At 11 years old, Grant McKee showed a rare motivation and attitude — making it no surprise he became an elite firefighter — a friend and former football coach said Tuesday.
"God, he had so much heart when he played for me," former coach Kirk Norton said. "He always had drive, and he was always such an upbeat happy kid. Even when times were rough he was happy."
McKee, 21, was one of 19 firefighters with the Granite Mountain hotshots killed battling a wildfire that's still burning in Yarnell, Ariz.
His cousin Robert Caldwell, 23, was on the hotshot crew with McKee and also died in the blaze.
McKee grew up in Costa Mesa and attended Newport-Mesa schools from second to 11th grade until he transferred out of Newport Harbor High School.
This was his first season with the hotshot crew — firefighters with advanced training called in for the toughest jobs on wildfires — his mother Marcia McKee said.
"He was just talking to me, telling me how safe it is, that it was going to be OK," she said. "And then this had to happen."
A decade ago, McKee played for Norton's Pop Warner Pee Wee football team. He remembered McKee as a hardworking, freckled and always-smiling kid.
After his parents' divorce, McKee lived with his grandparents in Costa Mesa where Norton would pick him up to go to practice, he said.
In two years together on the team, Norton said McKee was like a son.
"This kid had bad cards dealt his way his whole life," Norton said. "He was strong enough to get off that and make a hell of a little career for himself."
Years later, Norton would attend McKee's wrestling matches in high school, occasionally sharing a hug or conversation with the student athlete.
But McKee moved to Arizona his senior year to live with his aunt and avoid the Newport Beach party scene, his mother said.
"It was a wise choice for him to be so young and realize [that]," McKee's mother said of her only child. "I was amazed, I don't know if I would have been able to do that at that age."
Through high school and after his move, Norton slowly lost touch with McKee.
Norton was aware only in passing that McKee had become a firefighter. It wasn't until Tuesday that he heard McKee had been fighting the Arizona blaze.
Norton's son called him to say McKee died Sunday.
"When he told me, I just didn't say anything for 10 seconds," Norton said. "It just shocked me."
Norton hopes to have a hometown remembrance for McKee, although he was unaware of any current plans.
He will forever remember the 11-year-old who cried the year Norton gave him an Xbox for his birthday or cheerily dominated a football game as a pre-teen running back, he said.
"He was really really turning his life round and really doing such a good thing," Norton said. "I'm proud as hell to have known him. He was such a great kid."