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Monday, April 14, 2003
DT overcomes troubles to flourish on field

By Barry Stanton
Special to ESPN.com

Jimmy Kennedy sat there, his whole future ahead of him, his whole life around him.

Kennedy, aiming to become the first defensive lineman taken in the NFL draft on April 26, had helped his mom throw a surprise party for the high school coach who had saved his soul and given her son the one chance he needed.

Mary Darby had gathered his friends and family to thank Tony DeMatteo, who had made this typically unlikely success story possible, taking a young boy and forcing him to realize his potential.

Jimmy Kennedy
Penn State's Jimmy Kennedy drops Wisconsin quarterback Brooks Bollinger for a loss.
"I didn't want to play ball," Kennedy remembered, back when he was just starting to make his name at Penn State. "My mom's a single parent, and we had lots of problems that I don't really like to talk about. I had to worry about how I was gonna eat, how I could help pay the rent. I didn't want to try out for a team. I wanted to make some money, do what I had to do. But the coach saw me, told me I was so big I had to play."

They held the party two weeks ago in the coach's own house in northern Westchester, one of New York's richest suburbs. That house was about as far as you can get from where Kennedy grew up in Yonkers, on the other end of the county, just 20 miles away.

Back then, Kennedy would stand on the street corner, not doing much of anything, just minutes from the wrong place and the wrong time.

"I'd walk away, and someone would come by and shoot someone," he said. "And I had just been there."

Football saved him. DeMatteo, a local legend with more than 230 victories in a 34-year career, and Juan Aquino, one of his assistants, saw something in the boy besides amazing size and strength.

"He quit the team when he was in ninth grade," DeMatteo said. "And I just didn't know if he would make it. He didn't seem very tough. He came back the next year, though, and had a little taste of success. The day after that season, he was in the weight room, on his own.

"He's a very bright boy, and I think he saw what could happen for him."

But not right away. With his mom going through hard times, his biggest concern was taking care of himself and his two younger brothers.

"I never saw myself going to college," Kennedy said. "I thought I'd be working at Shop Rite or McDonalds, something to make money so I wouldn't have to sell drugs or something."

That changed after his junior year when he helped Roosevelt High School win a state championship and earn a place in USA Today's national rankings.

"That's when I thought I could get a scholarship," he said. "And at least I'd get to go to college."

Big-time schools came after him. He chose Penn State, seeing Happy Valley as an antidote to the concrete jungle.

"I got away from the drug dealers and the guns, and I could focus," he said.

He cracked the starting lineup as a redshirt freshman and stayed there for four years. "The first time we went out there to see him play, we were on line for the game, and we were listening to people talk about him," said Marvin Armistead, a high school teammate who had made a game-saving interception in their state championship victory.

"They had such great things to say. He was playing with Courtney Brown and LaVar Arrington and Brandon Short, and they were talking that he was as good as they were. I guess that's when I really realized how good he could be."

Kennedy realized it, too, and readjusted his goals. He graduated from Penn State last year and could have entered the NFL draft, with a chance to go late in the first round or early in the second. Instead, he decided to use his final year of eligibility.

"I wanted Penn State to be successful," he said. "I wanted to be a winner."

Increasing his draft status was part of the plan, too. Last May, after his graduation, he moved into DeMatteo's house and, together, they worked out four times a day, from 5 a.m. until 8 p.m, for seven weeks. He got in the best physical shape of his life.

Kennedy, at 6-foot-5, had seen his weight balloon as high as 400 pounds, but he cut it down to 315, feeling he would be quicker, without losing any strength.

The results were exactly what he worked toward. He had the the best year of his career, racking up 87 tackles, including 16 for losses, and had 5½ sacks.

He quit the team when he was in ninth grade. And I just didn't know if he would make it. He didn't seem very tough. He came back the next year, though, and had a little taste of success. The day after that season, he was in the weight room, on his own.
Tony DeMatteo, Jimmy Kennedy's high school coach

During their training sessions, his high school coach dangled the Outland Trophy in front of him as motivation, an award he did not win.

"Now I just want him to be the first defensive lineman taken," DeMatteo said. "That would more than make up for it."

Kennedy, who proved he is the kind of two-gap tackle who gives NFL offensive coordinators headaches, visited with the Houston Texans, the Detroit Lions, the New England Patriots, the Arizona Cardinals and the Baltimore Ravens, teams either near the top of the draft or thinking about moving there to get their hands on his talent.

In a draft loaded with defensive linemen, Kennedy says, "Honestly, I think I'm the surest pick out of all of them."

He isn't just talking about Kentucky's Dewayne Robertson, a defensive tackle whose stock has been rising, or Arizona State's Terrell Suggs, who had 24 sacks last year.

He means every player, any position.

Armistead and his old friends will tell you he's still the same kid they've always known, cracking jokes, having fun. But he's different, better, more mature, more confident.

Downstairs in his old coach's house, his friends and family celebrated his coming success. Upstairs in the kitchen, he sat talking quietly about what was next.

He is one of seven top players the league has invited to Madison Square Garden for the draft, where he will finally learn where his future is headed. "It's stressful, in a way," he said. "You just don't know where you're going to live, which team you're going to play for, what your teammates will be like. It's not like college where you get to choose where you're going and who you'll be with.

"But I don't care where I go. Everybody asks. They care more than I do. I just want to play football, to win, to shoot for the Super Bowl. I just came from New England, and they showed me their Super Bowl trophy. That's what I'm playing for."

Jimmy Kennedy knows where he came from. He knows where he wants to be.

Over so many miles of rough road, he's always been able to make the trip.

Barry Stanton is a contributor to ESPN.com