Sometimes when Leon Mackey tugs on his purple practice jersey, or when the nameplate above his locker stall catches his attention, he can’t believe that he has actually made it here, and the memories from the past two years come rushing through him.
There were the failed tryouts. The $125 arena-league paychecks. The steady diet of eggs, chicken and peanut butter. And that humbling, two-month stint at a funeral home during which he was responsible for picking up the departed and hauling them away in a hearse.
The 26-year-old defensive end is well aware that his standing with the Vikings is tenuous and that he will have to make an impression in the next three preseason games to make the final roster, assuming he can hang onto his spot for even that long.
But having persevered upon going undrafted after his Texas Tech career ended and unsigned after countless tryouts, Mackey is genuinely thankful for the opportunity and is determined to impress somebody, whether it’s the coaching staff here or whoever may be watching him from afar.
“When they told me they wanted me to come here, I almost had tears in my eyes. And I’m not even a crying type of dude,” Mackey said. “Just to see where I was, thinking I would never get a shot in the NFL again, it’s humbling.”
Mackey has bounced around over the past decade. Born in Florida and raised in Delaware, he left home in his junior year of high school for Hargrave Military Academy in Virginia. He committed to three different colleges to play football but couldn’t qualify academically, so he wound up at a junior college in Mississippi.
Two years later, by then a coveted juco prospect, Mackey signed on to play at Texas Tech. He started six games as a junior but none in his senior season. Despite making only six tackles that year, he was All-Big 12 honorable mention. He still doesn’t understand why.
Making ends meet
Mackey went undrafted and was invited to only one NFL tryout, with the Dolphins. No deal, so he headed back home to Wilmington, Del.
Mackey had difficulty securing a full-time job there because he was in and out of town attending tryouts for various other leagues. Job application after job application went unanswered. He took on whatever odd jobs presented themselves, including working for his uncle’s security company and getting a foot in the door at Congo Funeral Home.
“I was just making rent,” said Mackey, who never has owned a car. “I’m not going to lie.”
He started off washing the hearses at the funeral home. Soon he was supporting the funeral director during services. Then he was trusted with “on-call body pickups.”
“It was a humbling experience, to be honest,” Mackey said. “Being home, it really made me miss being around this. It really did.”
Last spring, Mackey was invited to play for the expansion L.A. Kiss of Arena Football League. He got cut three days later.
He dropped down a level to the Indoor Football League’s Green Bay Blizzard, which paid him $125 a game for his services and gave him a carton of eggs, a bag of chicken breasts and a jar of peanut butter every week.
Mackey did well enough to get an offer from the AFL’s Arizona Rattlers late in the 2014 season. As far as Mackey was concerned at that point, that was like hitting the jackpot. The Rattlers provided him with housing, $300 game checks and $50 meal cards. More importantly, they gave Mackey a chance to get on the radar of NFL teams again.
The Vikings’ pro personnel department stumbled upon Mackey while scouting the AFL. Mackey suited up in only four games, two in the regular season and two more during the playoffs. But his three postseason sacks helped the Rattlers win the league championship.
Defensive line coach Andre Patterson was asked to take a look at his game tape. Even though Mackey was going up against three-man offensive lines and that the scaled-down dimensions of arena football fields make it a completely different game, Patterson saw enough athleticism and effort to invite him in for a workout.
In early January, the Vikings signed Mackey to a reserve/future contract.
Now that Mackey is reacquainted with traditional football, his biggest challenge has been getting up to speed with coach Mike Zimmer’s scheme and terminology.
“The biggest thing you see is that he is athletic and he can be explosive at times,” Patterson said. “When he’s not having to think about the defense and what we’re trying to do, those things show up. That’s been the biggest hindrance for him.”
But Patterson, aware of Mackey’s road to Winter Park, said his determination shows up in practice. And he points to defensive tackle Tom Johnson, the one-time journeyman who found his home here, as proof that good players sometimes fall through the cracks.
Mackey, who has been running with the third-team defense, faces an uphill battle to make the 53-man roster. He knows it. That’s why he shoos away Vikings staffers when they ask him about parking spots and permanent lodging.
But even if the Vikings don’t have a spot for him, Mackey hopes to have played well enough in the preseason so that he don’t have to go back to driving hearses.
“However it shakes out, I still put myself in a position to be marketable,” Mackey said. “I’m thankful for the opportunity here, and I just have to show up when my number is called. That’s really what it boils down to.”