For those who know him best, Khalil Mack is the same person today he's always been.
The Oakland Raiders defensive end was just a kid from Fort Pierce, Fla., who never stopped working toward his goal, and while he's risen from an overlooked high school prospect to the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year, Mack has left a lasting impression on those with the opportunity to meet him throughout his journey.
Before he was among the NFL's small community of elite players, the University at Buffalo Bulls linebacker had to earn his way up from the scout team. Now, I'm not here to speculate on how Mack flew under-the-radar of so many Division-I schools, and neither were the coaching staff at UB, but they were certainly grateful he landed in their lap.
For University of Buffalo Assistant Athletic Director Jonathan Fuller, who's been at the school since before Mack arrived, it was clear from the moment he arrived on campus that he was a unique individual.
"You could tell [he was special]," said Fuller. "Obviously the scout team is going up against your first team, so he's going up against our first-team offense, and you could tell he was creating some problems against our first team."
And he's not the only one who noticed; Mack's former Assistant Athletic Director for Academic Service Rashidi Green could tell there was something different about the kid from Fort Pierce.
"I was walking with my boss out to football camp, when he [Khalil] was a freshman, for the fall training camp," Green said. "We were just kind of walking by; it was that time of year when you had the new freshman, you had the upper classmen that had changed their jersey numbers, so we were walking around looking at that. We came across Khalil, and my boss said, 'Who is that guy? He doesn't look like any of those other guys we have out here.'"
At 6'3" and 252 pounds, Mack was undoubtedly in his own realm physically, but the thing that made him special was what lies outside of the hash marks.
"He's always been respectful," said Green. "Very humble, he's a quiet guy until you get to know him, of course. He's just always a very upbeat kind of guy, always has a smile on his face."
When he got to Buffalo, Mack was well-spoken, with a polite attitude, a quiet demeanor, and a desire to showcase his talent. After totaling 327 tackles, 28.5 sacks, two touchdowns, 21 passes defensed, and 16 forced fumbles over four years, it was apparent that the Florida-native had the ability to go pro, and everyone knew it.
Regardless of all the accolades and praise, he remained unfazed and kept his head down, deflecting the attention to his teammates.
"Obviously the guy was a superstar player, but you never would've known it," said Fuller. "He never wanted to talk about himself, he always wanted to talk about other guys."
One of Mack's favorite sayings is, "By any means." No matter the task, you find a way to get the job done. The fourth-year Raider doesn't take days off; he doesn't go on vacations; he works, and that work ethic is contagious.
"Everybody else worked hard because if they saw Khalil Mack working that hard they thought, 'I better work that hard, so I can be the best that I can be,'" said Fuller when asked about how Mack's Buffalo teammates interacted with him. "He worked so hard that other guys wanted to work hard, they didn't want to let him down."
Whether someone leads by example, or vocally gets those around them engaged, when people watched Mack, they absorbed everything he did because they knew he did it with purpose. The passion for the game, the extra hours on the field, doing another set in the weight room, staying late to study film, all of these things have attributed to his success in the NFL.
For those who have seen what was once a young man walking through their doors, mature into a grown man at the top of his game, when they watch him on television all they see is the same person they grew to love.
"It's funny, cause just watching him in interviews, and all of that stuff, he's the same guy," Green said. "He hasn't let the fame get to his head in any way, or anything like that, he's just a little more guarded I guess in the sense of he … not that he tries to avoid people in general or fans, but he just knows that he has a good awareness of who he has become. He's the same Khalil that he was when he showed up in '09."
As Mack gets ready to play football for the first time in Buffalo since he was a Bull, he knows he's matured a lot. The First-Team All-Pro, Pro Bowl, and Defensive Player of the Year selections didn't come with ease, and life in the NFL has been a bit of a transition to say the least.
"I've grown up a lot, man," Mack said. "Talk about from being a college student, to being an NFL player… it's a whole other world. The responsibility and just growing up, and taking care of different things… just that aspect of life has changed a lot."
Although the two-time Pro Bowler seems to have matters figured out at the professional level, he's always learning. Even before he left for the West Coast, Mack has understandably made a lot of people proud. When asked about how he feels to know everyone who's watched him is proud, No. 52 provided a vintage Khalil Mack response.
"It's still a process, life is a process, I'm still working, and grinding, it don't ever stop," he said. "I can't really say who I've made proud, and all that because I'm still grinding, I'm working on myself every day."
When the Raiders eventually walk onto New Era Field in Buffalo for their Week 8 matchup with the Bills, there will presumably be a community of people excited to cheer on the kid they watched grow up before their eyes.
And if he's seen around town those same people will embrace him with open arms: Just ask the general manager of Elmo's Bar & Restaurant, his favorite buffalo wing spot in town.
"He's just the kid that was here when he was playing in school," said Adam Blake. "He's just one of the guys, one of the regulars.
"It's just Khalil."