When people hear the name “Makai Mickens,” anyone in the Monmouth County, New Jersey area will boast of his athletic excellence in football, even those who rivaled that of the now Montclair State University sophomore running back.
Mickens has a way about him that makes even the people who don’t understand the sport say, “Wow, he’s good.” I would know; I’m both from Monmouth County and I don’t fully understand the sport.
Mickens, who was born and raised in Bridgeport, Connecticut, moved to Red Bank, New Jersey in the fifth grade, where he went on to play high school football at Red Bank Regional just four, short years later. As for when he got his start, Mickens began the game at the prime age of seven, when he played with his older brother on the team above his age group.
“My brother and I were always close so we were always together and my dad really liked that so he wanted us to stay together throughout [football],” Mickens said. “And obviously, playing with older kids made me [the] better player that I am today.”
Mickens credits his father for starting him in football. He says he played many other sports before deciding that football was the one that would stick.
“My dad was a football player and it wasn’t pushed on us, but it was obviously a given thing,” Mickens said. “And I was just naturally good at it. I’ve played everything: football, basketball [and] baseball. But football was the one that I excelled at a little bit more than everything [else].”
After graduating from Red Bank Regional in 2020, Mickens took the following fall semester to attend East Coast Prep in Massachusetts before following in his older brother’s footsteps in attending Montclair State, which he began in spring 2021.
According to Mickens, playing a shortened spring season during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic made it difficult to get to know his teammates. He says this year he was able to make a much bigger personal connection with the other players on the team.
“That personal connection, when it comes to football, is very important because it obviously makes all the players play harder than they usually would if you don’t really know a stranger just coming in,” Mickens said. “It’s, like, literally going in to fight every game with somebody. There’s not another sport as physical and as mental as football is.”
However, the road to playing college football was not always the easiest for Mickens. In the summer before his senior year of high school, he ended up tearing his ACL, MCL and meniscus, leaving him with a doctor’s sentence that told him he would miss his entire senior season. With that not sticking well with the seasoned player, he decided to spend four months rehabbing, eventually getting back to playing in the final four games of the season, and even scoring several touchdowns.
“The big mental barrier was probably the toughest thing I’ve had to go through in my entire life and knowing that I’m still standing and doing what I still want to do is a big accomplishment for me,” Mickens said.
Mickens recognizes Montclair State’s athletic trainer, Rob Lindenbaum, and his team for keeping him both mentally and physically well in preparing for games. Lindenbaum says Mickens’ commitment to the program and the team makes him stand out.
“Makai sets goals and follows through with them,” Lindenbaum said. “His desire to get better and continue to remain healthy makes him an ideal patient and great to work with. He is everything you want from a student-athlete: dedicated, respectful and hard-working.”
So far this season, Mickens has had a combined total of 401 offensive yards receiving and rushing, three rushing touchdowns and one receiving touchdown. He recalled scoring his first touchdown of this season against Salve Regina University.
“I was just screaming, trying to get the crowd going after that,” Mickens said. “It’s just really an amazing feeling.”
Mickens’ favorite part about being a Red Hawk is the tight community feel that comes along with it.
“I like the crowd,” Mickens said. “I like everybody cheering. That stuff just pushes me. Because I’m an emotional player and I feed off the energy so all that stuff gets me going.”
Running back coach John Straniero prides Mickens on his work ethic and leadership qualities.
“He is a tough kid and you see that when he plays,” Straniero said. “He runs hard and competes in everything he does. You can also see that he is just having fun out there and always has a smile on his face.”
So far this season, the Red Hawks are 1-4 and Mickens says although the losses are heartbreaking and the team can only look forward to future games, he takes those losses differently than the average fan might expect.
“Winning is fun and everything but losses kind of teach you a lot more than winning does,” Mickens said. “That feeling of losing when you believe you almost have it always sticks with me. It sticks with me way more than a win does, or, like, an amazing game does.”
Mickens is majoring in biology, and in the future, he hopes to get his degree and become either a chiropractor, an athletic trainer or an athletic therapist. As for right now, the football player wants to continue to excel as a running back for the Red Hawks.
“I want to keep getting that personal best higher and higher and higher,” Mickens said. “I just try to take whatever they give me but whatever aspect – receiving, catching – I just want to make sure I’m in a high, positive level for everything so I can benefit my team in order to get the win.”