Devon Kennard doesn’t remember much before the age of five, but there is one thing he will never forget: the 1996 Super Bowl between the Dallas Cowboys and the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Super Bowl XXX took place right in Kennard’s hometown of Phoenix, Ariz., and he was in attendance watching his father, Derek Kennard, compete on the largest platform of them all. Dallas would go on to beat the Steelers, and the Kennards and thousands of other Cowboys erupted into raucous cheers. Then, Derek grabbed his then-four-year-old son and placed him on his shoulders. A young Devon got swept up in the moment, threw his hands in the air and yelled, “We won! We won!”
“That’s probably the earliest memory I have,” Kennard said, reflecting. “I remember after that always saying that I wanted to win a Super Bowl one day.”
In just over under 70 days, Kennard will join the hundreds of other NFL hopefuls waiting for their phones to ring as their childhood dreams come to fruition.
Kennard has been playing football since elementary school, from flag football in the very early years to pop warner once he outgrew that. He cut his teeth as a fullback and defensive end and always played with the older kids because of his size. Even as a young child, Kennard knew what he wanted to do, and how he wanted to get there.
“Back home, there’s an article of me in 7th grade when I was the student athlete of the week. In that article it asked me what my goal was, and I said I wanted to go to USC and make it to the NFL.”
That was nearly 10 years ago, and so far Kennard has done exactly what he wanted to do. Though he took the path he wanted, it had its fair share of bumps and hindrances along the way.
Kennard tore his ACL and missed the majority of his senior football season in high school. Then after his freshman year at USC, he had to have surgery on his thumb. After his sophomore year? He had surgery to repair a torn labrum in his hip that he played through for the latter part of 2010. He made it through his junior year injury-free, but a torn pectoral muscle during his senior season saw him redshirt and spend another year in Troy.
And we haven’t even talked about the coaching and position changes yet.
“I think I learned mostly that it’s not what happens to you, but how you handle it,” Kennard said of experiencing so many setbacks. “I faced a lot of adversity throughout my college experience with injuries, position changes and coaching changes but I feel like I grew stronger and smarter and became a better person.”
Kennard came to USC a true defensive end and had very clear goals for himself. He expected to play that position or be used like Clay Matthews or Brian Cushing under Pete Carroll in his defense.
“My freshmen year went like that and I was going to build off that experience for the future. But from that moment on things began to change, so I had to adapt,” he said.
And adapt he did: Kennard moved from defensive end to middle linebacker, back to defensive end and then outside linebacker, all over the course of his USC career. He and the other class of 2009 athletes bore the brunt of USC’s sanctions and the myriad of problems that came with them.
“It was definitely frustrating,” Kennard said. “Especially that year we went 10-2 and we would’ve been in a BCS game but the NCAA took that from us. But that something that as a player and a team we moved on from. It goes back to controlling what you could control. It was unfortunate but we had to make the most of the opportunities given.”
In 2011, then-head coach Lane Kiffin and the Trojans did just that. For Kennard, that season meant his senior year was destined for greatness, both for him as player and as a member of the team.
As fate would have it, that was the exact opposite of how it played out.
Kennard would miss the entire 2013 season due to injury, and the Trojans would post one of their worst records in recent memory.
“It was difficult. When it [the injury] first happened, I was devastated. It was after the 10-2 year and we were ranked number one and expected to do big things,” he recalled. “So it was devastating, but I had to move on.”
Kennard tried to come back that same year, but ultimately realized it would be in his best interest to redshirt and stay another year.
“Looking back it was a great choice because I got to play in Clancy Pendergast’s 3-4 and be a part of that experience,” he said.
As a redshirt senior, Kennard experienced probably the most unstable year of all: he saw his head coach get fired, the interim head coach resign before the postseason and the offensive coordinator take over, all in one season.
While USC trudged through a season mired in off-the-field issues, the Trojans made the best of a bad situation, especially defensively. It thrived under Clancy Pendergast’s system, especially Kennard, who led the team in sacks (nine) and overall had his best season in 2013.
"This defense allowed me to do more. It allowed me to stand up and see more into the situation. It required more of me, so I got to show my talents and more of what I could do,” he said. “I can drop back in coverage, rush the passer and get some sacks. I definitely think outside linebacker is the best position for me.”
For Kennard, one of the highlights of his senior year was when the Trojans upset then-ranked No. 4 Stanford in front of a sold-out home crowd. The fans stormed the field, and Kennard says it’s a moment he will never forget.
"Man, it was a very relieving moment,” he said. “We hadn’t beat them since I had been at ‘SC, so to get that win at home and to see the fans reaction was huge for us.”
It wasn’t the college career that he envisioned for himself, but it’s one he wouldn’t trade for the world, regardless. Even through it all—the coaching changes, the sanctions, the injuries—Kennard said that if he could go back to his senior year of high school to when he was being recruiting, he would still make the same decision to go to USC and be apart of the Trojan family.
To him, that’s what “Fighting On” is all about.
“No question. I feel like there’s no better place. Myself and the guys who were there with me exemplify what it meant to be a Trojan,” he said. “Through those experiences it’s prepared me for this moment.”
That moment he’s referring to, of course, is the impending NFL draft. Kennard anxiously awaits the opportunity to show what he can do at the next level, and to make an impact for whatever team drafts him.
“This is a childhood dream, its something I’ve wanted to do for as long as I can remember. I’m driven and I want get to a team and help my team win. I want to win a Super Bowl. I want to earn my team and my coaches’ respect by the way I play on a day-to-day basis,” he said.
Four-year old Kennard had the dream, one of grandeur and success that only childhood can foster. But 23-year-old Kennard has turned that dream into a reality, one that culminates in early May.
“I’ve never felt more ready for this opportunity and the rest of my life,” he said.
All quotes were obtained firsthand, unless otherwise stated.
Follow Trenise on Twitter: @TreniseFerreira