Growing up in Cleveland and not being able to have the childhood most kids dream of, senior linebacker Najee Stevens-McKenzie was determined to make it out, and football was his gateway to making that happen, he said.
"It was rough. Not many people make it out ... small town that’s like a conveyor belt pulling you back," Stevens-McKenzie said. "People didn’t want to help me move forward. Cleveland is like a trap."
During Stevens-Mckenzie's senior season in high school, he helped lead Bedford High School to a regional and conference title, finishing his final season with 67 tackles, eight sacks and nine quarterback hurries. He also posted a career-best of six sacks in one game.
After high school, Stevens-McKenzie went on to accept a JUCO offer from Fort Scott Community College, where he redshirted and then transferred to ASA College in New York City.
There, he was rated as a three-star recruit by Rivals.com. He earned First Team All-Northeast Conference in 2017 and was credited with 33 total tackles and a team-best 12.5 tackles-for-loss. He also had 9.5 sacks while helping the Avengers to a 9-1 overall record.
After his outstanding season at ASA, Stevens-McKenzie went on to commit to the University of Kansas — turning down offers from Iowa State, Missouri, Maryland, Pittsburgh, UCF, Bowling Green and Toledo.
Stevens-McKenzie said he wanted to continue playing with his best friend he'd played with since Fort Scott, senior defensive end Darrius Moragne.
"Definitely a brotherly relationship. We fight and argue, do things that brothers do," Stevens-McKenzie said. “He knows that I got his back, and I got his. We’ll have that relationship for the rest of our lives."
One of Stevens-McKenzie's favorite moments from the season was intercepting Texas junior quarterback Sam Ehlinger for the second year in a row. Another notable play was picking off Oklahoma senior quarterback Jalen Hurts.
"First off, I noticed that the running back was a little wider from the quarterback than usual," Stevens-McKenzie said. "Normally when they do run plays, he would be a little tighter. I saw it [the] whole time, but the fact that it played out exactly how I wanted it to play out was crazy to me."
His college journey is something Stevens-McKenzie said he will cherish for the rest of his life.
"It feels surreal, can’t believe it’s over," Stevens-McKenzie said. "It's the end of one chapter. Now it's on to the next."
Stevens-McKenzie plans to enter the NFL Draft in 2020 and hopes to play for his hometown team, the Cleveland Browns, he said.