Kyle McMillin is having fun playing football again. All it took was a trip home to do it.
Slightly soured by his experience of trying to walk on as a tight end at the University Nevada -- and eventually leaving the school after it tried to turn him into an offensive lineman -- the former Golden Valley star returned home disappointed but undeterred.
He was going to continue his football career.
Instead of trying to ride his Division I pedigree to a starting job at Merced College, McMillin turned up at spring practice determined to show why he'd garnered interest from so many schools in the first place.
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"I can see that some guys would come back from a Division I school and just expect to be handed a job," McMillin said. "I've never really been like that.
"I knew I was coming into the program as a first-year player and that I had to prove myself to my new coaches and teammates."
McMillin's work ethic has won everyone over.
"(Kyle) coming into the program was huge for us because we knew we were set at running back and receiver, but we were uncertain about tight end," MC head coach Tony Lewis said. "Now we're pretty set with Kyle and another GV guy, Steven Bower.
"Kyle's not a real rah-rah guy. He didn't come in saying 'look at me' or with any kind of attitude.
"He's just a real blue-collar kind of player who quietly goes about his business and I think his teammates respect that."
While he may not be flashy, McMillin certainly isn't going to get lost in the MC crowd either.
The 6-foot-2, 240-pound freshman is far too talented for that.
In three years at Golden Valley McMillin snagged 106 passes for 1,410 yards and 17 touchdowns.
McMillin should continue to flourish at MC, playing in a system that loves to get the ball in the hands of its tight ends.
"We had good size, in terms of weight, last year, but we didn't really have the height you like to have in a tight end," Lewis said. "This year we're going to have both from Kyle and Steven.
"I think he's going to do very well with us. He has the big frame and good hands, but what's really impressed me is the speed he's shown for his size."
McMillin's numerous abilities has impressed his quarterback as well.
"You don't expect a guy that big to move that fast," sophomore Ryan Williston said. "He makes me look good all the time, catching balls you don't expect him to."
The Blue Devils got a taste of what McMillin can do in the Blue/Gold scrimmage.
After catching a ball across the middle, McMillin made a move and then accelerated away for a 55-yard touchdown.
"A lot of guys were giving me a hard time -- saying they let me go -- but I was pretty pleased," McMillin said with a chuckle. "I'm almost back to where I want to be."
That's an exciting prospect for a Merced College team trying to take a step beyond last year's season-ending double-overtime loss to Laney and earn a spot in a bowl game.
"From when I left Nevada, I went almost a year without putting on pads," McMillin said. "It felt like I put on lineman pads when I got here, it was so awkward.
"Its taken a while to get things back to feeling the same. And everything isn't there yet.
"You can work your butt off, but you can't get your body used to getting hit again until you start getting hit."
While re-finding his football legs has been a slow and steady process for McMillin, finding his place in MC's team dynamic has proven quick and easy.
"It's great being out there with so many guys I grew up playing with and against," McMillin said. "The guys have accepted me and I have a great time every time we take the field."
The Blue Devils are going to need that camaraderie as they join the Golden Gate Conference and face a daunting schedule.
Seven of MC's 10 opponents start the season with a top-20 ranking in Northern California and four of those teams teams are ranked in the state's top 25.
The Blue Devil's first test comes on the road tonight as they open the season against No. 20 Monterey Peninsula.
Kickoff is set for 6 p.m.
"You look around you at practice and we've basically got a local All-Star team out there," McMillin said. "I think we're going to be a very strong team.
"I'm so excited for the season to start I'm losing sleep.
"I've had (today) circled on my board for weeks.
"Its been a long time. I'm ready to play football."
Sean Lynch is a Sun-Star sports writer. He can be reached at 385-2476 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
No. 19 Merced College at No. 20 Monterey Peninsula
KICKOFF: Tonight, 6 p.m. at Monterey Peninsula
SCOUTING REPORT: Monterey was 8-2 a season ago and should provide a good early test to Tnoy Lewis and his squad.