Denver Broncos rookie Kenny McKinley was walking onto the team's practice field early one autumn morning last year when wide receiver coach Adam Gase pulled the former University of South Carolina standout over to the side.
He looked McKinley in the eye and told the Gamecocks' all-time leading receiver that it was time to get serious about his NFL career.
"At first I was kind of shocked," said McKinley, who was in the Lowcountry recently shooting a TV commercial for McElveen Auto in Summerville. "No coach has ever said anything like that to me, so I was surprised. I thought I had been working pretty hard up to that point."
It wasn't McKinley's attitude that bothered Gase. The kid from Mableton, Ga. -- the bedroom community outside of Atlanta -- has an easy smile and affable nature, and was anything but a problem in the locker room. He's also well-liked by teammates and coaches.
The problem was that McKinley lacked a little focus on the practice field.
"(Gase) said I needed to be more serious," McKinley said. "He said I needed to treat it like a job, a business. He wanted me to have fun playing the game, but he wanted me to take it more seriously. I love the game. I love playing the game and I can't help but smile when I'm on the field. I only know one way to play the game, but I learned that football in the NFL is a business, too, and you need to take care of your business."
A year ago at this time, McKinley was like most other NFL prospects, sifting through all the information leading up to the NFL draft. He had been projected as a "second-day" pick
by most analysts. A fourth- or fifth-round pick that would make an impact on special teams and eventually work his way into the lineup.
"You hear so many different things you don't know what to believe," McKinley said. "I had teams telling me I was going in the second or third round, and I had some teams telling me I was going to be a free agent. Some didn't tell me anything. It's tough to know who's telling you the truth."
McKinley had to wait until the second day of the draft to discover his fate. Denver selected him in the fifth round with 141st overall pick.
"It was a long couple of days," McKinley said. "You see other guys get picked before you and you're thinking, 'Man, I'm better than that guy.'I think that was the toughest part, waiting until you got that call."
McKinley said he knows exactly what former South Carolina teammate Eric Norwood is going through this week. Norwood, the school's all-time sack leader, returned for his senior season to improve his stock among NFL teams. Norwood is projected to be a second- or third-round pick in this week's draft.
"I definitely think Eric made some money by coming back for his senior year," McKinley said. "I haven't had a chance to talk with him yet, but I'd tell him not to worry about what people were saying about him before the draft. The only opinion that matters is that team that's drafting you. If they like you, nothing else matters."
McKinley was used almost strictly as a special teams player for the Broncos last season, seeing only a handful of plays at wide receiver. It was a difficult adjustment for McKinley, who started 41 of his final 47 games at South Carolina and finished as the school's all-time leader in receptions (207) and receiving yards (2,781 yards).
"In college, I was used to having the ball in my hands a lot, so I had a different role with the Broncos," McKinley said. "I really didn't care where I played or how much I played. I just wanted to play."
It was that attitude that eventually got him on the field.
In early November, he finally touched the ball, returning two kickoffs against Dallas. He finished third on the team in punt returns (32 yards) and kickoff returns (158).
"I know I have to pay my dues, and by the end of the year, I felt like I belonged out there," McKinley said. "It was a great season and a great learning experience for me. Now, I've just got to build on that and get on the field more this season."
McKinley, who dislocated his knee in the next-to-last game against Philadelphia, said he learned plenty from Pro Bowl wide receiver Brandon Marshall.
"He kind of took me under his wing," McKinley said. "He went to high school in Atlanta, and that's where I'm from, so he looked out for me. He taught me how to be a professional and how to conduct myself on and off the field. I don't think people realize that his work ethic is second to none on the team."