Most of the memories for Jaden McKenzie are hazy, at best.
Understandable for the Ohio State signee, since he was just 5 years old and everything around him truly was a blur as Hurricane Katrina bore down on McKenzie’s native New Orleans in late-August 2005.
“I remember like, honestly, it was like hard to explain, really. I just remember just getting out of there as fast as we could,” McKenzie said of his family’s evacuation 14 years ago from Louisiana’s renowned Gulf Region, necessitated as part of the United States’ worst hurricane season in 70 years per historical data. “Big rush, big blur.
“Me and my mom [Quandra], we relocated to Texas for a month. Then we moved to Raleigh [N.C.] around the airport. It was like really hard during all that crazy stuff to know what was going on. Really, I was too young. It’s hard to explain, hard to remember.”
McKenzie’s vague memories of his family’s life-changing decisions all those years ago strike a strange dichotomy with the trajectory of his burgeoning football career: Seminal moments, a trio of North Carolina Class 4A State Championships at Wake Forest High School and impending arrival at Ohio State as part of Ryan Day’s inaugural signing class.
“[McKenzie’s story] is important for us here because Wake Forest is a small town outside city of Raleigh, and everybody in town kind of knows everybody,” said Reggie Lucas, head coach of the powerhouse Cougars program. “When you see a guy go from Wake Forest — and his background goes a little further than that, Jaden was a part of Katrina — he has a story to tell. But just knowing that, it gives the youth and kids around here to know that as Jaden has shown, you can make it from Wake Forest to a big level of college football.”
Family moved back, Jaden McKenzie just visits
The initial move to jettison the bayou was a complete family move for the McKenzie family. But after varying periods of time away from New Orleans, most of McKenzie’s relatives returned to the region.
“We were one of the only ones to move out and stay out,” McKenzie told Lettermen Row. “A close high school friend of my mom moved to North Carolina, and they got into contact and we made arrangements to come out here.
“We stayed with them for about a month, and then my mom got back on her feet.”
These days, Quandra McKenzie “works about three different jobs, she’s a hair stylist at three different locations,” McKenzie explains. But the family — including little brother Emani — tries to get back to the bayou as often as possible.
“I go back, we try to go back at least once a year, sometimes every other year,” McKenzie said. “When I look at pictures and now that I’m older, I just find it to be crazy that I actually went through that and didn’t know what was going on at the time.
“So many questions go through my head. But I think everything happens for a reason, and us moving out here and starting a new life created so many more great opportunities for me and my mom that we wouldn’t have had if we stayed.”
Perhaps most significant among the opportunities McKenzie most relishes is the role of big brother. After an indifferent approach to his education before the football light-bulb’s glow, McKenzie admits a wiser approach that begins with the example he seeks to set each day in his home.
“I try to help my mom out as much as I can to keep the stress off her and to help my brother become a great young man, better than I was,” McKenzie said. “That’s the goal, to help him be a better person and a better man.
“Honestly, everything I’ve ever learned comes from my mom. Me and my brother are 9 years apart. The majority of my life was just me and my mom. When she was at work doing her thing, I had to mature faster, in a way.”
Lucas heralds McKenzie’s maturity.
“In the classroom, early on in ninth and 10th grade, he might’ve taken grades for granted — and now he knows the importance,” Lucas said. “He’s worked tremendously hard the last two years of making sure that academics come first.
“Character-wise, you have to respect and his mom, raised by single parent, and he’s got a younger brother. Jaden’s kind of been the man of the house. And he’s getting his high school education, an FBS scholarship and led our team to three championships.”
McKenzie shrugs away any praise from the shoulders atop his 6-foot-3-inch, 290-pound frame. Paying tribute to his mother is a familiar refrain.
“I credit all that to my mom,” he said.
Mom and brother will visit Columbus as much as possible in the coming months. McKenzie is narrowing his focus on learning the defensive playbook for the Buckeyes, boosting his strength and enhancing his conditioning.
He is big brother, really, to many in the community.
“My whole team really takes great pride in that, know we’re representing not only our families but our football programs when we’re out there,” he said. “I flew to Texas to go see my dad, and I’ve had people stop me and ask me if I got to Wake Forest, and it’s crazy that people knew who we were outside of our little county.
“That’s what I love about Wake Forest, really, too, the whole community is positive in their support.”
For Jaden McKenzie, it’s his own little slice of the bayou, smack in the middle of North Carolina.
Next stop: Columbus.