‘The Mack Effect’ — Before he was a Bear, OLB Khalil Mack transformed Buffalo

SHARE ‘The Mack Effect’ — Before he was a Bear, OLB Khalil Mack transformed Buffalo
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Khalil Mack runs off of the field after defeating the Buccaneers in Week 4. | Joe Robbins/Getty Images

John Syty could feel it when Khalil Mack walked in a room.

Even at 18, as a redshirt freshman at Buffalo, the future NFL superstar had presence.

“There’s an aura about him different from anybody I’ve ever been around,” said Syty, who shared a college linebacker room with Mack for two years. “This guy walks into a room. You can have your back to him, but something in the air changes. And he’s always been that way.”

You didn’t need to be a future NFL scout to know Mack had special physical talent — even though that’s exactly what Syty became. He’s now a Bears area scout.

“As a scout,” he said, “you try to find those guys.”

The Bears found Mack at a price — $141 million over six years — when they traded for him in September and made him the NFL’s highest-paid defensive player ever.

Sunday, for the first time since 2002 — eight years before Mack played his first college down — the Bears will play in Buffalo, New York. Whether Mack will be on the field will be debated all week. He sat out the Jets game with a lingering right ankle problem, and the team has more relevant divisional games awaiting them.

Mack went to Buffalo with the Raiders last year, and has been back since. In the summer, he checked in on his brother Ledarius, a junior backup defensive end.

When he’s in Buffalo, Mack stops in to see Rashidi Greene, UB’s academic services director who was raised a Bears fan and still can’t believe their luck. He visits his former UB quarterback, Joe Licata, who’s now the football coach at Bishop Timon High School in Buffalo. He sent Licata’s football team a good-luck video before the season and has practiced with the school’s basketball team before watching their games from the front row. He stills tweets birthday greetings to employees at his favorite wings joint.

That’s why Mack returning to Buffalo matters — whether he plays or not.

Syty senses that it matters to Mack, too.

“It’s family,” he said.

† † †

A basketball player first, Mack didn’t play football until his senior year at Westwood High School in Fort Pierce, Florida. Robert Wimberly, an assistant at Liberty University, hoped he’d stay unnoticed. A 6-2 pass-rusher wasn’t a luxury usually afforded Division I-AA schools.

At the end of Mack’s senior season, Wimberly took a job at UB. He said he stopped recruiting Mack out of professional courtesy, but Mack’s family made contact with UB. He signed with the Bulls.

“At Liberty, I’m just praying that he would go under the radar,” said Wimberly, now in his second stint at Liberty. “You didn’t know he’d be a potential Hall of Famer.”

It didn’t take long to see he was special. Mack was quiet then, as he is now. He enjoyed playing guitar and listening to old-school R&B.

“Always calm, cool and collected,” Greene said.

On the field he was the fiery underdog. He was given No. 46 when he got to Buffalo, and planned on switching to 52 — his number with the Raiders and Bears — in honor of Ravens great Ray Lewis. When he saw that a college football video game gave him the low player rating of 46, though, Mack kept his old number as a reminder.

“Obviously he was blessed with a lot of God-given talent,” Licata said. “But that talent goes to waste on a lot of guys. Not Khalil, because he had that work ethic.”

During summer workouts, he’d cover the Bulls’ best receivers for fun.

“He could’ve played corner for us,” Syty said. “He was that athletic. He’d body up some of the receivers and was pretty good. It was amazing. You just knew there was something different about the kid.

“I just never saw someone Khalil’s size who was doing what Khalil was doing.”

Later in Mack’s career, Licata threw a pass during 11-on-11 drills and felt pressure coming from his left side. He was never touched.

It wasn’t until Licata watched practice film later that he realized what had happened: Mack had fired off the line of scrimmage and punched at the Bulls’ 315-pound left tackle, sending him flying into the air.

The tackle would have landed on the UB quarterback — but Mack saw what was about to happen and plucked the tackle out of the air with one arm.

Licata was staring at the film, amazed, when Mack happened to walk by.

“He said, ‘He was about to hit you,’ ” Licata said. “ ‘I grabbed him and put him down.’ ”

† † †

Mack’s legend went national on Aug. 31, 2013.

Playing the season opener at Ohio State, the senior — who would finish with 2½ sacks and nine tackles against a team that was undefeated the previous year — lined up outside the left tackle. He avoided a cut block and intercepted a quick screen pass Braxton Miller threw toward an outside receiver.

Mack took off down the sideline, outrunning Miller and running back Dontre Wilson and diving over the right pylon for a touchdown.

The UB staff replayed the interception at a film session two days later. One player made a fake cough, and then muttered one word under his breath: “Millions.”

He was right.

“He was completely the best player on the field,” Licata said. “That was his coming out party. . . . Everybody knew that was his moment, that he was going to be special.”

By the time he left Buffalo, Mack had rung up an NCAA-record 16 forced fumbles in his career. His 75 tackles for loss tied the all-time mark.

The Raiders picked Mack fifth in the 2014 draft — one spot behind the Bills, who traded up to draft receiver Sammy Watkins instead of taking the player down the street.

Syty, a Buffalo native, senses fans back home didn’t quite grasp how dominant he was with the Raiders. They just didn’t see him on TV enough.

“In Chicago, after those first two [national television] games,” he said, “people understand how good a football player he really is.”

† † †

Mack isn’t one to wax poetic about his old haunt.

He didn’t talk much about UB last year before visiting with the Raiders. Partly because of the ankle injury he suffered two weeks ago in Miami, Mack has spoken to the media once in the last two weeks. Ledarius, like his brother, prefers to stay out of the media spotlight. Through a school official, he declined to be interviewed.

Still, there’s no question Mack’s impact is still felt every time the Bulls play a college game.

“At a mid-major program, or even at a major program, if you have a guy that gets drafted high and he’s a dominant force in the NFL, that’s bigger than winning a conference championship,” said Licata, who was raised in Buffalo. “That’s bigger than winning a national championship, for recruiting purposes. Because kids see that they can do it from there.’’

Greene can tell the impact on campus. Fans who used to drive east on Interstate 90 to watch Syracuse are more tempted to stop and watch their hometown team.

The MAC school feels it, too, albeit after two coaching changes. Mack helped spawn donations that built new football offices in 2016. They’ll finish building a new indoor practice facility next spring. UB is 8-1 this season, its best start since 1959.

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How much Buffalo changed Mack is a matter of debate. Maybe he would have shined anywhere.

But there’s no question he changed the school. And the city.

“There’s a pre-Mack time and a post-Mack time,” Licata said. “That’s real. That has to do with sending guys to the pros and proving you can make it out of here.

“That’s the ‘Mack Effect.’ ”


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