CLEVELAND — "Family is not about blood. It's about who is willing to hold your hand when you need it the most." - Author Unknown
Football is an aggressive, physical sport. Things get gritty and brutal at any given moment in the game. But while the sport itself is ruthless, the players who take the field each week are more than just ferocious athletes, they're real people dealing with real people issues. And when those issues arise, they need support just like any other person would.
That holds true for Browns defensive end Takk McKinley.
McKinley missed three weeks of practice and training over the offseason for an undisclosed personal reason. He's still not ready to talk about it, but he said that after he had dealt with the personal matter, it was his teammates and coaches giving their support that helped bring him back to the football field.
The defensive end has struggled with injuries and setbacks through the course of his career. He played in just four games with Atlanta before being released. He was claimed by the Bengals and then the 49ers in November 2020, but he was unable to pass physicals due to a lingering groin injury. He was later claimed by the Raiders and placed on injured reserve, and although he was able to practice with the team in December, he was not activated from the IR.
McKinley said he may have not truly valued the past four years in the league but that his time in Cleveland has been eye-opening in a sense, allowing him to truly appreciate the opportunity he's been presented.
"My last four years I may have taken it for granted. This league is not promised, so being able to go out there on this practice field and meetings and getting 1% better every day and being able to compete is the best thing ever. I'm very appreciative. Very," McKinley said.
The Browns signing McKinley to the roster is just a part of how Cleveland has impacted his mentality. There's a deeper force at work, one that has seen unbreakable bonds created throughout the roster and turned what was a toxic, dysfunctional culture into a culture of winning, of hard work—of brotherhood.
McKinley said that coming back to the field after his personal leave was made easier by the organization, from General Manager Andrew Berry and Head Coach Kevin Stefanski to his other coaches and teammates.
"The Cleveland Browns have a great organization, I was in contact with Mr. Berry, Coach Ski, my teammates reaching out to me, so everything was good," McKinely said. "The support means everything. The NFL really is not like that, so to have the support from the owner, the GM, the head coach, my teammates, it was just great."
After three weeks away, McKinley was able to return to the team. He said that upon his arrival back to the facilities, there was a moment in the locker room that he shared with the other defensive linemen that made him see the team not just as a group of guys wearing the same uniforms each week, but as a family.
"When I first walked back into the D-line room, the whole D-line started clapping for me. That was a cool moment because it shows it’s a brotherhood," McKinley said. "I was gone for a while dealing with stuff, and as soon as I walked in everybody started clapping. They were excited to have me back, so that made me feel real good."
McKinley held back tears as he watched his teammates rally around him, lifting him up and letting him know they had his back no matter what.
Defensive coordinator Joe Woods said there was no question that the team would support McKinley through the hard times and credited the defensive end for working hard to get back in the groove of things over the past several weeks.
“He’s one of our brothers, and the D-line room -- they’re very close. He may have been going through some struggles and those guys are always there to support him," Woods said. "Right now, he’s doing a good job and he’s getting comfortable and he’s playing well for us and we’re going to continue to do more things to create some one-on-ones and use him in coverage as well.”
Woods, like McKinley, said the sense of brotherhood is something that is clear and evident of this new culture that exists within the Browns organization, and something that they all look to continue and build upon.
“It’s a family first atmosphere, and I think it starts at the top from ownership all the way down through the building. That was the one thing when I got here that you could see right away. You feel very comfortable. You feel like you’re part of the family and that just passes down to our players, and I know we try to build relationships with our players, and I think that’s what Takk was really talking about," Woods said. “You want to know what’s going on in each player's life. You have those moments on the field when you have that one-on-one and you ask them how their family is doing or what’s going on in their life. You want to be able to help them. There’s a lot of things, a lot of stress with players off the field and you don’t know where it’s coming from, so you want to be there, an ear for them to lean on to help them in any way you can.”
McKinley has not cleared all of the hurdles in his way. He still has work to do to continue learning the playbook, gel with the defense, put his practice to work on the field and find ways to help his team win.
But as he approaches a new hurdle, McKinley has his teammates—his newfound brothers—by his side every step of the way. And those steps, as he takes them, become milestones in his journey through life.
"Life is like a roller-coaster. There’s going to be ups and downs, and my life has always been like that. Nothing ever comes easy for me, and I’ll be okay with that. Life is a journey; my son’s name is Journey because my life was a journey," McKinley said. "Even just the road to just being back with the Browns, it’s going to have its ups and downs, but that’s okay. That’s life. As long as you keep on pushing, as long as you want to get better, then that’s alright."
Camryn Justice is a digital content producer at News 5 Cleveland. Follow her on Twitter @camijustice.
Download the News 5 Cleveland app now for more stories from us, plus alerts on major news, the latest weather forecast, traffic information and much more. Download now on your Apple device here, and your Android device here.