AUBURN — A family folk legend is on Zakoby McClain’s mind as a dream accomplishment nears.
It’s been so long that it almost feels like a myth. But the legend is real.
After Auburn football’s pro day, the linebacker was asked if he feels overlooked because of his smaller size. “I’ve had to overcome that my whole life,” he shrugged. “I’m just a dog. A dog’s a dog.”
And McClain’s football career and long road to the 2022 NFL Draft started with a dog.
The breed of dog is a bit hazy. He remembers a chihuahua. “It wasn’t a chihuahua,” his older cousin, Khalil McClain, counters. About that size, he’ll describe, but faster and more agile. It was their Grandma Betty’s puppy, named Princess.
Princess escaped. She fled the porch and went scampering around the yard with Khalil in pursuit. The kid stood no chance.
“She would wait until you get to her and then take off,” he says. His grandmother was shouting to keep chasing. It was chaos. “We were going to give up.”
Then 5-year-old Zakoby stepped outside. He hadn’t started sports yet.
“This is how it went,” Khalil says now. The stage was set. Zakoby took a moment to process the action in front of him. “And then he just took off running.”
He cannonballed off the porch from the porch’s top stair, landing in stride. He chased down Princess in the open field.
It only took seconds. “I dove, just trying to get it to my side,” Zakoby says. “I landed on my stomach.”
“It was perfect form tackling: It was like, ‘Why would you even do all that to catch the dog?'” Khalil recalls. “It was like when you’re wrangling a cow or something. And you rope all four of his feet together. He just went low. He dove low and wrapped all four legs. He gator-rolled. And then he was just holding her in his arms.”
A hero had risen. Zakoby carried Princess back to the house. Khalil watched in disbelief, then spoke.
“Yeah, ‘Koby’s going to the league,” he said.
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Zakoby liked the sound of that. “They were all like, ‘Oh yeah, he’s going to be a football player. Right there, that’s going to be a football player. He’s going to the NFL someday.'”
He hopes to hear his name called Saturday in the late rounds of the draft. McClain’s football career started not long after tackling Princess, and his family started keeping mementoes from every step of the way.
From his little league team, the Knights, where his dad was his first coach. Zakoby has fond memories of the tackling drills that marked the end of practice, when everyone would gather to watch his explosive reps. “A lot of people used to run from him,” his dad, Willie McClain, chuckles.
From his first games, when Zakoby learned he loves leveling opponents. Ask him or anyone else for the defining moment of that era, and they’ll tell the same story. After a shotgun handoff, Zakoby knocked out a running back’s chin strap and mouth guard simultaneously. “Anytime you see him hit, you hear the impact,” Khalil says. “Because he’s not that big. But when he comes he brings everything he has.” A Knights jersey hangs on the wall at home in Valdosta, Georgia.
From his emergence at Valdosta High, where his career almost ended. Zakoby considered quitting football after the grandmother who owned Princess died. He wasn’t feeling motivated, but he decided to keep playing for her. His sophomore season, “I got a big hit and became a four-star,” he remembers. He slowly fell back in love with the game. Another jersey on the wall.
From his trips to Florida State games with dad. Zakoby was a huge fan, and a favorite childhood moment was Jameis Winston’s 2013 championship-winning touchdown pass against Auburn. “I was just screaming, I was so happy,” he says. His dad keeps an embarrassing photo of Zakoby with a bad haircut at one game.
From his memorable Auburn career, which included a historic 100-yard pick-six in the 2019 Iron Bowl. Willie was in Row 9 at Jordan-Hare Stadium, and he ran through the bleachers trying to keep up with his son streaking down the field. “No. 35, I have that jersey,” he says. “It’s in the front.”
“Dirt marks, grass marks, it’s never coming off that wall,” Zakoby’s older sister Nadijah says.
The prized collection will have a new addition soon: an NFL team’s jersey. “That’s all he ever talked about,” Willie says. “That was his dream.”
The only thing missing from the collection is some token from the start of that dream, from the moment Zakoby saved the Princess.
“That’s the most iconic memory,” Khalil says. “That was the day I really knew that he was going. You had to be there to see it.”
Zakoby McClain’s first tackle will have to live in family memory.