Pats rookie made gains in lost season

BOSTON -- His rookie NFL season didn't turn out the way he hoped, but Tyrone McKenzie has focused on turning a difficult situation into a positive. Based on his life story, one would have expected nothing less.

McKenzie was selected by the New England Patriots in the third round of the 2009 draft (97th overall), and the team had high hopes for him at inside linebacker, yet those hopes were put on hold for a year when he tore his ACL in rookie minicamp May 2.

McKenzie's road to recovery now looks as if it's almost complete.

"I'm excited for the season and the chance to get back out there with my teammates and coaches," he said last week while attending a charity event for Haiti relief efforts. "I'm not going to put a timeline on it and say 'I'll be out there the first week of minicamp,' but it's been a situation where I've been counting down the days."

The injury was the latest obstacle for the resilient 24-year-old McKenzie to overcome.

The course of his football career changed five years ago when his mother was involved in an accident that left her unable to work. At one point, McKenzie was attending college while also working the overnight shift at a Hampton Inn to help support his mother and siblings.

After the Patriots drafted him in April out of the University of South Florida, head coach Bill Belichick said: "Of all the players that I've talked to and we've interviewed this year and even through the years, Tyrone is one of the most impressive. Maturity, intelligence, what he's done with the opportunities he's had or that he's had to overcome, how he's dealt with them, how he's made the most of them; it hasn't been easy. Yet he continues to excel, jump over hurdles and overcome obstacles that I think would have derailed a lot of other people and/or football players."

So it was no surprise to see McKenzie so upbeat last week, or to learn how he spent his time last season. While some players on season-ending injured reserve disappear for a stretch of time to rehabilitate before returning to the club, McKenzie did not.

"I was here full-time, in all the meetings, learning the game plans for each week, staying on top of my playbook," he said. "I think that's going to be huge, just being around the team last year, seeing how the regular season will go, and staying on top of my football game."

When his teammates took the field for practice, he stayed behind to work with strength coaches Mike Woicik and Harold Nash and trainers Jim Whalen, Joe Van Allen and Dave Granito. McKenzie said "they did a great job pushing me forward and getting me to the point where I'm ready to go out and play football again."

McKenzie has remained in town since the 2009 season ended, showing up at Gillette Stadium daily with a few of his teammates for workouts. He said he is looking forward to taking part in the team's offseason program, which begins next month.

At 6-foot-2, 247 pounds, McKenzie figures to compete for playing time at inside linebacker, where the Patriots return starters Jerod Mayo and Gary Guyton. That's where McKenzie was lining up in rookie minicamp when he tore his ACL while covering a pass in non-contact, one-on-one drills.

"I was excited to get out there and play some football and get back to the basics again after all the combine and draft [stuff], to just go out there and have fun, and then things happened," he recalled, before quickly changing direction. "I'm going to leave that back there in the past. Right now I'm just worried about the future."

McKenzie said one of the biggest things he learned last year was how long the NFL season is compared with the college season, as well as how the Patriots structure a regular day between meetings and practice time. The importance of becoming a complete player who knows his own assignment as well as other teammates' assignments was also something that was stressed to him.

While the experience wasn't what he initially hoped it would be -- he naturally wanted to be playing -- McKenzie's approach has put him in a position in contribute this year.

"I have all that out of the way now," he said. "And I'm just excited to play football."

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPN Boston. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.