On the Arizona Rattlers’ roster sheet, former Sun Devil Chris McKenzie is listed as a first-year player. On the field, the cornerback is showing no signs that would imply that this season is his first taste of the Arena Football League. McKenzie, who played in the NFL for two years, is adapting nicely not only to his new team but also to a brand new game.
The 5-10 185 McKenzie is fourth on the team in total tackles with 32.5 on the playoff-bound Arizona Rattlers (7-6). “I can’t complain with the way I’m playing,” he said. “I’m just trying to help the team as much as I can. So if I’m playing well doing that, then it’s all good.”
“I’m happier with how the team has really come together the last few games, and how the defense has been jelling.”
In 2005, McKenzie was a rookie free agent with the NFL Houston Texans. That season he played in three games, making four tackles, defending two passes, and recording a sack. The injury bug plagued him for the rest of his tenure in Houston and a result he was cut.
“It was a good experience to be out there with high caliber athletes,” he recalled. “Because of my injury I didn’t get to play in the 2007 season. I had some workouts with some other teams but I guess I wasn’t what they were looking for.”
Being a year out of football was naturally not a pleasant experience for McKenzie, who saw former teammates and friends still playing professionally. “I was just out there every day working out hard, thinking that this all will pay off one day,” he stated. “You’re just waiting for that phone call from a team that wants to work you out and you’re just waiting and waiting…”
Eventually a phone call did come, but it was actually from one of the Rattlers’ foes, the Philadelphia Soul, who invited McKenzie for a tryout. While the Soul’s staff did like him they didn't pick up the corner up but another AFL team, the San Jose Sabercats, got word of McKenzie and the corner was all set to leave for a workout over there.
However, Rattlers Head Coach Kevin Guy contacted McKenzie before he left for San Jose and the rest as they say is history.
“Here’s Coach Guy in my own back yard and I didn’t realize that he knew about me,” said McKenzie. “He was friends with the coaches at the Philadelphia Soul and that’s how the connection was made.”
At Arizona State McKenzie started 20 games and played in 24 contests. He recorded 81 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, 11 passes defended, a forced fumbled, half a sack, and three interceptions during his Sun Devil tenure. Prior to arriving in Tempe, the corner was a NJCAA first-team All-American at Glendale (Ariz.) Community College.
Thus, after spending four years in the Phoenix Metro area, landing with the Rattlers was even more gratifying than just the mere fact of being able to play football again. “I love the atmosphere here in Arizona,” said McKenzie. “I’m friends with some of the payers I played with at Arizona State like R.J. Oliver and Riccardo Stewart. I’m always following the Sun Devils whether I’m in town or not. That’s my school and I love it and I love the fans. I love being part of the Sun Devils. It was good to see them have a great season last year.”
Some of the obvious differences between the NFL and AFL is the size of the playing field (85x50 yards with eight-yard end zones), and the number of players each team has on the field (eight). Furthermore, as a cornerback McKenzie certainly had to change his approach and adapt to the game’s nuances.
“You can’t really read the quarterback and jump routes like you do in the outdoor game,” he explained. “The game is so much quicker and you just have to find the angle on how to leverage the ball carrier. It’s just a bunch of different techniques that you really don’t do in the NFL – especially when you have one wide receiver that always in high motion.”
“I’m still learning the game and trying to pick it up.”
McKenzie isn’t the only player that has spent a few years in the NFL before arriving to play in the Arena Football League. Yet, it seems like most of the players on this level are ones who unlike the cornerback didn’t get to spend a few years on an NFL roster out of college. Therefore, McKenzie isn’t treated like the typical newbie joining the squad.
“That’s one thing about Arena League, it’s all about how you carry yourself,” McKenzie noted. “If you carry yourself like a rookie – you get treated like one. The way you play on the field obviously helps too. Everybody knows I came from the league, so I’m not a rookie.”
Having said that, McKenzie is quick to point out that ex-NFL players expecting to instantly dominate AFL players and perceive them as pushovers, will be in for a rude awakening.
“You have to really learn this game and prove that you can play in it,” he said.
The Rattlers have had their glory years last decade winning two AFL championships in 1994 and 1997. Yet, in recent years have struggled to return to that dominance. Now that the snakes are assured to be part of post-season play, McKenzie and his teammates are on a mission to reward their rabid fans and bring the title back to Arizona.
“We definitely want you bring back this franchise to what it once was,” McKenzie noted. “We’re gonna play our hearts out to make that happened.”
Solid rookie season and all, McKenzie knows he has a ways to establish himself as one of the best cornerbacks in the AFL. That distinction could lead him back into the NFL, but for now the corner is not letting the future affect the present.
“This is how I look at this,” said McKenzie, “If I can be an NFL player I’ll play there without a doubt. I know there are a lot of things I can bring to the table.”
“But if I don’t go there - this is my NFL. If I get there I get there, and if I don’t I don’t. It’s not gonna make or break me.”
McKenzie and the Rattlers host the Colorado Crush in the Russell Athletic ESPN Arena Football Monday Night game. The game will air June 16 on ESPN2, 7:00 p.m. PT.