Editor’s note: This is the third part in a series on Coffee County’s sports legends.
Elba High School has been long known for churning out successful football teams and players but Ronald McKinnon is still, to this day, one of just two former Tigers to ever make it to the NFL and the only Elba player in the modern era to play in the NFL.
McKinnon grew up in Elba and watched his brothers all play for the legendary Mack Wood before finally getting his shot, and he made the best of it.
“Coach Wood meant the world to me,” McKinnon remembered of the late Elba coach. “He was tough and firm but he was also fair and consistent. He got the best out of you.
“For him to coach all of my brothers and then coach me was really special to me.”
McKinnon quickly became known as one of the top linebackers in the entire state. He helped guide Elba to a Class 3A State Championship in 1989 and was a two-time all-state linebacker.
“Just being an Elba Tiger and those Friday Night Lights is what I remember the most about it,” McKinnon said of his high school playing days. “One day getting a chance to finally wear that black and gold with all the guys you grew up with. All of a sudden you’re in junior high and then high school and you’re all working together to win.”
McKinnon said rivalries with Luverne and Pike County will always live with him but he remembers the 1989 loss to Niceville (Fla.) as much as any others.
“For Coach Wood to take Elba and play a team out of Florida like that says a whole lot about your team and your kids,” McKinnon said.
Despite his success in high school, major colleges weren’t coming for McKinnon because of his perceived lack of size, standing at just under 6-foot and under 200 pounds. University of North Alabama head coach Bobby Wallace – who recruited Bo Jackson to Auburn – saw a future North Alabama Lion when he saw McKinnon lead Elba to a state championship in 1989 in person.
McKinnon came to North Alabama and became one of the greatest linebackers in NCAA Division II history, shattering a number of UNA and Gulf South Conference records in the process.
McKinnon was a three-time Division II All-American as he helped lead UNA to three Division II National Championships. He ended his UNA career as the school and the conference’s all-time leading tackler.
As a senior, McKinnon saved his best for last tallying 139 tackles, 11 tackles-for-loss, four interceptions and four sacks enroute to earning the 1995 Harlon Hill Trophy, which is the Division II equivalent to the Heisman Trophy. He is still, to this day, the only defensive player to ever win the award.
Once again, his size got in the way of his success as he went undrafted in the 1996 NFL Draft. Still, he would sign a free agent contract with the Arizona Cardinals and proceeded to play 10 years in the NFL with 128 career starts, most of which came with the Cardinals.
In 1998, McKinnon was named Alabama Sports Writers Association Professional Athlete of the Year and he tallied more than 140 tackles in three separate seasons. He also recorded 90 or more tackles in seven of his 10 NFL seasons and more than 70 tackles in every season but his rookie year.
In total, McKinnon amassed 1,011 tackles, 51 tackles-for-loss, 12 sacks, 10 interceptions, 16 pass breakups, seven fumble recoveries and two defensive touchdowns.
McKinnon has been honored by his hometown with a sign outside of the school honoring his football success, and all Elba football players see the image of McKinnon hanging in the fieldhouse as a reminder of the heights all players can reach, no matter their size or where they come from.
“That makes me feel special,” McKinnon said of the thought of Elba youth looking up to him. “Just like anything else great in the world it wasn’t easy. I was blessed and the time was right for me.
“I was never really even looking to the NFL, I was just looking to graduate and get an education and just be a productive citizen and everything like that. Things happen for a reason and that lets you know that it doesn’t matter where you are, if you continue to do things the right way and be consistent and win, people will notice you. I tell kids all the time some things you just can’t control, you have to continue to work and do your best each and every week.”
During his NFL days McKinnon began the annual Ronald McKinnon Football Camp in his hometown of Elba.
“I just wanted to give back to the kids in the community,” McKinnon said. “I wanted to make sure that I could give them something they would always remember.”
McKinnon’s accolades didn’t stop with his playing days. He would eventually be inducted into the Wiregrass Sports Hall of Fame, the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame and the College Football Hall of Fame. He also was also named the Gulf South Conference Defensive Player of the Quarter Century (1971-1995) and named to the NCAA Division II Team of the Century (1973-1997).
Eventually, a former UNA teammate would push McKinnon to begin his coaching career and in 2011he began as the inside linebackers coach at Miles College, where he continues to coach.
“My first year (coaching) we won the conference championship and we’ve won three or four since then,” McKinnon said. “It’s been quite fun but also a little challenging. Coaching takes a whole of your time, that’s for sure.”
McKinnon – getting ready to enter his 10th season at Miles – said that he believes his success despite his lack of size helps him connect with prospective recruits.
“I think most kids think they have to be 6-foot-3 or 6-foot-4 or run this speed or run that speed but the truth is if you have it in your heart and your mind and you hit the weights and worry about doing things the right way good things will happen,” he said. “I’m evidence of that. Coaching at a smaller school we’ll get the kids that aren’t that big or even that fast but they overcome those things by continuing to work hard. If you work at anything I think you can get better at it.”
Miles didn’t play football in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so McKinnon said the team is busy getting its players in shape for 2021.
“It’s always exciting but now you have kids that have been out for a full year, so you have to make sure they’re in shape and doing the right things,” McKinnon emphasized. “As a coach, you have to make sure that they’re conditioning.
“It’s hard to teach or do anything if a kid’s out of shape. If you’re worried about catching your breath you’re not worried about your alignment and getting in the right play.”