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Rico Kennedy overcomes the odds to stare the NFL in the eyes

Rico Kennedy the Morgan State linebacker and his family.

By Craig Forrestal

I once heard someone say, “If you want to see a man break, then keep him away from his family.”

Well, that saying or man never met Rico Kennedy.

Kennedy is a man of deep faith, as that was one of the most important guiding principles his parents, Yolonda and Art, preached as he was a child. Another lesson his parents taught him was it takes a village to raise a child and Broward County, Fort Lauderdale to be exact, is the village that raised Kennedy. And that is where his mindset of “Reach One or Teach One” was born. 

And it is through his wife, Destinee, and daughters, Iyanna and Ava, that his faith continues to grow. Kennedy refers to Destinee as his “backbone” and for their family as well. 

Family is important to Kennedy. You can hear the pride in his voice as he speaks of his father, uncles, aunts and countless other family members that have walked the halls of Dillard High School.

“The Kennedy name is a legacy around Dillard High School, and I tried to do my part to make the family proud when it was my turn,” is how Kennedy talks about how athletics and competition are also important to the Kennedy family.

Kennedy, again, credits his father this time for teaching him the importance of studying the game. Kennedy adds, “My dad will tell you the game is 90% mental.”

Studying film would definitely serve Kennedy well early on, as he recalled a two game high school playoff stretch where one week he played Lamar Jackson, now QB for the Baltimore Ravens, and then the next week was Dalvin Cook, Minnesota Vikings RB, and Joseph Yearby, former Miami Hurricanes RB. However, Kennedy had some solid teammates growing up as well including Brian Burns, of the Carolina Panthers, and Randy Ramsey, a member of the Green Bay Packers.

“You learn really quick in South Florida if you can play football or not. The talent down here is endless,” is how Kennedy recalls playing football in his earlier days. 

And when it was time for colleges to come knocking, Kennedy admits he was undersized. Kennedy shares that he might have weighed “180 pounds soaked and wet” and acknowledged his size probably scared most programs. All except for one program. The Army Black Knights came calling with a full-ride offer; which Kennedy promised his family he would earn.

Kennedy made the journey from Fort Lauderdale, FL, to West Point to start his journey as a member of the Army football program. Kennedy enjoyed his time there saying he has a lot of strong relationships from his time at West Point and learned invaluable lessons during his time but he made the difficult decision to transfer.

One of those strong relationships was with fellow Army football player Brandon Jackson. Jackson tragically lost his life in a car accident just a few weeks before Morgan State and Army were set to meet on the field. This would have been the first time the two saw each other after the transfer. Kennedy spoke about the bond he and Jackson shared and how they got each other through the hard times; even sharing that Jackson is the reason he switched his number to 28. Kennedy furthered the sentiment by revealing every time he steps on the field he is out there giving his all because Jackson would have it no other way.

It was during this time once again that Kennedy would have to rely on his faith. After finalizing his transfer to Morgan State it meant that Kennedy and his family would be away from one another. Kennedy added, “It wasn’t easy but I promised Destinee that I would have us all together again. I just needed a little bit of time. Thankfully, God brought things together and I was able to be with my family again. While I was up here we would be on the phone all the time. We fell asleep on the phone with each other every night until they moved up.”

In the midst of adversity, Kennedy propelled his game to the next level, as he finished his career as a three-time All- MEAC performer and finished as a Third Team All-American in 2019 according to the FCS STATS publication. Additionally, Kennedy won the Protect Your Skull Award, which is awarded to the top Division 1 defensive player at an HBCU. Kennedy was also a finalist for the Buck Buchanan Award, which is the FCS Defensive Player of the Year award. Kennedy strung together an impressive 2019 season totaling 105 TKL, 16 TFL, 4.5 Sacks, 2 INT, 1 FR, and 1 FF. However, don’t let that overshadow the fact that he is one of the most dominant defensive players in school history, as he is also the all-time leader, in Morgan State history, with 51 TFL for his career. 

Even with all the accolades and honors, Kennedy still defers credit to his teammates and coaches. Kennedy spoke of the bond he shares with his Defensive Coordinator and LB Coach Antonio James and Head Coach Tyrone Wheatley. Kennedy talks about how he wants to play hard and make the coaches proud because of all the sacrifices they make. 

James, who was recognized on the Top 30 Coaches Under 30 list, made a lasting impression on Kennedy, “He [Coach James] goes so hard for us that you don’t want to disappoint him on the field, but off the field, man. He has taught me, and all of us, so much. It’s more than a game with Coach James. He teaches so much about life. Waking up early. Being prepared. Putting that extra mile in because life is about moving forward.”

Kennedy shared high-praise for Coach Wheatley, especially when it comes to the lessons he learned from him about family, life and being a professional. Kennedy recalled his conversation with Coach Wheatley when he approached him about school pick-up arrangements for his daughter, and Coach Wheatley wanted Kennedy to be able to be involved. Kennedy adds, “Coach Wheatley is a family man. He was cool with it. He supported me and the whole team with whatever we needed.”

Kennedy discussed how Coach Wheatley’s playing career has helped him with preparing for his NFL opportunity, “I’m a student of the game. Every chance I got I asked him questions about the league, how to balance finances and manage your money, how to manage family life and football and so many other things. I feel pro-ready and by talking to Coach Wheatley it allows me to prepare in ways that only he knows about because he played in the league. He has an open-door policy, and I can call him anytime for advice. It was a blessing to have him come in.” 

The role Kennedy took the most pride in while attending Morgan State was the role he played in the locker room for all his teammates but especially the younger players. “I was always that go-to guy for most of my teammates and they would just ask for advice. Some of them just wanted to talk about life. And they know I’m a great listener. Most times people want to talk without being judged. And I gave them that. It was always love with me. I would tell them if they weren’t doing right but it was never coming from a negative place. And they respected me for that and I never judged them. And I always did what I could to make them better. I would take them through my experiences. They see the now, but they don’t know what I went through.” 

As Kennedy prepares for his NFL shot he mentions he will be participating at the Morgan State Pro Day on March 25th. Kennedy also says the new HBCU Combine will be held about ten minutes from where he grew up at the Miami Dolphins Training Facility. “Man, it would be a blessing to be invited [to the HBCU Combine] and workout in my hometown for a chance to live out my NFL dreams, but if not that’s okay. I’m focused on my Pro Day and showing my skills then,” Kennedy stated when asked about his thoughts on the newly announced HBCU Combine. 

Kennedy is prepared for his shot and when called upon he will be ready. “I’m not going to say I’m limited to one position because I am versatile and was used in different ways. I can play on the edge, I’m comfortable in coverage and playing special teams is added value so I would love to show what I can do on those,” is how Kennedy talks about how he sees himself fitting in the NFL. Kennedy goes on to say an NFL team that drafts or signs him is getting someone that is “going to do my job, work hard and go home. There won’t be any off the field things with me. I will come in hard-working; get there early and leave late. I’m a film junkie. I love knowing my opponents. Their tendencies, strengths and weaknesses. I can always get better. There is always room for improvement. I yearn for more. I love the grind.”

There is a lot to like about Rico Kennedy. Whether you’re drawn to him as a football player or person, Kennedy is a special talent that could be an interesting name to keep watch for come later parts of the draft. Kennedy offers a tremendous frame standing 6ft3 and 235 pounds with room to grow. And growth is exactly what his game has done and it will only continue. In 2017, he was 3rd Team All-MEAC, 2018 it was 2nd Team and 2019 was the exclamation point with a 1st Team selection. His arrow is pointing up and when that is mixed with a tenacious drive to succeed, grow, learn and get better every day on and off the field it is hard to not be intrigued. And Rico Kennedy, this is your time to claim your prize!

NFL Draft Diamonds was created to assist the underdogs playing the sport. We call them diamonds in the rough. My name is Damond Talbot, I have worked extremely hard to help hundreds of small school players over the past several years, and will continue my mission. We have several contributors on this site, and if they contribute their name and contact will be in the piece above. You can email me at nfldraftdiamonds@gmail.com

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