — He’d been watching the bear for about a month now, ever since he’d spotted the tracks and the scraps of blackberries scattered across the hillsides. He knew the bear’s patterns, knew it would be here at this creek soon enough, and here it was. He raised the .338 he’d borrowed from a friend to his cheek, his heart pounding hard enough to jostle the barrel. He squeezed the trigger, and the bear lay down as if sleeping. One shot, done. He’d brought it down, all 350 pounds of it, all by himself.

Kaleb McGary hunts bears alone in remote Washington state. So, yeah, an onrushing defensive tackle isn’t exactly the most intimidating sight he’s ever faced.

Kaleb McGary. (Illustration by Amber Matsumoto)

McGary, a first-round pick of the Atlanta Falcons earlier this year, describes his tumultuous life as a country song, and it’s added a couple new verses since he arrived in Atlanta. There is the injury Sunday night against Philly that left his knee sounding like breakfast cereal, and of course the heart surgery this past summer. No big deal.

“Just a bump in the road,” McGary says, smiling.

The hulking offensive tackle has the potential to be one of the league’s stalwarts. If he does, it’d still be only about the fourth or fifth most interesting thing about him.

Just a good ol’ boy

McGary, 6-foot-8 and 300-plus pounds, looks and sounds like an enormous version of Parks and Recreation-era Chris Pratt, a country-boy aw-shucks attitude concealing a guy who’s watching everything around him — including you — very closely. He walks through the Falcons locker room wearing a cowboy hat and boots with shorts, sporting a sleeveless ‘MERICA F**K YEAH T-shirt (with the lower 48 in place of the **, of course). It’s not an affectation. He’s been this way since high school.

To McGary, the advantages of growing up in rural Washington — a town called Amboy, located in the southwest corner of the state, population 1,600 — were as immense as the Cascades. “I got to go hunt and fish when I wanted. Deer, elk, bear would walk through our yard. It’s the best kind of place I could’ve possibly grown up.” Then he gets poetic: “There’s nothing better than the smell of the pines on a frosty spring morning with everything in bloom. That can’t be beat.”

McGary spent countless hours fishing, hunting, driving through the mountains with friends, chopping wood in the summer to store for the winter. That kind of life — “paradise,” McGary calls it — gets into your soul.

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So when McGary’s father Justin contracted multiple sclerosis, leading to the loss of his job and the family’s Amboy farm, Kaleb tried his best to bring the serenity of the wilderness along with him when the family was forced to move north to the (relatively) big city of Fife.

“He was a through-and-through country boy,” says Kent Nevin, then and now the football coach at Fife High School in Fife, located near Tacoma. “He wore a cowboy hat around school. He sang country music, he took great pride in this white junker truck he drove around. It was all in being who he was.”

McGary had to hold onto whatever he could of his life in Amboy, because in Fife, the family had almost nothing. They’d planned to move in with Kaleb’s grandparents. But their home was so stuffed with hoarded treasures of a half-century, there was no room for the McGarys. Instead, they lived in RVs on the property, parents in one, kids in the other.

Nevin still recalls the day he met the enormous transfer student that was coming to wreck the opposition. “The first thing out of his mouth was, ‘Coach, my name’s Kaleb McGary. I’m really looking forward to playing with you.’ And then he shook my hand. You don’t see many 16-year-olds with that kind of maturity.”

That presence extended onto the field, too. On more than one occasion, McGary — already towering over everyone around him — would walk over to a referee, put a catcher’s mitt-sized hand on the smaller man’s shoulder, shake his head sadly, and say, “I don’t believe that was the right call, sir.”

McGary had uncommonly agile feet for someone his size, and hands that could practically slap a salmon out of a river. He lined up at tight end in high school, and all his quarterbacks had to do was loft the ball in his general direction. He’d been through hell the last few years, but at Fife, everything seemed to be stabilizing.

And then his heart started fluttering.

Kaleb McGary at Washington, wrecking fools. (Getty)

Life-changing moment

In the fourth quarter of a January 2013 basketball game, McGary lost consciousness, toppling face-first onto a row of wooden bleachers in Fife’s gym. While en route to the emergency room in Tacoma, McGary’s heart was beating 300 times a minute. Cardiologists recommended immediate surgery to replace a valve, and hinted that McGary’s days of playing football were over.

McGary was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, a condition where the heart muscles flutter at random, unpredictable intervals. He underwent three cardiac ablation procedures — an operation that involves burning a small area of the heart to calm the irregular beats.

One night in the midst of all the woes, Nevin and McGary talked. And the perspective McGary brought to his own life once again surprised Nevin.

“I can sit here and have a pity party,” he said, “or I can turn and fight. I can control what I can control. I can’t control these other things. If I take care of my business, things will work out.”

“That was pretty big for a young man,” Nevin said. “He got that he couldn’t wallow and have self-pity. He could have gotten sidetracked. He didn’t.”

The cardiac ablation treatments were enough to get him prepared and ready for duty at the nearby University of Washington in Seattle — a transition he made with characteristic country-boy insight.

“The traffic. My lord, the traffic,” McGary says. “And I was outraged that I had to pay to park. To spend money, I had to pay money.”

While at Washington, he beefed up and leveled up. He started 47 of his 53 games, and along the way, a realization began to dawn in his mind.

“I didn’t even give any thought to the NFL until my junior year,” he says. “It sounds kind of silly, but I hadn’t even thought about it. But I’d watch games of my opponents, and they’d be playing SEC and ACC teams. I’d see their tackles, who were really highly ranked, and I started thinking, I do my job as good as [ACC and SEC linemen] against some of the same people.”

He won the Morris Trophy, the Pac-12’s peer-voted award for linemen, his senior year. He was selected in the first round — 31st overall — by the Falcons as part of their O-line overhaul. He struck a deal with Atlanta: four years, $10.3 million, with a $5.5 million signing bonus and $8.7 million guaranteed. That was enough to put his parents into a new house this summer—good thing, too, since in yet another verse of the country song that is McGary’s life, the family home had nearly burned to the ground.

And then his heart started acting up again.

McGary protecting Matt Ryan. (Getty)

Delayed start in the NFL

The treatment for this latest flare-up: another ablation, and several weeks on the shelf during the most important days of his career.

“I was bummed, very bummed,” McGary says, recalling when he got the news that all was not well with his heart. “But [the procedure] was what all the specialists, all the experts said was the best course of action, so I trusted their judgment. It was not something that I wanted to go through again, but worse things could have happened. It’s just a bump in the road.”

By late August, McGary made his way back onto the field, and even though he was weeks behind his teammates, still played his way into the starting lineup of his first game. He gave up a sack, but won praise from his teammates.

“Fortunately, but unfortunately, as an offensive lineman, there’s no mystery if you messed up,” McGary says. “You’ve just got to tell the truth: you messed up this play, fix the problem, don’t do it again.”

“He’s done a nice job,” Matt Ryan said after the Vikings loss. “He’s worked his way back into condition. He’s played tough for us.”

Sunday night added another chapter to the McGary saga, when an Eagles pass rush threw Ryan into McGary’s left knee, which buckled. McGary had to be helped off the field, and athletic trainers loaded him onto a cart that wheeled him into the depths of Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Combined with the injury to fellow first-rounder Chris Lindstrom, who broke his foot in the season opener, it seemed a case of the same old snakebitten McGary, just a different team.

But McGary wasn’t done, not for the season, not for the night. He passed athletic trainers’ tests, he put more weight on the leg, he returned to the sideline to start the second half, and he returned to the game in the fourth quarter. Atlanta won the game, and McGary won the respect of his new team.

“When I saw Kaleb in the locker room at halftime, he looked better than I thought he would,” Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter said after the Eagles game. “He was saying he was going to try to come back in. Obviously, that’s a trainer and doctor decision, but the fact that he wanted to get back in there and try, that says a lot about him.”

“That snap, crackle, pop [feeling] is never a good thing,” McGary said after the game. “If I sat out the rest of the game ... that’s admitting defeat and I was letting my teammates down. I never want to let my brothers down.”

The Falcons live and die by their pass protection; if Matt Ryan has time in the pocket, he’s one of the most dangerous quarterbacks in the league. This season, the Falcons face four of the top six pass rush units, per PFF, this year — though they’ve already knocked out the No. 1-ranked Eagles. Much of the burden for keeping Ryan clean will fall on McGary, and he’s ready to meet that challenge.

“I have goals,” he says, “but all of them amount to just contributing. If I can help this team any way I can. If they ask me to jump, I’ll ask how high.”

Oh, and there’s just one more goal: “I don’t think it’ll ever happen again,” McGary says, “but one day I hope to score a touchdown one more time, relive the good old days when I was 50 pounds lighter and much faster.”

Come on, Falcons. Hook McGary up with a designed TD play. He’s earned it.

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Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.