Twelve years ago, Mackenzy Bernadeau entered Waltham High School as a big kid with unlimited potential on the football field.
Four years later, after graduating from WHS as the Waltham News Tribune Player of the Year, Bernadeau stayed in the city at Bentley University where he became a four-year starter on the offensive line for the Division II Falcons.
Four years after that, Bernadeau was taken with the second-to-last pick in the draft by the Carolina Panthers, and became a starter at guard in his second season in Charlotte.
Now four years after that, Bernadeau enters the next phase of his NFL career as the free agent agreed on Wednesday to a four-year contract with the Dallas Cowboys.
"It was definitely exciting," Bernadeau said in a phone interview about being a free agent for the first time in his career. "It was a little nerve-wracking not knowing whether I was going to be in Carolina, or where I was going to be, the next couple of years. But I'm excited with the way it turned out."
Bernadeau said he received a phone call from the Cowboys expressing their interest in him. He flew down there, met with the coaching staff and owner Jerry Jones, then stayed over in Dallas.
The Panthers took him with the second-to-last pick of the 2008 draft and he made the squad that finished 12-4 his first year. While his playing time increased – as he switched back to his old No. 73 and showed the versatility to fill in at guard and even center – in his second year, Carolina's fortunes were not as good as they dropped to 8-8 his second year and 2-14 his third.
While things looked up with young quarterback Cam Newton at the helm this past season, Bernadeau struggled with injuries and entered his first year of free agency with some uncertainty.
"It was a tough couple of years," he said. "Injuries really held me back."
Still, he did enough in Carolina to draw immediate interest from perhaps the NFL's signature franchise.
"Everybody knows this is America's team," he said. "That's not why I chose to come here. But it is a great team that is capable of winning and where I can play right away. It would be great to win a Super Bowl with America's team."
Bernadeau said he plans to travel to Dallas as soon as possible to find a home and get familiar with his new city. But first he intends to return to Waltham early next week to meet with the current Hawks and talk about his journey from the locker room on Lexington Street to the biggest stage in the NFL.
"I've been blessed," he said. "I want to thank everyone at Waltham High School and Bentley that helped me get to this point of my life and my career."
"I went back and forth a little bit with my agent," he said. "Then in the afternoon I decided it was a great organization, a great place, and Mr. Jones was a great person to talk with. I decided this was the place I wanted to be."
Bernadeau said he talked with his mother and grandmother before making his decision, and said it came down to his opportunity for playing time and the Cowboys' ability to win.
"The Cowboys have the tools to win right away," he said. "To be a part of that, and to have the chance to contribute right away, did it for me. I was able to connect with Mr. Jones, and that was big as well."
Bernadeau was a late bloomer at Waltham High after he admitted he didn't realize his own full potential until late in his high school career. It may have cost him a chance to play for a big Division I school, but in the end it didn't matter as he dominated at left tackle at Division II Bentley and wowed scouts with his power at the Boston College pro day.