This story updated on Feb. 16 to correct Peter McKinley’s student activities.
A year ago Peter McKinley was homeless.
At the time, he was a junior at Gervais High School who had gone from being consistently suspended while in junior high to being a chapter president of the Future Farmers of America.
McKinley didn’t let his surroundings dictate his trajectory.
He went on to place fourth in the district wrestling meet and qualify for the state tournament, and played his heart out every game of his senior year of high school football with the goal of becoming a college football player.
Friday morning McKinley’s favorite football player, former Oregon cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, not only gave him his phone number, but encouraged him to contact him in his pursuit of that dream.
Ekpre-Olomu, along with Marines Rafael Yumo and Russell Mullis, presented McKinley with the MaxPreps High School Athlete of the Month award for December in front of the entire Gervais student body and a huge collection of family and friends.
“I thought I was going to come here and meet a kid that worked hard and did all the right things,” said Ekpre-Olomu, who is recovering from a knee injury. “What he’s done and what it’s taken him to get to this point, it’s only motivated me to even work harder. I just realized how much this kid wants it.
“He’s doing great. He’s all-whatever in wrestling and he’s saying all he wants to do is play college football, and how much work he’s going to put in to get to that. And I’m looking at where I’m at and what position I’m in, if he’s going to work this hard, why not me work just as hard as him?”
McKinley is the first athlete from Oregon to receive the award.
It allows McKinley to accomplish one of his goals as a high school athlete: To be able to bring a trophy to his school.
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It was more attention lavished on McKinley at one time than he had cumulatively before in his life.
“It’s pretty nerve-wracking, honestly,” said McKinley, a senior. “I’m just a small kid from Gervais. No one knows where Gervais is. I didn’t even want to come to Gervais originally. But I’m happy I stayed. … It’s all the hard work paying off.”
McKinley has had his greatest athletic success in wrestling, but football is his passion.
A 5-foot-11 linebacker who wrestles at 220 pounds, he’s been trying in vain to get college football programs to show any interest in him.
He’s emailed every college football coaching staffs he could find, and replies have been rare.
“That’s the dream,” McKinley said. “I want to play college football. I will be somewhere playing college football next year, I just don’t know where yet.
“Right now I’m just working on wrestling, going to districts next week, I’m hoping to pick up the No. 1 seed and be a district champion. That’s pretty much where I’m at right now.”
McKinley was shocked when he found out Ekpre-Olomu would be presenting him the award Friday morning.
Throughout Oregon’s run to the National Championship Game in 2015, while others were gushing over Marcus Mariota, McKinley was Ekpre-Olomu’s biggest fan.
Ekpre-Olomu has been rehabilitating his latest knee injury at the Nike World Campus in Beaverton in hopes of restarting his NFL career.
McKinley and Ekpre-Olomu bonded immediately over their collective struggles.
“When I met Peter and realized the hard work and education, how sports can impact somebody, how much he said he’s grown from when he was a freshman until now, I feel like I’ve done kind of the same exact thing in these past couple years,” Ekpre-Olomu said. “To see somebody kind of in the same shoe you were a few years back, it really touches you and kind of gets to your heart.
“That’s all you can ask for. That’s kind of why your playing the sport. Yeah, you love playing a sport and you love what it brings, but you realize how much you can impact other people.”
bpoehler@StatesmanJournal.com or Twitter.com/bpoehler
Correction: Due to a source error, one of McKinley’s activities was wrongly attributed.