A familiar cliché says an individual doesn't know the importance of something until it has been taken away.
Mikal McKoy, a psychological sciences major at Albion College who competes for the Britons as a receiver on the football field and a sprinter on the track, can relate to that statement after finances forced him to miss the second semester of his first year.
He returned to Muskegon, the city that became his home as a sophomore in high school when he went to live with his father, to work in a metal factory making parts for Michigan's automotive industry with hopes of making enough money to return to college someday.
McKoy went out with friends after a Friday shift and it wasn't long after returning that he received a phone call that would fuel the motivation he needed to eventually return to campus and pursue a degree. Quinton Miller, the friend McKoy talked to everyday to share dreams about the future, was murdered at a party early that Saturday morning Feb. 16, 2013.
"It was getting late so I decided to go home, but I told them to call me after they left the after party," McKoy said. "It was probably 10 minutes after I left the house that I got a call from one of our friends telling me Quinton had been shot. I didn't believe it because I had just talked to him.
"I just cried thinking about all the stuff we talked about as far as going to school and playing football," McKoy added. "It was crazy because just a couple days before the shooting we talked about how we had to go to school to take care of our families and future. He had a son in January and he was talking to me about how he wanted to provide for his son. We had a heart-to-hear talk about going to school, playing football, getting our degrees and getting this money and that was the plan.
"Losing a close friend was a pivotal moment. We had the same goals in terms of what we wanted to accomplish," McKoy said. "The stuff I've been through motivates me. (Going to college) is a big deal and that's why I work so hard."
A different route
McKoy didn't stay in one place for long during his formative years. He lived with his mother in Wyoming and in three cities in North Carolina before moving in with his father. In fact, McKoy may have been overlooked by college recruiters because his senior year – when Muskegon posted an 8-3 record – was his only season of prep-level football.
"I didn't play football my sophomore year because I figured everybody telling me I was too skinny was right," McKoy recalled. "I didn't touch the field my junior year because I still had not developed."
While his life was not as easy as a TV sitcom where problems are solved in a 30-minute show, McKoy said he learned valuable life skills by watching his grandfather mow the grass at his uncle's church.
"Hard work is what I picked up," McKoy said. "I saw a lot of different things, some I would not feel comfortable talking about, but I remember Grandpa Levi teaching me about working hard. He used to cut grass at my uncle's church and I would go to work when I lived with him. Just to see him riding the lawn mower making the yard look good, I picked that up from him."
McKoy is following his grandfather's example this summer by working on the college's grounds crew. It is one of McKoy's two summer jobs – he works second shift doing quality control for an automotive supplier in nearby Marshall – and his work-study job during the 2013-2014 school year had him washing uniforms for the athletic department. He now serves as residential hall assistant and as a mentor to first-year students from under-represented populations.
In addition to the salary McKoy receives to pay for his education, he hopes to use his platform as co-community outreach director for the college's Black Student Alliance to model his work ethic for the adolescent males in Albion.
"Young black males don't see success besides professional athletes and actors," McKoy said. "I want to give the youth the view to chase a different dream. Some young men don't have real life role models who have been through the ropes. I've seen the hood side and the classroom. I know everyone has a different story, but at least I have an idea (about where they are coming from).
McKoy already uses the platform given to him as a Briton student-athlete. He said youth he worked with during track and football clinics sponsored by the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee ;ast spring have come up to talk to him during his summer lifting sessions at the campus recreation center.
A remarkable return to athletics
Devising a plan to pay for a college education can be difficult for anyone, let alone the first member of a family to attend. McKoy has a number of supporters, one of them is Tasha Oakes, the mother of Albion men's basketball forward Travell Oakes, who also hails from Muskegon. In addition to giving him tips on how to save money, McKoy says Tasha made more phone calls to the financial aid office than he did.
Few first-year student-athletes make an immediate impact for their teams at the collegiate level. In McKoy's case, he also missed a significant chunk of his first year – including valuable time with coaches – but it proved not to be an obstacle for McKoy. He was last on the football team's depth chart at receiver upon returning to campus for training camp last August, but he surged to become one of the team's top four wideouts by the end of the season. And he capped his year as a member of the Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association champion 4x100-meter relay squad in the spring.
The casual observer would never know how hard McKoy is working to achieve his goals but he says the sacrifice is worth it.
"Mikal sees his life as serving a higher purpose of making himself the best person he can be and putting himself to work," Chaplain Dan McQuown said. "There is a sense of calm about Mikal that puts people at ease. There is a sincerity that shows depth of integrity mixed with humor and compassion."
"It comes down to what I value," McKoy said. "I love football and I love school. It just happens I have to work harder to accomplish the goal. So that's what I'm going to do. I'm fine with that.
"Everything happens for a reason. I cherish the opportunity to come back to Albion and I would rather be here than anywhere else," McKoy added. "Knowing that God has blessed me with this opportunity is one of the best feelings. I have learned to take advantage of every opportunity. I'm willing to sacrifice to be able to go to college and play football and run on the track because I could only wish to do those things when I was working back in Muskegon. After a practice I would go up on a hill by myself and look at what I have been blessed with."