After a back-and-forth battle throughout the 127th Battle for the Victory Bell, the Cincinnati Bearcats were lined up for a game-winning field goal.
Once the kick went through, RedHawks would only have 10 seconds to score, leaving little hope that they would take Victory Bell back to Oxford.
Bearcat kicker Carter Brown set up for the kick, and the whistle blew. The ball was snapped, and out of nowhere, senior cornerback Yahsyn McKee came screaming over the left tackle and swatted the kick down, giving the Redhawks a chance in overtime.
For McKee, this was the biggest game of his career.
“They were heckling and playing music before the snap,” McKee said. “After the block, they got silent. It felt good to silence the crowd like that when they were talking trash all game.”
McKee grew up in New Jersey before moving to Georgia in his senior year of high school. He started playing football when he was 4, and from that moment, he knew that football was his calling.
“Football is everything to me,” McKee said. “It’s my peace and my ticket to success. As soon as I got the ball, I fell in love with the sport.”
McKee played for three years at Mercer University, where he started his career as a receiver. He earned 37 receptions, 466 receiving yards and two touchdowns in his first year. When the coaching staff was adjusted the following year, McKee was moved to cornerback. He adjusted to the change, and has realized his potential at cornerback puts him in position to get to the NFL.
In 2021, Mercer played Alabama, where McKee matched up against receivers John Metchie and Jameson Williams, both of whom have gone on to play in the NFL. In this game, McKee held Metchie to 70 yards and Williams to 31 yards. The opportunity to play against players of that caliber made McKee realize that he could compete at a higher level.
Following the 2021 season, McKee entered the transfer portal, looking to take his talents to a competitive level that would eventually lead to the NFL. When Miami football head coach Chuck Martin saw him in the transfer portal, he saw the potential for him to develop into an intelligent player.
“He knew he could play at a higher level,” Martin said. “We loved his tape and how he played. He’s a smarter player as far as understanding offense. He has a great feel for the game. He understands our defense a lot better now than when he first got here, but he’s always had that confidence that he’s going to make every play.”
In his first season at Miami, McKee played eight games and had two interceptions, six breakups and 35 total tackles. In the ninth game of the season against Akron, he tore his ACL and missed the rest of the year.
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“The recovery was stressful,” McKee said, “but it made me grind and focus more. I couldn’t walk for the first two weeks, and I don’t think I could run until month five or six. Once I could, I took off. Now, I feel great.”
McKee didn’t see much action in the first game of the 2023 season against the Miami Hurricanes. While he played some against the University of Massachusetts, McKee’s true comeback wouldn’t arrive until the Battle for the Victory Bell against Cincinnati.
Leading up to the UC game, the RedHawks were looking for a chance to rebound. For Martin, the team had significantly improved since their season opener against Miami.
“We got crushed by Miami in our opener,” Martin said. “Leading up to the UC game, we had a great week of practice. Our whole mindset was ‘let’s see how far we’ve come in a couple of weeks.’ We got pushed around by Miami, but they have the best players that money can buy. Cincinnati has similar athletes to us.”
For the RedHawks, this was their greatest chance to take the Victory Bell back to Oxford following last year’s close game.
“We didn’t need much motivation,” McKee said. “We lost last year when we should have beat them: We were up 17-7. This year we were locked in and ready to change the tradition.”
Going into the fourth quarter, Miami was up 21-16, but the Bearcats stole the lead early. Miami tied the game with a field goal, but the Bearcats marched down the field and set up for a game winning field goal with 19 seconds left.
In the huddle before the Bearcats’ kick, McKee told Martin that he was going to get the block.
“We needed a big play,” Martin said. “Frizz looked right at me and said, ‘I’m going to get it.’ All the great players convince themselves that they’re going to make every play. He believed he was going to get that block.”
When the whistle blew, McKee followed through on his claim, jumping over the left tackle to swat the ball out of the air once it had been kicked.
“I knew I was gonna block one eventually,” McKee said just after the game.
McKee had left the UC crowd silent and the RedHawks’ sideline empty.
“Everybody ran the field,” Martin said. “Nobody was on the sideline anymore except for me.”
The block sent the game into overtime, giving the RedHawks a chance to take the Victory Bell from the Bearcats for the first time since 2005. They took the lead early with an 8-yard touchdown pass to Joe Wilkins Jr. The Bearcats needed a touchdown to tie the game once again. When they reached the three yard line, the RedHawks needed a huge play to officially put the game away. McKee stepped up once more with an interception in the end zone.
“I knew what they were trying to run,” McKee said. “I pride myself on being a smart defensive back. He tried to run the underneath route and pick me off with the other receiver, so I jammed him at the line and picked the ball.”
The interception ended the game once and for all, with the Redhawks winning 31-24. The Victory Bell once again belonged in Oxford.
“These guys worked so hard,” Martin said, “not just this year, but their entire careers. To get to this point and have this moment is so important for every player and every fan. When they got off the bus Uptown, it was like Mardi Gras. Most of us never get that experience.”