KANSAS CITY, Mo. — A torn ACL and another knee injury in training camp the next year cost running back Jerick McKinnon the 2018 and 2019 seasons.
He had emerged as a versatile and dangerous weapon in four seasons with the Minnesota Vikings from 2014-17 and cashed in with a free-agent deal in San Francisco before the knee problems started.
But McKinnon fought hard to get back to health with moments like Sunday in mind.
He returned to the 49ers last season, but missed the playoffs and signed with the Kansas City Chiefs in the offseason in hopes of returning to the NFL postseason for the first time since 2017.
Relegated to a bit role for most of the season behind Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Darrel Edwards and again bit by the injury bug when a hamstring strain cost him three weeks late in the season, McKinnon found himself starting against Pittsburgh in the Wild Card playoffs with Kansas City’s top two backs ailing.
He responded with 142 total yards from scrimmage in a 42-21 win against the Steelers.
“The only thing you can do is put your head down and keep working, knowing in the back of your mind that one day that hard work is going to pay off,” McKinnon said. “I got the opportunity tonight, and the hard work that I put in the past years to overcome everything showed.”
McKinnon finished with 12 carries for 61 yards rushing and six catches for 81 yards, including a 4-yard touchdown in the second quarter.
“He’s kept his mindset right and he’s kept working hard,” quarterback Patrick Mahomes said. “I knew with some other guys being down and dinged up that he would step in and fill in nicely.”
McKinnon said he got “a pretty significant amount” of first-team reps in practice “and it paid off.”
“He gives you all kinds of confidence just by the way he handles himself,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “He’s a confident guy, he works hard, takes care of himself, smart and he’s a good athlete. You felt like, if he got in there, he could do a good job.”
Mahomes never had a doubt after first working with him.
“First off, I’ve seen it from training camp on that he’s a playmaker,” Mahomes said. “There’s a reason that he’s been a playmaker in this league the last few years here.”
He’s also impressed another Kansas City star, tight end Travis Kelce.
“Man, he just brings the energy,” Kelce said. “He runs his tail off every single week. Every time he gets the ball, he’s a nonstop, downhill, aggressive runner, and that’s fun to play with, that’s fun to block for. You know you’ve got the upper hand when you’ve got a guy back there with his ability and his talent. You saw him showcase that tonight.”
McKinnon said he appreciated his teammates and coaches “believing in me.”
“Every day you have something to prove in this league,” McKinnon said. “I knew that I would get more opportunities than I have in the other games that I’ve played and been up. I just wanted to prove to my teammates and coaches that I could get the job done.”