Q&A: Ronald McKinnon Made It From Rural Alabama to the NFL. Now He Wants To See His Flooded Hometown Get Help

COFFEE COUNTY, Ala.—Ronald McKinnon thinks six years is long enough. 

Residents of the Shiloh community, the historically Black neighborhood where McKinnon grew up, have faced repeated flooding for six years now—the result of an expanded highway state workers elevated above nearby homes, they have said. 

McKinnon grew up in Shiloh, attending nearby Elba High School before going on to attend the University of North Alabama, where he’d become one of the most decorated college football athletes in history. There, McKinnon would win three Division II National Championships, earning the Harlon Hill Trophy—the Division II equivalent of the Heisman—before moving on to the NFL. Once in the league, McKinnon played linebacker for the Cardinals from 1996 to 2004, followed by one additional season playing for the Saints. 

Last week, McKinnon spoke with Inside Climate News in Birmingham about his hometown and the flooding issues its residents, including his family, continue to face.

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In the days after this interview was conducted, the U.S. Department of Transportation confirmed that Secretary Pete Buttigieg will visit Shiloh at the invitation of community members on April 3. 

This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

Tell me a little bit about growing up in Shiloh. 

It’s country. Just a peaceful community, you know? I actually went to Elba High School, but I lived in the Shiloh community. We had cousins that stayed maybe three houses down from me. They had five boys and one girl. We had four boys and two girls. You’d have basketball games in the neighborhood. 

People from down the road would challenge the people at the other end. It was fun always finding something to get into. If you didn’t play basketball or other sports, you’d go hunting, or you’d go fishing. You could always find something to get into in Shiloh. 

How would you describe the economic situation you grew up in?

Back then, when you were a kid, things like that really didn’t matter. I remember my mom would pick peas, and we’d hunt for food. She’d freeze the peas for the winter and things like that. I wouldn’t call it middle class, but we were getting by.

Ronald McKinnon grew up in Shiloh before attending the University of North Alabama, where he’d become one of the most decorated college football athletes in history. Credit: Courtesy of the University of North Alabama

Ronald McKinnon grew up in Shiloh before attending the University of North Alabama, where he’d become one of the most decorated college football athletes in history. Credit: Courtesy of the University of North Alabama

Were there flooding issues in Shiloh when you were growing up?

No. There were none.

So around six years ago the highway gets expanded, and according to residents, that’s when the flooding begins. What has been your experience with it? 

I’ve been there many times when it’s raining, and I’m looking at all this water that’s coming from behind my daddy’s house. It looked like a river. It had never happened before—flooding at the back of the house and flooding at the side. It’s overwhelming for all that water to be flooding everything like that. 

What family do you still have in Shiloh, and what are the impacts for them?

My sister. My dad has a house down there. I have cousins. I have a nephew in Shiloh. Their yards flood. It comes from the back all the way to the front. The first time I saw it, I was like “Oh my God.” It was just water coming everywhere. 

He has a storage room in the back. You can see where water gets in the storage room maybe a foot high. They can’t even use it anymore. 

Do you see race playing a role in what’s happening in Shiloh?

Everybody makes mistakes. Maybe the grade was a little bit off on the highway. But I hope race didn’t have anything to do with it. 

It’s now been years since the flooding happened and little has been done to actually help address the problem. Are you frustrated with the speed of progress toward a solution? 

Yes. That’s a problem. If it was these government folks’ houses, how fast would it get fixed? Just be fair. Be fair and be consistent about what you’re going to do and do it in a timely manner. People’s houses are getting messed up. 

If there’s any way possible, they need to go on and get it solved. They seemed to be able to expand the highway when they wanted to. So now let’s do something about the water. 

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I’ve interviewed many residents who fear they may not be able to stay in Shiloh if the flooding issues aren’t adequately addressed soon. Is that something your family has talked about?

They talk about it all the time, but some people love to live in the country. That’s where they’re from. They love it being peaceful. They’d just like to see something done in Shiloh, so that they can stay, in a timely manner. 

How often do you get to go back down to Shiloh?

Actually, I’m supposed to go down tomorrow. 

Great. I hope you have a good trip. Thank you for your time. 

No problem. 

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