Even during his college career at Kentucky, Marlon McCree heard the doubters.
When McCree moved from the secondary to middle linebacker before the 1998 season, he knew what outsiders were saying about a 6-foot-1, 198-pounder playing the position in the Southeastern Conference.
"Everybody said, 'you're too little, you're going to break your neck, you're going to hurt your shoulder,' " McCree said in a phone interview on Thursday.
Three seasons later, there wasn't anyone left to prove wrong.
McCree overcame any size disadvantages he may have faced to start all 33 of UK's games over his final three seasons as a Wildcat. He led the team in tackles each year, finishing with 219 for his career. He helped lead Kentucky to back-to-back bowl appearances for the first time in 15 seasons and tallied 14.5 sacks and 37 tackles for loss.
"I always had to be an overachiever playing middle linebacker at 190 pounds in the SEC," McCree said. "That's not a very easy task so I always had to do extra to get myself prepared to play Florida, Georgia, Alabama and LSU."
Having proven his point at the college level, McCree looked to the NFL for his next challenge. A seventh-round pick by the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2001, McCree would return to his natural safety position, but he didn't abandon the mentality that made him a success at linebacker in college.
"Coming from that underdog situation gave me the right mind frame," McCree said. "I always played in the NFL like I had a lot to prove, and that came from me having a lot to prove there at Kentucky."
He wouldn't waste any time making an impact.
By the end of his rookie season, McCree had solidified himself as a starter and was among the league leaders with six interceptions the following season. He had to cope with the same adjustments as any first-year player, but his unique experience at playing linebacker in the nation's toughest conference positioned him to make a splash from the moment he arrived at training camp.
"Coming from the SEC, I was used to seeing quality talent week in and week out so I was ready from a competitive standpoint, even making the transition from linebacker to safety," McCree said. "I was also able to quickly grasp the playbook because of having the responsibility of knowing the playbook and being the captain of the defense at Kentucky."
McCree would go on to successful stints over the coming seasons with the Houston Texans, Carolina Panthers, San Diego Chargers and Denver Broncos. He earned starting roles at each of his stops, but accompanying his underdog mentality was a lingering awareness his playing days would eventually come to an end.
He would pick the brain of almost anyone he came across ranging from coaches to businessmen to ministers looking to gain some insight into how he should occupy himself once his career was over. The idea of using his finance degree from UK (which he earned in just three years) had crossed his mind, but he ultimately couldn't ignore the nearly unanimous advice he received.
"They all said the same thing: 'You've got to do what you love. You've got to do what you're passionate about,' " McCree said. "When I stepped out and made my list of pros and cons, the one thing that kept coming up for me was that my passion was in football. This is where I belong."
After being cut by the Jaguars before the 2009 season, McCree retired. Once that decision was made, there wasn't a moment's hesitation as to what his next step would be: he would become a coach. With the same tenacity that had made him successful in his four years at UK and his nine years in the NFL, McCree pursued his goal.
Where there was coaching help needed, McCree was there. He worked for his former Charger head coach Marty Schottenheimer at the East-West Shrine Game, which is where he first began coaching the secondary. He took unpaid internships with the New York Giants and Denver Broncos in an effort to gain experience and notoriety. Putting away his pads and helmet in favor of a clipboard and whistle wasn't always easy, but he never questioned his decision.
"Transitioning from playing into anything has a set of obstacles," McCree said. "You have to understand there are going to be good days and bad days, but what kept me going was my passion."
Just over two years later, his dedication paid off. This week, McCree was named assistant secondary coach by the team that first drafted him.
"I started my playing career there and I'm about to start my coaching career there," McCree said. "Being a Florida native, it's going back home for me and there's nothing I would want to do more than help bring the city of Jacksonville a Super Bowl.
"I've always wanted to coach and football has always been my passion. Now I finally got my opportunity and it's like a dream come true."
The Orlando, Fla., native played in an NFC Championship game, an AFC Championship game and was a part of a 14-win team with San Diego, but football's ultimate prize eluded him. That's something he intends to change in his life's next path.
"I don't think there's a better feeling in the world than to go out there and help a team win a Super Bowl," McCree said. "I've come close to playing in the Super Bowl, but I fell short a couple times and I'm looking forward to getting my chance as a coach to win one."
In his 13 years around professional football, McCree has noticed a trend. Every year, more of his fellow UK alumni are reaching the summit of the game.
"It brings a smile to my face to see the younger guys that came after me make it to the NFL because they've made a tremendous sacrifice to make it and I know what they've gone through," McCree said. "It makes me very happy and it makes me very proud."
He played with a pair of former Wildcats in Wesley Woodyard and DeWayne Robertson as a Bronco in 2008. McCree also noted the accomplishments of Randall Cobb in his rookie year with Green Bay and Stevie Johnson's emergence in Buffalo, which he believes can only help the UK program under Joker Phillips.
"We've got guys scattered all over the NFL," McCree said. "We've got guys in front offices like Quentus Cumby in the front office for the San Francisco 49ers. Anthony 'Champ' Kelly, he's in the front office for the Denver Broncos. I'm now an NFL coach. You're starting to see some assets that belong to Kentucky that can really help the football program."