Tabor’s Eli Kennedy earns respect on and off the field

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN MATT INSLEY
Tabor College senior Elijah Kennedy has earned respect.

This fall the Bluejays’ middle linebacker was named to the first-team all-conference defense by every head coach in the KCAC.

His teammates named him a captain and the most inspirational player on the team.

He was uniformly regarded by players, coaches and fans as the emotional leader of the best Tabor football team in the school’s history.

He was a second-team NAIA All-America selection.

But Kennedy’s respect has been earned the hard way, and he needed the help of one very special assistant football coach, and several others in the Tabor community, to manage it.

Kennedy joined the Bluejay program after a highly successful high school career at in Fairview, Okla. During his senior season, the Yellowjackets won the state championship while Kennedy led the entire state in tackles.

Kennedy said he chose Tabor because he wanted an opportunity to play. Unfortunately, the playing time did not come as soon as he would have liked.

“Being the young pup again, it was kind of hard to adjust to at first, especially after we were so successful there,” Kennedy said.

As a freshman, he did not respond well to the adversity.

“I really didn’t have my priorities straight,” he said. “I was upset and angry, but I think I tried to blame other things or other people, when I should have stepped back and taken a look at myself. I wasn’t doing the things that I needed to do in order to play.”

Things were better for Kennedy on the football field during his sophomore year. While he split time with another player at middle linebacker, at least he was playing. He even started a few games.

But off the field, Kennedy’s mixed up priorities started to catch up with him.

After the opening game of that year, he was involved in an altercation that led to a one-game suspension. He was also in danger of being expelled from school as a result of the incident.

“I still didn’t have my stuff straight,” Kennedy said. “I came to Tabor to get an education and play football, and sometimes I think I forgot that, and I did other things to hurt that situation. I wasn’t doing everything possible to achieve the goals I had.”

After several people in the Tabor community went to bat for Kennedy, he was allowed to stay. But the worst of the player’s problems were yet to come.

Those troubles climaxed during May of his sophomore year during a visit to his hometown. A vehicle in which he was riding crashed, and one of his close friends was killed. Kennedy was arrested for public intoxication, putting his future at Tabor in jeopardy once again.

“That was basically the last straw,” he said. “I knew that if things were going to be right, then something had to change.

“That’s when Coach Gardner kind of pulled me out.”

Coach Gardner is Tabor defensive coordinator Mike Gardner. Along with some help from Judy Hiebert, who was then the vice president for student development at Tabor, Gardner decided a possible solution might be to have the troubled athlete stay at his house during the upcoming summer.

“(Judy and I) saw the same things in that kid,” Gardner said. “We saw that he needed help and that if he got that help he would be able to do things well for himself. But he needed something to latch onto.”

Gardner said without even meaning to, the offer just fell out of his mouth.

“It was God talking to me,” he said. “I know it was.

“It was a strong feeling that I had, and all of a sudden I told Judy and Coach McCarty that I would keep him for the summer. I didn’t even tell my wife that we were going to have a guy living in our house.”

Kennedy contemplated the invitation, and decided it was time to take his life goals seriously.

“I knew that if I was going to be a successful football player and earn my degree like I wanted to, something had to change,” he said.

So Kennedy moved into the guest bedroom of Gardner’s house, a room that he shared with Gardner’s newborn son, Brooks.

From the very beginning, the rules were simple.

Kennedy would help around the house when he could, and there would be no drinking or staying out late. If he was going to be home late, Kennedy would call, and then Gardner and his wife would wait up for him. Gardner said he treated him like he would his own child.

“It shocked him that I told him that he could stay at my house,” Gardner said. “I didn’t do it because I wanted approval from people in the community or because I wanted him to watch film with me until all hours of the night. I did it because he genuinely needed help.”

Kennedy’s summer schedule consisted of a full-time maintenance job at Tabor, three hours of alcohol rehab in Wichita three times a week, two more group sessions per week in Hillsboro and several hours of football workouts per day.

And of course, baby-sitting.

“My kids love him,” Gardner said. “He was great with them. He would baby-sit the kids when (Julie and I) wanted to go out on a date. He was a great example for my kids.”

The linebacker’s days were so full that Gardner rarely saw him, except late at night when Kennedy would get back from lifting. The pair spent hours watching ESPN and talking, developing a relationship that would turn out to be unique.

“That’s where we bonded,” Gardner said. “That’s what I’m going to miss the most. We would sit down and watch baseball games and just talk. There is a bond between us that is beyond player-coach, and yet I’m not just his buddy.”

According to Kennedy, his coach’s effort opened the door to a different kind of relationship.

“When he went out on a limb for me, he didn’t have to do that,” Kennedy said. “He could have given up on me, but he didn’t. I could never repay him for that. He always just told me he believed in me, and that meant the world to me.

“I’ve got more respect for the guy than you can ever imagine.”

Little by little, Gardner said he began to see Kennedy grow into a different person over the summer.

“To be honest with you, I saw a complete change in his personality and attitude,” he said. “I saw a complete change in his body, too, because he got all the impurities out of it.”

By the time school was to start, Kennedy had taken on large responsibilities at work, attended his rehab faithfully and gotten in shape for the upcoming season. Gardner maintains that his new housemate did every sprint and every repetition in his summer workout.

Suddenly, No. 51 also had a new persona in the locker room and on the football field. Instead of blaming others, Kennedy took responsibility. Instead of being negative, he praised his teammates’ efforts. He was vocal, passionate and emotional. He was a leader.

“You have to be respected to be a leader,” Gardner said. “To get respect you have to respect yourself. His junior year, players started to respect him as a person, and not just as a guy in pads.”

He was the undisputed leader of both the 2002 and 2003 teams, both on and off the field. Always outspoken in the locker room, he was known for preceding McCarty with pre-pregame speeches before almost every game. He also broke the team’s huddles during pre-game stretches and called the plays in the defensive huddle.

His success as a leader on the squad was paralleled by his success as a defender on the field. As a junior, Kennedy was named a starter and was recognized by the conference coaches as a second-team all-KCAC selection. As a senior, he was a unanimous choice for the first team.

According to Kennedy, who also stayed with Gardner during the summer of 2003, he was just fortunate to be at Tabor, where he has proven that turnarounds are possible.

“If trouble or something like this is going to happen to you, there’s no other environment that you would rather be in,” he said. “I didn’t realize there were so many people around here that cared about me. And that meant a lot to me.”

He named Hiebert and then-school counselor Daryle Baltzer, along with McCarty and Gardner, as just a few in the Tabor community that helped him along the way.

“There’s nobody that I’ve seen care about people like this and go to bat for someone like this. That’s what it’s all about, helping each other out, and it blew me away, the way they came through. None of them had to do that.”

Now that his football career is over, Kennedy will continue to work toward his degree in physical education. Football, however, will not be easy for him to leave behind.

He said the game was important to his entire family, and his father in particular. They loved to watch him play, and rarely missed a game. He also said enjoyed the game because it allowed him to get out his frustrations without getting in trouble for it.

According to Kennedy, the best part of the game is a simple immutable truth: “I believe that if you go out there and play with your heart, there’s nothing that can stop you.”

It’s that attitude, Gardner said, that made Kennedy’s renaissance in college possible. And, he said, it’s what has earned Eli Kennedy the respect he’s gotten as a player, and most importantly, as a person.

“He refuses to give up and he refuses to accept defeat,” he said. “He could have quit. He could have quit on himself and he could have quit on life, but he chose not to.

“He is the ultimate competitor.”

This article first appeared in the Tabor College View. Matt Insley is a senior at Tabor.