By Patrick Engel
Ricordo McKenzie can outrun opponents on the track and out-design them in Adobe.
His six Chicago State records support the former. A skim of his LinkedIn page not only substantiates the latter, but hints graphic design is a passion. Track and field is listed as an activity a third of the way down his page. McKenzie’s knowledge of multiple Adobe programs, meanwhile, is in the first sentence of his bio. It’s rooted in his affinity for art, which he developed as a child in Montego Bay, Jamaica. That came years before he turned into a competitive runner and Division I athlete.
“I would just draw stuff, draw me and my mom,” said McKenzie, now a sophomore at Chicago State. “So that sparked the interest.”
His track career, though, took off with a seemingly innocuous decision in 2011, when McKenzie was a freshman at Cornwall College (which, despite the name, is an all-boys secondary school in Montego Bay). McKenzie said he chose to run a few races at Cornwall’s fall interschool track and field competition just for fun.
“I actually ran barefooted,” McKenzie said. “And I won everything.”
The fleet-footed, shoeless, then-14-year-old earned a spot on Cornwall’s track team and later a scholarship. Before that eyebrow-raising run, the lanky kid from a nation known for its track and field stars, had no interest in being one.
“I didn’t really like running, to be honest,” McKenzie said. “I actually played cricket and enjoyed soccer.”
McKenzie continued with cricket and also debated in high school, but rode his track acumen to a Division I scholarship. Now, at 21 years old, he has already set more combined indoor and outdoor school records than any runner in team history. He set his sixth school mark on Sunday, running a 10.44 100-meter dash at the Western Athletic Conference outdoor championships in Kansas. And he’s the unofficial face of a now-respectable program that no longer struggles to secure meet invitations.
McKenzie is polite and articulate, earnest without being intimidating. The Nike t-shirt and shorts he wears on a mid-May afternoon, a few days before leaving for Kansas, reveal slender but chiseled arms and legs. He speaks with a slight Jamaican accent as he explains how a meeting at Chicago State track and field head coach Craig Collins’ timeshare on Jamaica’s northern coast led McKenzie to Chicago’s Far South Side.
“Somebody actually referred me to Coach Collins,” McKenzie said. “I started looking into it really deeply. I got his information, got his number and his email, did some searching on the school and reached out to him.”
That “somebody” was Kempes Chambers, a Cornwall alum who ran track at Chicago State in the early 2000s and still owns two school records. He’s now a Chicago police officer, a member of a Cornwall alumni association and stays in contact with the school’s track coach, Sean Rhooms, who coached him in the 1990s.
During one conversation, Rhooms mentioned McKenzie to Chambers. He dished about McKenzie’s fruitful first impression and how six months later, McKenzie had won a gold medal in the 800-meter dash in the under-17 division of the 2012 CARIFTA games, a track and field event for Caribbean countries. Chambers later met McKenzie in 2015 while on trip to Jamaica. He relayed McKenzie’s name to Collins. Chambers saw it as a chance to help both of his schools.
“I can’t just stand by and say, ‘Well, I used to go there,’” Chambers said. “I try to do something to give back and help the school.”
Collins and McKenzie connected in 2015. They communicated for close to a year and eventually decided the next step was a visit. Collins and his family had an upcoming vacation at their timeshare in July 2016. The two agreed to meet there. Collins was willing to bring McKenzie to Chicago State despite an ankle injury that had turned off some other Division I programs, but he had to meet McKenzie first.
McKenzie arrived at the timeshare with his own family. The two parties met for about an hour as McKenzie peppered Collins with questions. He asked about Chicago State’s art program, the housing situation on campus and the size of the track team. He wanted to know everything about Chicago – the weather, the people and the university’s location within it. He had already cleared his secondary school transcript with the NCAA.
“I said, ‘Well, this is enough,’” Collins recalled. “It wasn’t one of those situations where he was a kid who’s just trying to get into school in the States. He really wants to do something while he’s here.”
Less than two months later, McKenzie arrived on campus. He ran his first meet in January of 2017 of and placed eighth in the 300-meter dash. He earned all ‘A’s’ in his classes his first two semesters. And he took an interest in billboards.
“Traveling for track and field, we’re always out and about,” McKenzie said. “I paid attention to billboards and was like, ‘Who did that stuff?’ I did some Google searching and learned graphic design plays a big role in billboard advertising. I’ll probably want to have something that I do be up there some day.”
First, though, he has two more years to take aim at more school records.