DENVER — As the ball dropped out of the air and into his hands with a little less than two minutes remaining in the first half, Isaiah McKenzie knew that as long as things didn’t go right, they couldn’t go wrong.
But before he could sprint down the left sideline for a 78-yard punt return for a touchdown in the Broncos’ preseason opener against Minnesota, he first had to wait.
“In my mind, I was just saying, ‘Don’t go right. Don’t go right.’ Because our return was set up to the left,” McKenzie said. “So, I said, ‘Don’t go right. Don’t go right.’ Eventually I went left, and I had great blockers and they got me in the end zone.”
And with the explosive play, perhaps he earned just a little redemption after struggling seemingly week after week in 2017.
Before that happened, though, he seemed to freeze in the moment. With him, perhaps many fans also froze, remembering those previous season-defining stumbles and setbacks.
But he was simply being patient and sticking to the plan.
The blocks all seemed to materialize perfectly. Andy Janovich, De'Angelo Henderson and Zaire Anderson closed off the back side of the play as McKenzie began to read the play to the left. Then, as he moved laterally toward the sideline and pressure began to close in on him, Brendan Langley threw his full force into Vikings linebacker Garret Dooley, who had the best angle on McKenzie as he tried to turn the corner.
At that moment, he realized he had it.
“It was just me against everybody else,” McKenzie said, “and I knew I was faster.”
Now sprinting directly up the sideline, McKenzie just needed a little more help. Linebacker Antonio Simmons set another block to take out a would-be tackler, Stansly Maponga took care of the punter and Will Parks grappled with Vikings cornerback Horace Richardson, the last man to beat.
With the score, the Broncos began to climb back into the game after a slow start.
“That’s what I’m here to do,” McKenzie said. “Special teams, our unit as a whole, is here to spark something — sudden change. So if you need a punt return, I’ve got to get a punt return. When you need a kick return, we get a kickoff return. You need a special-teams play — a big play to help out — that’s what we need to do. So as a unit, we’ve got to do it.”
However, that hadn’t exactly been the end of the play for McKenzie.
Once McKenzie weaved around Parks and Richardson and crossed the goal line, he allowed his momentum to take him through the end zone and up to the wall. He leapt up and received a warm embrace from Broncos fans — one that would have been difficult to imagine at times last year.
After a solid start to his rookie season with six punts returned for 84 yards in the first three games, it had seemed like only time separated him from when he would make his first house call.
Then, the wheels fell off. In Week 4 against Oakland, McKenzie muffed two punts. Following a Week 5 bye, McKenzie muffed a punt in three of the next four games he played. His punt-return duties were revoked after a disastrous day in Miami that included a fumble recovered in the end zone for a safety.
After all that, McKenzie had to reset himself.
“You have to sometimes erase all the negative things that happen,” McKenzie said. “No matter what. A dropped pass or a muffed punt or anything like that, you’ve got to get rid of the negative, because in your mind, you know you have the confidence. You know you can do certain things. You know you can run fast. … I just had to put it on the field, put it in practice and work at it each and every day to get my confidence back up. I kind of struggled a little bit with that, but each and every day I got better with it, because I kept catching punts. I kept doing the right things.”
This summer, McKenzie has faced an offseason much different from the last. He hasn’t been the frontrunner for the punt-returner job. That would be Jordan Taylor, who finished the 2017 season with that role. After the initial depth chart was released, Head Coach Vance Joseph said Taylor would have gotten the start had he been healthy.
Instead, McKenzie had his shot to get a little bit of redemption.
“You’re going to have errors in life,” McKenzie said. “You’re going to have downfalls in life — you’ve just got to get back up each and every day. That’s what I’m doing, that’s what everybody else in this locker room is doing.”
Even though people will remember last year’s errors, McKenzie knows he must accept what happened and move on. That’s the job of a professional athlete, and though it is human to err, he’s working to rid himself of those costly mistakes.
“Everybody looks at us as superhuman,” he said, “so sometimes you’ve got to pretend to be a superhuman.”
This isn’t the end of anything, though, and McKenzie knows it. His chances to make the 53-man roster may have improved with the touchdown return, but that doesn’t mean he can stop battling.
“I’ve got to do everything I can on special teams to make this roster,” McKenzie said. “I’ve got to do everything at receiver to make this roster. But specifically on special teams, I’m the starting punt returner right now, so each and every day, I’ve got to bring my A-game.”
Action photos from the Broncos' preseason opener against the Vikings.