Just before 8 Thursday night, Kaleb McGary got up from his faux leather recliner and, without saying a word, disappeared into the front bedroom of his third-story apartment.
The 6-foot-7, 320-pound offensive lineman from the University of Washington re-emerged a minute later wielding a 5-foot-tall Danish war ax — that’s right, a Danish war ax — and sat back down in the recliner.
He began to sharpen the ax blade, doing so in the quiet, rote manner in which one might typically brush his teeth, and at this moment it seemed only natural for one to wonder if the stress and uncertainty of the NFL draft — about to begin its fourth hour — had boiled over into dangerous territory for McGary.
Finally, he looked up from the ax and offered a slight shrug of his shoulders. “I’m a medieval buff,” he explained.
This Viking-inspired fascination later served to explain what McGary said he plans to do with his first NFL paycheck.
“Oh, I’m buying (a new) sword,” he said with a laugh.
McGary could probably arm an entire “Game of Thrones” army now, after the Atlanta Falcons selected him with the second-to-last pick of the first round Thursday night.
The Falcons liked McGary enough to trade up and grab him with the 31st pick, making him the first UW offensive lineman since Lincoln Kennedy in 1993 to go in the first round and, more important, making McGary an immediate millionaire.
Inside the Laurelhurst apartment McGary shares with his longtime girlfriend Brianna, a mixture of relief and disbelief greeted his selection. His draft-night get-together was intimate. There was McGary’s mom, Cassandra; dad, Justin; brother, Jonah; agents Cameron Foster and Collin Roberts; and Fumble, the pet cat.
They screamed in celebration when McGary clicked off his new iPhone XR after a call with Falcons owner Arthur Blank.
They screamed again a minute later when McGary’s name was read aloud on TV by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell as the 31st pick.
“I can’t believe it. I can’t believe it,” McGary kept saying. “It actually happened. I’m so happy. I’m so (expletive) happy.”
“You earned it, son,” Justin told him. “You worked your ass off for this.”
• • •
The McGarys had been through hell to reach this moment together. As Kaleb said recently, his life is “basically a country song.”
When Kaleb was in high school, the family lost its sprawling farm in southwest Washington during the middle of the economic recession. Around the same time, Justin was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. The family of five (including Kaleb’s sister, Savannah, now a student at Montana State) relocated to Fife, lived in an RV, and soon an arrhythmia was found in Kaleb’s heart during his junior year at Fife High.
Kaleb did find stability at UW. After three heart procedures, he thrived as the Huskies’ standout right tackle, eventually becoming the Pac-12’s top offensive lineman. But then more heartbreak: In January 2018, a fire in the RV spread and burned almost half of the family’s home. The McGarys are still cleaning up and rebuilding, and still without full electricity in their home.
“We’re so used to preparing for the worst,” Cassandra said Thursday morning.
Their outlook has changed considerably as the NFL draft approached.
Cassandra loves to tell the story about Kaleb’s first season of football. He was in fourth grade and already so, so much bigger than the other boys. But Kaleb was afraid to hit, afraid to tackle, because he didn’t want to hurt those other boys. After a few games, Cassandra and Justin convinced him that it was OK for him tackle on the field, and after his first hit he was hooked.
Cassandra said she can still picture the scene with Kaleb, around that same time, sitting on the couch watching football and realizing he could pursue the sport as a profession someday: “They pay you to play football?”
This month Cassandra was watching as Kaleb did a live interview at the NFL Networks studio in Los Angeles. She started crying.
“I had no idea what that moment would be like,” she said. “To have his dream (about to) come true, it’s an absolutely wonderful thing. For most of us, that dream doesn’t happen. How many people out there want to be an astronaut or a ballerina when they grow up? But guess what? That just doesn’t happen. We settle for something we enjoy, and that’s OK. But it’s really only the 1 percent of the 1 percent, and here we are looking at the 1 percent of the 1 percent. It’s — whoa — an absolute dream come true.”
• • •
On this Thursday night, custom-made, size 18 leather boots sit near the front door, and six cowboy hats are stacked on a wall rack hanging above the TV. A candle burns in the middle of the living room.
There’s an oversized teddy bear in the far corner, stuffed behind the faux leather recliner. The teddy bear was a Valentine’s Day gift from Kaleb to Brianna, who likes to cuddle with it when Kaleb is out of town.
Kaleb cuddles with a different kind of bear.
During one of the Huskies’ bye weeks a couple of years ago, Kaleb went out alone near Mount St. Helens and spent several days stalking and hunting a black bear. It was a successful hunt.
This night, as the first round of the NFL draft rolls along with no mention of Kaleb — the wait growing increasingly discouraging — he heads back into the front bedroom and re-emerges with the fur of the black bear. He wears it like a cape and poses for a picture.
“This is how I’m coping with disappointment,” he says, half-serious.
To pass time Thursday night, Kaleb munches on a plate of his mom’s homemade crab cheese dip. He eats two bowls of the pot roast that he made himself in a crock pot — with onions, celery and Yukon gold potatoes — drinks Budweiser from an 18-ounce can, Rainier from a 12-ounce can and a Boundary Bay scotch ale from a bottle. He plays cribbage and at one point sings, along with his family, and mostly in tune, a few verses of “King of the Road.”
On multiple occasions, Kaleb reminds himself to breathe, and roughly once every 10 seconds he checks the phone in his right hand.
(About that new iPhone XR: Kaleb went out on turkey hunt in Central Washington on Wednesday, alone, the day before the draft. Long story short: He didn’t get any turkey but did have to get a new phone Thursday morning because his old one “drowned” in the Yakima River.)
At 8:24 p.m., the Seahawks are on the clock with the 29th pick in the draft. The Seahawks also hold the next pick, No. 30. This intrigues for those inside the apartment. Kaleb had had multiple visits with Seattle executives, and he put the Seahawks on a short list of teams he thought might draft him.
They don’t. The Seahawks instead select TCU defensive end L.J. Collier at 29 and traded down from 30.
The disappointment from that development doesn’t last long. At 8:40 p.m., Kaleb’s phone buzzes. It’s Scott Pioli, Atlanta’s assistant general manager, who breaks the news: The Falcons are trading up to draft Kaleb.
Kaleb musters only few words — “Thank you, it’s an honor” — as he speaks in quick succession with Atlanta GM Thomas Dimitroff, coach Dan Quinn and owner Arthur Blank.
“Babe,” Brianna said to Kaleb a few minutes later. “You’re a first-round pick. Literally, our great-grandkids are going to be talking about this.”
For the next hour, Kaleb would field calls and scroll through text messages — more than 150 of them.
He talked to his new position coach in Atlanta twice. He joined a conference call with Atlanta media. “I want defenders to be afraid of me,” he said, and by this point the ax had been put away, back in the bedroom closet.
Sometime during the celebration haze, Foster, one of the agents, crunched some numbers. A four-year contract for the 31st pick in this year’s draft, he calculated, is valued at a little more than $10 million, including a signing bonus of about $5 million. (According to Spotrac.com, a website that tracks and analyzes financial information for teams and players, the signing bonus should be slotted at about $5.4 million.)
The numbers don’t register with Kaleb. Not yet, anyway. It’s life-changing money, and they all know it.
But Kaleb, by 10:30 p.m., is ready to head out for a quick toast at his favorite establishment in the U-District. There, he poses for selfies and shakes hands and joins a toast in his honor.
By midnight, he’s ready to head home. A car service is scheduled to arrive at 6 a.m. to take him to the airport, where a private jet will be waiting to take him and his family to Atlanta.