Today the sad news came over social media and the Internet of the passing of former NFL player and University of Alabama star Keith McCants. He was found dead early Thursday morning inside his St. Petersburg, Florida. He was 53. Little is known as of this moment but media reports that police are investigating McCants' death as a possible drug overdose.
He was originally from Mobile, Alabama, graduating from Murphy High School. There he was a prep All-American in football (as an inside linebacker after converting from defensive end) and All-State in basketball. He had a knee scope between his junior and seasons at Murphy, the first reported issue with his knees that plagued his football career.
He had been a unanimous All-American for the Crimson Tide in 1989. His coach Bill Curry said, "He makes plays like I saw Dick Butkus make. Keith is in the mold of our great linebackers, Lee Roy Jordan, Derrick Thomas, and Cornelius Bennett". Miami head coach Dennis Erickson said that McCants could, "Cover, blitz, tackle. They move him around a lot in all kinds of ways to let him run".
He was noted as an excellent pass rusher even though he recorded just seven sacks (four in 1989) but he was used more in coverage than blitzing with Derrick Thomas opposite him in 1988 and used more for coverage in his All-American 1989 season.
McCants was drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the first round (4th overall) of the 1990 NFL Draft. He wowed scouts with his 256-pound size and 4.51 forty speed. McCants told papers prior to the draft that he ran a "4.43 in the forty" when he "weighed 249" pounds.
However, going into the draft there were issues reported about his knees. The AP reported that McCants could miss his rookie season due to an injury to his right knee which he played on all of 1989. A congenital defect was blamed for a cartilage tear and that it was possible surgery would be needed and a "six or seven-month rehabilitation schedule would be needed.
Even so, the Bucs grabbed him in the draft. As a rookie, he was a backup at right outside linebacker and was showing promise late in the season as the knee got stronger.
In 1991 new Defensive coordinator Floy Peters switched the Bucs defense to a 4-3 and converted McCants to defensive end and saw him as having the talent to play the "Chris Doleman" role in his defense. Doleman was a linebacker who Peters converted to right defensive end and flourished in that role.
McCants did well at times but not often enough. According to Peters McCants' knees held him back as well as his desire to be a linebacker, a rushbacker, if you will, and just could not fill that blind-side rusher role like Doleman did for Peters in Minnesota.
The Bucs drafted Eric Curry in the first round of the 1993 draft and was projected to play the right end leaving McCants the choice of being a backup end or trying to compete with cover-type linebackers that were becoming smaller in the early-1990s.
In August he was released by Tampa. Peters said, "I think he if came in as a defensive end he would have been a fine one. But he wanted to be a linebacker, he didn't want to be a defensive end." Wyche said the Bucs were moving in a different direction and the game at that time did not lend itself to 260-pound linebackers with teams starting to spread out offenses.
Peters said McCants, as a linebacker, was "(B)ecoming a dinosaur, a big guy who could know the hell out of you". Peters also noted that McCants, at best could have played a limited role for the Bucs, but was not someone who could play all three downs for them.
In the 1993 camp McCants was playing strong-side LBer in base defense and then moving to right end in passing situations until Curry (a holdout) signed and his roles were diminished.
The Oilers signed him (after he had a preseason cup of coffee with the Patriots) and he played very little, recording just four tackles in 1993 in Buddy Ryan's defense. In 1994 with the Oilers he split time as RDE in Jeff Fisher's defense but injuries caused him to be inactive too often and was released at midseason. After the Oilers released him in Ryan, then the head coach of the Cardinals, signed him and he played that year and 1995 for Ryan as an edge pass rusher in passing situations.
McCants was an unrestricted free agent going into the 1996 season but was offered a contract by the Cardinals. The Packers wanted to sign him and brought him for a physical in July but he failed that, once again due to his knee. That was his last NFL shot.
He struggled financially after his career and he was part of a ESPN "30 for 30" episode entitled "Broke" that featured athletes who had struggled financially after their pro sports careers. McCants, five years after his career was broke due to "divorce, IRS issues, and bad investments".
After retiring from football McCants returned to the University of Alabama to study law and eventually was the first Black marine police officer hired in Alabama at the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. When he was hired he told the Lakeland Ledger, "I need a job to carry me over until my NFL retirement kicks in" stating that he needed to pay bills and other responsibilities.
He also suffered mentally and physically. The pain from knee and hip conditions caused him to battle with drug abuse and painkillers (which he began taking during his career) led to several arrests for drug possession and related charges over the years. We will wait to see what role that played in his death.
Sadly, and all-too-often, it is with former players in mental and physical and even emotional pain.
McCants had it all, 6-3, 256, 4.5 forty could bend and move, play coverage of rush. He kind of got caught between eras. By 1990 NFL teams were moving more to 4-3 schemes after more than a decade of being a "3-4 league" and McCants was perfect for the 3-4, as a rushbacker, like his former teammate Derrick Thomas or the Saints Ricky Jackson to Kevin Greene and others.
So be was behind on that score as well, in addition to knee issues. It's likely that as a right end he just didn't have quite the explosion he might have with healthy lower joints. He was able to get some pressures (led the Bucs in 1991 and was second in 1992 in that category), got his hands up 13 career PDs and with the Bucs forced some fumbles.
His coaches always thought he was a hard worker, gutted it out through injuries and position switches. As a man between worlds in defensive schemes perhaps it was that way in life. He was given much in terms of size, strength, speed, the so-called "triangle numbers" but the joints—knees and later hips failed him and could not achieve what others of his rare talents could do. It had to wear on him.
Sometimes in this world, athletes do the best they can but circumstances limit their personal achievements and that can lead to, in some cases, personal struggles and those personal struggles can spiral out of control.
If that is the case here let compassion and understanding outweigh criticisms and judments. Rest in peace, Mr. McCants.