As ZOOM guests go, they don’t come much more special than Khalil Mack. 

The Chicago Bears’ All-Pro outside linebacker joined Leo High School students for a ZOOM call on Monday, Nov. 10, and, in a discussion that lasted more than an hour, he repeatedly demonstrated that there is more to him than football.

Principal Shaka Rawls invited the entire student body to join the call, revealing only that a “special guest” would be a participant. More than 160 young Lions jumped on. With Mr. Rawls moderating the discussion, they heard Mack tell of growing up in Fort Pierce, Fl., where football was an early fascination—”I sneaked into a Pop Warner league when I was seven, and you were supposed to be nine,” he recalled with a smile.

And yet Mack’s career nearly ended before it began because of a high school knee injury that limited him to one varsity season.

Thus he was not heavily recruited, and considered himself fortunate to receive a scholarship offer from the University of Buffalo. “My dad always taught us that it’s not what life puts in front of you, but how you handle it,” Mack said.

During his four years at Buffalo, Mack not only developed into a first-round NFL draft pick, he learned life lessons that were just as essential to his development as man.

“The coaches had a grading system that assigned a numerical value to how much you were contributing, not just to the success of the team but toward helping your teammates become better people,” Mack said. “It took me till my senior year to earn a maximum grade, a ‘4.’ That’s when I decided I’d rather be a better teammate than I am a player.” 

If Mack checks both boxes, he credits his father’s influence.

“I grew up in the church, and my dad was pretty strict —he made sure we walked the line,” he recalled. “Take advantage of the window while it’s open … Get your grades now and worry about the girls later —the girls are always going to be there. You have to serve others to get a sense of who you are.

“My upbringing set me up for everything that has happened in my life,” Mack said. “Sometimes I almost sound like my dad when I’m talking.”  

After he had terrorized Mid-American Conference offenses as a pass-rushing linebacker, the then-Oakland Raiders picked Mack in the first round of the 2014 NFL draft, the fifth overall selection. “I felt so blessed,” he said, “Coming from where I came from, it almost didn’t seem real.” 

But when he saw how good he was …

“It bothered me that I wasn’t the No. 1 overall pick,” he conceded. “I played with a chip on my shoulder.”

Indeed, Mack was an instant star in the NFL, a two-time All-Pro, a three-time Pro Bowl selection and the 2016 Defensive Player of the Year. He did not miss a game during his four seasons in Oakland and considers himself fortunate to have had future Hall of Famer Charles Woodson as a teammate.

“He taught me how to work, how to get ready,” Mack said. “ ‘Can’t nobody push me harder than I can push myself.’ That’s the power of the mind.”

As Mack’s rookie contract was expiring, he sought a salary commensurate with his stature as one of the league’s top defensive players.

“I’m petty like that,” he said. “I pay attention to details.”

Citing salary-cap limitations, the Raiders refused to meet Mack’s demands and traded him to Chicago.The Bears went 12-4 and made the playoffs in his first season, but the last two have been a struggle as inconsistent quarterback play hampered the offense. The defense has been more solid, but Mack often finds himself the target of double and even triple-team blocking schemes.

“It’s in me to want to be the best at whatever I’m doing, and it bothers me when I’m not able to affect the game the way I want to,” he said. “But if they’re putting two and three guys on me, somebody else ought to get through.”

Mack didn’t publicly back Colin Kapernick’s national anthem protest against police brutality and racial injustice back in 2016 and prefers to keep his views on social justice to himself. But as a young NFL player, he experienced his own “Black Lives Matter” moment in Florida that he shared with the Leo audience.

“I was driving a rental car to the airport to fly back to Oakland when I got pulled over,” he recalled. “Minor infraction —I might have turned without signaling. Nothing on me, no warrants, so he had to let me go. But when he realized that I played for the Raiders, he said, ‘You’re not one of those ‘take a knee’ guys, are you?’ If you are, I might have to take you in.’

“It took me a while to process that in my head —why would he say that? But it’s real, man, it’s out there. You have to decide what side you’re on.”

Mack has no problem with athletes being viewed as role models and accepts the responsibility. 

“It’s taking advantage of that window,” he explained. “You have to understand what your influence is and use it now, because when you’re done playing, nobody’s going to care about you or pay attention to what you have to say.” 

As the conversation concluded, Mack thanked the young Lions for their rapt attention and promised to visit Leo when COVID restrictions are relaxed enough to permit it. He also advised them to take advantage of the downtime the pandemic has inadvertently created.

“Use this time to learn and help yourself get better,” he said. “You might not know what you’re getting ready for, but you should be getting ready for something.”