The Ohio State Buckeyes have a reputation for producing some of the best defensive players in the NFL. Joey Bosa and Ryan Shazier are the most recent successes, and now Raekwon McMillan hopes to join the ranks.
A native of Hinesville, Georgia, McMillan had three successful seasons for the Buckeyes with 275 total tackles and six sacks. He was named second team All-American and first team Big Ten in both his sophomore and junior seasons, and he was a finalist for the Butkus Award and Lott Trophy—two prestigious defensive awards.
And of course he was part of the 2014 Ohio State National Championship team.
Now, McMillan is gearing up for the NFL Draft and his professional football debut. We had the chance to catch up with Kwon—as he's nicknamed—as he was training at EXOS (Phoenix) in preparation for the 2017 NFL Scouting Combine.
An Early Setback
McMillan was an exceptional athlete early in high school. As a sophomore, he was already a five-star athlete, ranked as one of the top linebackers in the nation.
But during his junior year, things went awry. And it was all because of his diet. "I got a little overweight because I was eating whatever I wanted. I got a little sluggish. I got a little slower . . . a lot slower," he recalled.
This had consequences. He lost his five-star rating, dropped in rankings and people started to wonder if he would be a successful linebacker in college because of his weight.
However, McMillan righted the ship for his senior season.
"I came back my senior year and regained my five star after all the hard work during the offseason, and I overcame the talk around me that I wasn't going to be able to play linebacker because I was too big and not fast enough," he said. "Just overcoming that stuff showed me that I can get through everything when it comes to football."
This hard lesson taught him that football and life don't always go as planned. "I don't ever get down on myself when something happens that I didn't expect. I never get down," he said. "I realize this is the work I need to put in. You have to realize it's not always going to happen as soon as you want it to."
Forging His Own Path
As a top athlete from Georgia, McMillan was expected to stay in the south and commit to a top SEC school. However, he wasn't comfortable following a predetermined path or doing what people thought he was supposed to do.
"Many people were expecting me to go to a certain school—I won't say what school—because that's where all of the number one linebackers were going. I wanted to do my own thing," he said. "I didn't want to stay in the SEC territory. I wanted to do my own thing and be different, so I went to Ohio State so I could create my own journey outside of the southern area."
McMillan continued to forge his own path in Columbus. Rather than spending all of his time with his teammates, he decided to join Omega Psi Phi, a fraternity for African-American men.
"It was one of the best friendships I ever had outside of football. That's what I was looking for—an opportunity to reach more people and touch more lives," McMillan said. "When you're at Ohio State and you're in a small bubble on the football team with the athletes there, you need to get outside of that bubble."
He added, "We do community service events. We go to outreaches in Columbus . . . go to small schools throughout Columbus in poverty areas. We'd go to the local food banks to give back to the community. The black community in Ohio isn't that many people, so we try to stay together and also build bonds outside of the black community."
McMillan recalled a time when he was late for a workout during a major snowstorm in Columbus. As a freshman from Georgia without a car, he didn't know how to navigate the snow and was late, which earned him extra work in the early morning before the next workout.
He could have blamed the storm or his lack of a ride. But that's not how he operates.
"Instead of making an excuse to my coach, when he asked me what happened, I just said I was late and went on with my day and made sure that it never happened again," he recalled.
This no-excuses attitude was instilled in him at an early age.
"It was a no-excuses tight attitude at home," he said. "The attitude I had was that even if something happens, you can't get frustrated. Go along with it and keep pushing."
McMillan carried this attitude as he prepared for the NFL Combine. When training at EXOS, he jumped into a group doing skill work on the field even though it wasn't his position. Rather than sitting idle waiting for the next workout, he wanted to get some extra practice in to give himself an edge.
He wasn't leaving anything to chance and didn't want to have any excuses for not performing well at the Combine.
A Game to Remember
When asked about his biggest battle on the football field, he hardly had to think: The double overtime victory over arch-nemesis Michigan (which McMillan referred to as "the team up north") to keep the Buckeyes' playoff goals alive. Here's the recap in his McMillan's words:
When we played the "team up north" last time, I had a tip and Malik Hooker caught the tip and took it to the house. Man, just hearing the crowd erupt and us winning in overtime and how we went out on top in that game . . . my skin is crawling just thinking about it. It's a beautiful feeling that can't be matched.
The anticipation coming up that week and how the crowd reacted throughout the whole game . . . losing faith that we were going to win the game but then winning in the end brings all the emotions. In the middle of the game, we threw an interception down 17-3 and we thought we lost the game.
To have the fans rush the field and have my friends and family on the field after the game, seeing some of the seniors crying . . . Coach Meyer laying on the ground. Just seeing the emotions running through everyone on the field and seeing those guys walk out of the stadium as losers is the greatest feeling in the world.
We always talked about matching the hand to the quarterback. My coach preached it. I used to get tired of him saying it in practice. But then I stuck my hand up and tipped the ball and it went straight into Malik's hands. Just knowing we practiced it all year and it never happened until the last game of the regular season when it was most needed. It goes to show that when you're practicing, it might not look like things are going to happen for you but just keep going and keep pushing.
Yeah, I'm going to go to the NFL and I'm gonna play ball, but I would never want to witness a loss to the "team up north" because that would hurt me more than losing a game in the NFL.
Leaving a Legacy
McMillan will likely be drafted in the middle rounds of the 2017 NFL Draft, and will make his mark on the field in the years to come. Beyond the big plays he will likely make, he emphasized that he is a player who puts the team ahead of his own personal success.
"I want to be remembered as a guy who was willing to help no matter how big of a name I am. If I'm a 13-year veteran and a rookie comes in, I want to share knowledge with him," he said. "My job isn't to make sure he doesn't take my spot but give him every tool to make sure he can help the team. If he can be a better player than me, then my job is to help him become the best he can be."