SALINEVILLE - When Southern Local running back Mike McKenzie ruptured his Achilles' tendon, many wondered whether he would ever be able to run a football for the Indians again.
Now, everyone is just trying to stop him.
If there was any doubt that McKenzie could return to his usual production, it quickly disappeared as he rumbled for 167 yards and three touchdowns in leading Southern to a 19-7 season-opening victory over Waterloo on Saturday night.
"He's got that Adrian Peterson or Kobe Bryant type of mentality," Southern coach Mike Skrinjar said. "It's that individual will. He's a different breed."
In 2012, McKenzie was among the area's leading rushers. After racking up 1,270 yards and 15 touchdowns in his junior year, Southern (1-0) hoped McKenzie would guide them to their fourth straight winning season.
However, after McKenzie went down during his 400-meter relay with the leg injury in April, doctors said it would take eight months for a full recovery, putting his final season with the Indians in doubt.
Needless to say, he's arrived early.
"It was pure determination," McKenzie said of his quick return. "I had to persevere over it."
Even with a healthy Achilles, one could have questioned how productive McKenzie would be with Southern shifting toward a more run-based offense during the offseason. Despite an increasing workload of 28 carries that nears his career high of 31 carries, no one is less worried about the status of his Achilles than McKenzie.
"Last game, I had near the highest amount of carries I've had here," McKenzie said. "I produced 167 yards and that's not bad at all. I played some defense on top of that, so I think it's going to hold up well."
"We want him to be the guy to carry the ball 30 times a game," Skrinjar said. "Coming into the year with that injury, we've fed off what he could do. In the scrimmages we saw a lot of things out of him. On Saturday night, we let him go."
Indians fans could have been slightly worried when McKenzie came up limping near the end of the Waterloo game. Rather than reaggravating the injury, Skrinjar credited the limp to the heavy workload.
"I don't think the limping was from the Achilles," Skrinjar said. "I just think he had 28 carries. It was the first game and he got thumped up a little bit. He's a big leader for us and he's going to end up with some bumps and bruises."
There is never really a good time to recover from such a damaging injury, but McKenzie certainly got a convenient one. Southern added a new synthetic field turf to upgrade its formerly outdated facilities. The $1 million project offers a soft, lush surface compared to the rough, natural grass that football players usually have to deal with.
"It's a nice surface for my leg," McKenzie said. "It's nowhere near as bumpy."
"We're not on a practice field," Skrinjar said. "We're on this turf all the time. He can run and showcase himself without stepping in any holes. He's been real healthy on the turf. That's made a big difference in terms of the time he came back."
With an upcoming to visit to Wellsville looming this Friday, McKenzie won't have synthetic turf to support his attempt to lead the Indians to a fourth straight victory over their Route 39 rivals.
"It's going to be a great game," McKenzie said. "I want to finish out the 4-0 series against them. Nothing's changed. They're just the same kids we've played the past three years. I have no worries going down there. I know what this game is about and how we have to play to beat them."
Southern and Wellsville will collide at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Nicholson Stadium.