Balkman trying to comprehend the loss of his friend McKinley

Friendship between Nuggets forward and Broncos wideout forged in college

Renaldo Balkman felt a sense of pride as his friend Kenny McKinley soaked in the applause from more than 80,000 people at Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia, S.C.

Still recovering from knee surgery, McKinley was on crutches as he stood on the sideline during the first half of South Carolina’s game against SEC rival Georgia on Sept. 11. From his seat in the stands, Balkman felt a familiar chill; the Denver Nuggets forward received a similar in-game introduction in 2007.

“He got a standing ovation,” Balkman said. “It had to be a good feeling because when I did it, it was a great feeling. I was proud of him.”

Balkman and McKinley clicked almost instantly when they first met in college at South Carolina in 2005. Balkman grew up in Florida, while McKinley was a Georgia native, and geography was enough to spark a friendship.

“He was a down-South guy like me,” Balkman said. “Cool, always joyful. I've never seen Kenny mad before. He was always a cool person.”

When McKinley got drafted by the Denver Broncos on April 26, 2009, one of the first phone calls he received was from Balkman, who was thrilled to hear they would have a chance to reunite as pro athletes in the Mile High City.

“I called him immediately,” Balkman said. “I told him I’d try to find him a crib, whatever he wanted. I told him when he gets here, hit me up. Anything he needed, I was here for him. He always used to come over and hang out and chill with me.”

Preparing for his third season with the Nuggets, another phone call this week left Balkman devastated. He was playing a game of Madden on his X-Box when a friend called to ask if he had heard the news about a Broncos player named Kenny who had been found dead.

Had to be a different Kenny, Balkman thought. “Can’t be my homeboy,” he said.

Three days later, Balkman remains in disbelief as he tries to comprehend McKinley’s death. Investigators believe the 23-year-old Broncos wide receiver died Monday of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

“I know he just wanted to play football. That’s all he wanted to do,” Balkman said. “When I heard the news, it hurt because he would come over and we’d have a good vibe going on. It was just shocking. Unbelievable. I must be dreaming. It still is like that. I can’t believe it’s true.”

Despite demanding schedules with their pro teams, Balkman and McKinley managed to hang out a few times a month, especially when mutual friends from South Carolina came to town, and Balkman often left Nuggets tickets for McKinley.

Like most of the people who were close to McKinley, Balkman said his friend never showed any outward signs of someone contemplating suicide. According to an Arapahoe County Sheriff’s report, McKinley was depressed after knee surgery in August and talked about killing himself.

“It’s crazy, man. He never showed signs of nothing (suicidal),” Balkman said. “I still don’t believe it.”

The Broncos kept McKinley’s locker intact and the team will wear No. 11 decals on their helmets in his honor. Balkman might add an ‘11’ tattoo and write McKinley’s number on his shoes.

“I’d put it on my jersey if I could,” he said. “He will be missed. He will be missed.”

Contact Aaron J. Lopez at


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