At age 4, Mackenzie Engram ran around the front yard playing football with her brother Evan, then 6. She would be right on his hip, trying to tackle him. Evan, who had started youth football the year before, put on his fanciest juke moves. And no matter how hard Mackenzie ran and clawed, she could never bring him down.
But she never backed away.
“Their competitiveness at a young age drove each other to learn how to have fun and work hard,” said their father, Derrick Engram, “just by messing around in the back yard, by not wanting to lose the battle.”
Mackenzie has won battles on and off the court for the University of Georgia women’s basketball team, which opened its season Sunday with a 95-56 win over Wofford. Now a senior starting forward, Engram looks to lead the team back to the NCAA tournament.
Evan went on to play football at Ole Miss and was an NFL first round pick. He is averaging 49 receiving yards per game as a rookie tight end for the New York Giants this season.
Whether it was playing football in the backyard or racing to finish their chores the fastest, the siblings were always competing while growing up in Powder Springs, Ga.
“He made her better,” said their mother Michelle Zelina. “He made her work hard, and that helped her a lot.”
Engram texts her brother before every UGA game, and they talk frequently.
“She’ll send me some funny snaps,” Evanher brother said. “We are really good at keeping up with each other, supporting each other, and checking on each other.”
Said Mackenzie, “He is for sure my best friend, and he really pushed me to become the player I am today.”
Basketball was not always her forte. Engram played all sorts of sports as a kid: softball, swimming, soccer and cheerleading at her brother’s youth football games. Some days after practice Engram would come home and not know a cheer. She would recruit her mother and father to help her perfect the steps.
“You better believe that next practice, she was on point,” her father said.
The turning point in Engram’s basketball career came the summer before eighth grade when she and her AAU team impressed at a college exposure tournament at the University of North Carolina.
A year younger than her teammates and several years younger than her opponents, Engram was the last to get in the game.
Before the frustrated Engram was subbed in, her father pulled her aside.
“When they put you in, make them keep you in,” he told her.
By the end of the game, more than 20 coaches had their eyes glued to the court, watching a middle-schooler match blow for blow with players going into their junior and senior years.
Several college coaches approached AAU director Bruce Price to ask how old Engram was. They were shocked to discover she was the youngest player on the court, Price said.
Price recalled another AAU game in which Engram had four fingers taped together after jamming them while going for deflections and rebounds. That was not enough to keep her off the court.
“There’s something in her, that competitive spirit, the spirit that says, ‘I’m going to show you I am one of the best out here,’” Price said.
The next summer, when Engram was only 14, she would receive her first scholarship offer from her mother’s alma mater, Ohio State.
As with other offers to come, her father responded with: “It’s just an offer, congratulations, but what’s next?”
After that first offer from the team she had cheered her whole life, Engram realized how far she could go, and her work ethic evolved. She worked in the gym. She worked on the hoop in her driveway. She did everything she could to add to her skill set, with Evan always competing against her and never giving an inch.
After one long weekend tournament, Engram and her father did not get home until late Sunday night. Her team had the next couple days off, but Engram begged her father to take her to practice Monday with the older girls who would be in the gym.
“From that moment there, she had to get a better jump shot. She worked on that. She had to learn how to handle the ball better. She worked on that. Each summer she got better at something,” her father said.
She chose UGA over Ohio State, Louisville and several other top programs.
After earning a starting position her sophomore year in 2015, Engram’s season was cut short by a heart condition that kept her out the final 15 games.
“As a person, it made her stronger,” her mother said. “It made her realize not to take her God-given talent for granted because there could have been a time when she would never play basketball again.”
Engram was able to return to the court for the first game of the 2016-17 season and lead a young Bulldogs squad to a winning record in Joni Taylor’s second year ashead coach. She averaged 11.3 points and six rebounds per game, scoring in double digits in 17 games.
Whether she’s playing backyard football against her brother or in the SEC tournament against South Carolina, Engram will continue to compete.
“You may get her once,” her father said, “but if you get her again, you’re definitely going to be in a war.”
The Grady Sports Bureau is part of the sports media program at the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication.