OKLAHOMA CITY -- Gerald McCoy felt the cold walls pressing against his thick arms and immediately thought one thing: Get me out of here.
The Oklahoma defensive tackle knew his claustrophobia might be a problem when he entered that MRI machine at the NFL combine. He never expected it to flare up so badly on his third day in Indianapolis. Within minutes, McCoy winced and wheezed and wriggled as if somebody had sealed him inside a body bag.
The league's medical staff tried their best to help him. They moved McCoy to an MRI facility located about 10 minutes from Lucas Oil Stadium. They let one of his agents, Kelly Masters, sit with him after seven attempts with that machine failed to make him feel comfortable. Finally, the league found a device at another medical building -- one that allowed McCoy to be filmed without the front of his body being covered -- and told him he'd be going home if this didn't work out.
"I just couldn't help it," said McCoy, who eventually completed the MRI after four tries at his third stop. "I really can't sit still for too long."
McCoy's fear of being pinned down and sealed off isn't really a negative. It's actually what makes the 6-foot-4, 300-pound All-American one of the most dominant players in this year's draft. McCoy is at his best when he's wild and loose, a state that allows him to terrorize opposing linemen with his power and quickness. The mere idea of being hemmed in for any length of time runs counter to his every instinct.
McCoy is so good that he may very well be the first pick in this month's draft. There was a time when Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh was deemed the only defensive player in this class worthy of that honor. Now McCoy -- who could've been a high pick after his redshirt sophomore season in 2008 -- has reminded people why the St. Louis Rams should consider him with that selection as well.
"When people started talking about me again, it wasn't like I thought they forgot about me," McCoy said. "It's just that when people watched college football last year, Ndamukong Suh was the guy people talked about because he dominated and had a breakout year. But now that we're going into the NFL, things change."
Though the Rams haven't publicly picked a favorite between Suh and McCoy -- "We're hoping somehow there's separation, because in our eyes, there isn't any," Rams general manager Billy Devaney said at the combine -- McCoy has his share of fans.
"I'd take McCoy if I had to pick one," an NFC personnel director said. "Even though Suh is stronger, there are a lot of strong guys in the league. When you look at McCoy, you see somebody who could be the next Warren Sapp. He's as good against the run [as Suh], and he's the better pass-rusher. He'll be more disruptive at the next level because he'll be in the other team's backfield a lot."
NFL scouts aren't high merely on McCoy's physical skills and college production (14.5 career sacks and 33 tackles for loss). His infectious attitude sets him apart as well. McCoy is so ebullient that he once arrived at an Oklahoma men's basketball game with white wings attached to his back. (He was trying to fire up the fans by playing Cupid on Valentine's Day.) He's also so dedicated that he kept working out in Phoenix for the combine while other college stars headed to Miami to enjoy Super Bowl festivities in February.
Even when McCoy's bench press disappointed at the combine -- he lifted 225 pounds 23 times, while Suh performed 32 reps -- he didn't let that sap his confidence.
"It was a concern for me only because I always want to perform well," said McCoy, who also declined to bench press at two pro days that Oklahoma held on its campus. "But the bench press doesn't correlate to on-field performance. My power comes from having big legs and a big butt. I've never been a great bench-press guy. But I have always been a football player."
It's doubtful that any team would hold that bench press against McCoy. He already has visited Detroit, and he's also scheduled to see the Rams and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. If the Rams decide to pass on McCoy, it's almost certain that either the Lions or Buccaneers will select him with one of the next two picks. Each team drafting in the top 3 spots needs help on its defensive interior, and only the Rams covet a quarterback of the future (with Oklahoma's Sam Bradford and Notre Dame's Jimmy Clausen being the top candidates at that position).
That fact partly explains why the 22-year-old McCoy has been savoring every last minute of his predraft experience.
"That's just how Gerald is," said Nicki McCoy, Gerald's sister. "When he was at the combine, he said everybody was uptight and he was the one trying to get everybody loose. He wanted everybody to take it in stride. That's the kind of leader he is."
Added McCoy: "My feeling is that you only get to do this one time in your life. So I definitely want to make sure I have fun with it."
That willingness to make the most of any life moment is one of the major lessons that McCoy learned from his parents, Patricia and Gerald Sr. They had the same approach to raising Gerald and his two sisters. They made every game and every parent-teacher conference, and when they walked into any school their son attended, you could bet that everyone in the place knew their names. As Gerald Sr. said, "We wanted to be in every facet of our kids' lives."
It also helped that both of McCoy's parents had been high school athletes; they knew the power of competition. McCoy was only 2 years old when his father placed a miniature helmet on his head and positioned him in a three-point stance. As soon as the father yelled, "Down, set, hut," the boy would be flying toward the sofa and bouncing backward after the collision. Even with his helmet spun sideways and his ignorance of the rules of the game, Gerald Jr. had a thirst for contact that would take him far in the sport.
It was no different for him as he grew into a man-child in Oklahoma City. He couldn't be handled when he started playing organized football at the age of 8. He caught the eye of Oklahoma defensive line coach Jackie Shipp as a ninth-grader at the Sooners' summer football camp. There was even one day during McCoy's childhood when he watched a college football game with his dad and asked, "Who are these guys, and how do they get to that level?" The elder McCoy didn't hesitate. "Those kids are you," he told his son.
McCoy understood that message better when he was on his way to being named the National Defensive Player of the Year by USA Today as a senior at Oklahoma City's Southeast High School. What he didn't know then was how quickly he'd have to grow up. His first life-changing moment came with the birth of his daughter, Nevaeh, right before McCoy signed with Oklahoma during his senior year. The second came when Patricia returned home after a business trip to San Antonio the following summer.
McCoy's mother, who worked as a human-relations specialist at the local Air Force base, had wanted to surprise her husband and son for Father's Day. But within hours of being back at home, she started complaining of severe headaches. She went to the hospital and was told she was suffering from brain aneurysms. Three weeks later, she died after her heart stopped.
When McCoy tells this story about his mother, he does it quickly and curtly. He gives you the short version because anything longer than that is still way too painful. He broke down a week after the funeral -- screaming to his father and wondering why God took his mother -- and again on the Thursday leading up to his first game at Oklahoma.
"At first, I didn't know how I'd go on," McCoy said. "But I also knew she wouldn't have wanted me to stop. There were days and nights when I didn't think I'd make it. It's something that you never get over."
Said McCoy Sr.: "[Gerald] understands that God allowed this to take place. So he stayed focused and kept moving on. That was something that his mother always preached to him: 'You're a leader and not a follower.' That's something that has stuck with him."
Despite the pain McCoy felt after losing his mother, he never let his performance suffer as a result. He was the Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year in 2007. When his sophomore year began, he was named one of four team captains, an honor that so stunned McCoy that he looked at his teammates and asked, "Why did you guys go and do that?" At the end of that season, he had answered his question; the Associated Press named him a second-team All-American.
The Sooners' coaches knew by that point that McCoy probably wouldn't play all four seasons in college.
"Gerald had the size, the quickness, the speed, everything you wanted [in a defensive lineman]," Shipp said. "What his eyes saw he could transfer into his feet quickly. Plus, he had the drive, the want-to and the personality you want in a leader. When you get picked as a captain in your sophomore year, you have to be doing something right."
McCoy also didn't let his success go to his head. When a friend told him that he was projected to be the top pick in the draft after his sophomore year, he scoffed at the notion, adding that it was just a mock draft. Now that McCoy is coming off a second straight All-America season, he's even more determined to stay grounded. He's taking two classes to finish his degree in human relations, spending his free time with Nevaeh and keeping a fairly low profile in his hometown.
In fact, McCoy recently enjoyed a late lunch at a local restaurant for nearly an hour before he attracted attention. A waitress wanted her son's piggy bank signed. Another asked for an autograph on a napkin. Then there was a giddy customer who slid a $100 bill in front of McCoy and said she'd never spend a C-note with his signature on it.
"I've signed body parts and cell phones, but I've never done that before," McCoy said.
Such requests may not be so outrageous for McCoy in the near future. He knows draft day will provide more special moments, and he'll have his immediate family -- known as his "circle" -- there to share it with him. And even if his name isn't the first one league commissioner Roger Goodell calls on draft day, he'll savor every second of the experience.
"I've heard about how stressful this time can be for some people," he said, "but going to the NFL makes me forget about the pressure. I know I'm living a dream."
Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.