After five years in the NFL, it felt a bit odd for Tyrone McKenzie to sit in a classroom, load his books into a backpack and study for exams.
"Getting back on campus and walking around campus with a book bag was weird," he said. "After that first day, it just comes back."
The 30-year-old McKenzie is working toward a master's degree in education at the University of Colorado, but that's not the main reason he finds himself in Boulder.
A former college All-American and NFL Pro Bowler, McKenzie is entering his second season as a graduate assistant coach for the Colorado football team.
"Being a grad assistant has been great for me," said McKenzie, who works with CU's defensive ends and outside linebackers. "I'm blessed to have the opportunity."
McKenzie played collegiately at Michigan State and Iowa State before transferring to South Florida in 2007 to be closer to his widowed mother, who was injured in a car accident. An All-Big 12 performer at Iowa State, McKenzie was a two-time All-Big East linebacker at USF.
His success in college led to the New England Patriots drafting him in the third round of the 2009 NFL draft. McKenzie spent his five-year career with the Patriots, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Minnesota Vikings, earning Pro Bowl honors as a special teams player in 2012 with Minnesota.
All of that paved the way for McKenzie to land in Boulder to begin what he hopes is a long career of coaching college football.
"The game was such a great tool for me growing up as a man," he said. "I started playing when I was 9 and always had coaches around me that were father figures. When I got to the NFL it was the same kind of thing. I just knew I wanted to coach."
McKenzie coached at the high school level immediately after his NFL career, but always kept in contact with his head coach from South Florida, Jim Leavitt. McKenzie had told Leavitt that he would love to coach in college. A year ago, when CU hired Leavitt as its defensive coordinator, he called McKenzie.
All CU had to offer was a GA position, which meant McKenzie not only wouldn't get paid, but would have to take classes and pay his own way to move his wife and three young children to Boulder.
Luckily, McKenzie was a business economics major in college and was smart with the money he made in the NFL. He viewed the opportunity at CU as too good to pass up.
"I was like, 'Coach, you know what? It's an opportunity,' " McKenzie said. "You do what you're supposed to do, you be the best you can be at it and become the best at it and the money will follow."
McKenzie and his family have grown to love Boulder, and McKenzie is excelling not only in the classroom but as a coach.
During the season, he does scouting reports on screens, short-yardage plays and bootlegs and brings those reports to the defensive staff meetings. He's also loved the on-the-field work with CU's outside linebackers and ends.
"They're great young men," McKenzie said. "Everything I've put on the board or challenged them to get done, they've risen to the top."
McKenzie's personable style and his playing credentials made players take notice right away, and they've enjoyed having him on board.
"He played in the league for (five) years before he got hurt and he does great work with us, teaches us different moves to use," said CU senior Jimmie Gilbert, who led the team in sacks last season. "He's trying to help progress our game, that way we can get to where he's already been. That's a great coach to have, a great presence."
As a player, McKenzie was always a leader, being voted as a captain in college and three times in the NFL. That leadership has carried over to CU, and players have already learned to trust him.
"He's someone you can talk to about personal problems, school issues and football," Gilbert said. "It's great because that way it's not just football; it allows us to relax a little bit around him. Then, when he does try to coach us up, we take it more to heart. It's great."
McKenzie would like to get a full-time job as a position coach, and then work as a defensive coordinator and, eventually, as a head coach. He's in no rush, however.
"I have to be the best at this before I can do that," he said. "When my time comes, my time will come. I'm more excited for right now I have this job and I'm very blessed to have it."
Brian Howell: firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter: @BrianHowell33.