THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. – Standing in front of his locker at the Los Angeles Rams practice facility on Thursday,Takkarist McKinley couldn't help but smile several times.
"First off, it feels great to be on the field again," McKinley said. "Tore my Achilles late December last year, and it's been – excuse my language – a hell of a journey just to get back on the field, just to get to this point, just to be able to be back in an NFL locker room. Especially the L.A. Rams, who won a Super Bowl, who got a team that's pretty much built together, I'm here to help wherever I can."
For McKinley, signing with the Rams on Wednesday – and Thursday's practice – marked a fresh start.
His 2021 season with the Browns ended due to the aforementioned torn Achilles. Prior to the injury, he had amassed 18 total tackles, eight QB hits, 2.5 sacks and one forced fumble while starting 2 of the 11 games he played in.
He still landed on the Titans practice squad prior to the start of the 2022 season despite the setback, getting signed to it on Sept. 16. However, Thursday marked the first time he strapped on a helmet and shoulder pads since tearing his Achilles.
"Just getting the feel of things again – the weight of the helmets, the weight of the shoulder pads, just trying to get back comfortable with football," McKinley said. "We've been working real hard this offseason, my team up at REP1 and Pro Sports. It's different from wearing no helmets, no gear, anything like that. Just being able to go out there and just be back to football was a great feeling."
McKinley reunites with a familiar face in Rams defensive coordinator Raheem Morris, whose final four seasons with the Falcons overlapped with McKinley's four seasons in Atlanta.
Morris on Thursday described his background with the former first-round pick (McKinley went 26th overall in 2017) as both "rocky" and "good" whatever place McKinley's been. The "rocky" part stemmed from when Morris had to cut McKinley when Morris was the interim head coach of the Falcons in 2020, though it didn't negatively impact their relationship.
McKinley likewise said "it's always been love between me and him," and was grateful that he and Morris stayed in contact on a personal level since then, with Morris helping him out with things like being a father and life in general.
"Being the head coach at the time when it happened, we obviously had our differences in opinions and things of that nature, but we always remained fairly close. Just even closest to last year and years ago, I've always been able to talk to him about his personal life. I've always been able to talk to him about his children, being a father, some of those things that made us close. I completely and totally invest myself in the guys that I coach and the players that I deal with. No matter how the result is and how it plays out, I pride myself in that ability to be able to do that."
Morris also believes in second chances.
"We always want to have a chance to give people second chances," Morris said. "He's a guy that I know can help us in the pass rush. He's a guy that I think deserves a second chance, and hopefully can come in and do some really good things for us."
That pass rush includes three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald, whom McKinley was asked about lining up next to. McKinley, though, said he hadn't really had the chance to think about it, given how much of his focus on Thursday was on getting the playbook down and getting his feet underneath him.
McKinley said that when one tears their Achilles, they go through lots of sleepless nights, and a lot of thoughts of "I wish I would've did this, I wish I would've did that." While it was important for him to be patient and trust the rehab and recovery process, he also said he was "a little crazy" because he anticipated a quicker return than what he actually had.
"I thought I was going to be able to come back in like five months, six months, because Cam Akers did it," McKinley said with a laugh. "So, I mean, that was my mindset. It did help me though, because I was really driven to make that goal a reality. Obviously everybody's body is different, his body just heals faster. It's crazy."
Whether McKinley will play this week is up to the Rams coaching staff, according to McKinley.
He'll be ready if called upon, but remains focused on getting comfortable with his new team – and appreciating all aspects of his new opportunity.
"I'm here just to help however I can," McKinley said. "Very appreciative just to, to be honest, be talk to you guys (media). But it was a great first day. It was a great first day."