By SCOOTER HOBBS | Special to the LSWA
Best he can remember it was along about his sophomore year at LSU.
Maybe it was after that “incident” against Mississippi State.
But it was sometime that season that Eddie Kennison started thinking that, hey, maybe this whole football thing he’d been doing for grins and giggles since he was a little kid might amount to something.
It did, well enough to earn him a spot in the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame’s Class of 2017 set for induction June 24 in Natchitoches.
Many others had an inkling far sooner — and it was surely the only time in his life that Kennison was ever “slow” to come around on anything.
Way before his career epiphany, most of the warning signs of a looming football career were already there to see, and had been for a while.
Most of them involved speed — the kind of speed that can turn you into one of the SEC’s most feared receivers and kick returners and a six-time track All-American, followed by an illustrious 13-year NFL career.
You could even include a harmless sideshow that would one day earn him the title of the “NFL’s Fastest Man.”
Or his charitable foundation — Quickstart.
Oh, sure, Kennison had noticed he was faster than the other kids growing up in Lake Charles, but didn’t think much of it. Just neighborhood pickup silliness, kids running around having fun. One faster than the others.
When the family moved to Houston for a couple of years, he was introduced to organized football with pads and coaches and whatnot, but still didn’t give it much thought.
When the Kennisons moved back to Lake Charles for his sophomore year, at Washington-Marion High School, maybe he still didn’t realize he was anything special. But the Charging Indians’ coaches, most notably the late Robert Lavergne, the head coach, and assistant Brent Washington, surely did.
“And it didn’t take long,” Washington recalled. “We just knew we had to figure out how to get him the football. That would be a pretty good offense right there.”
You want the definition of man playing against boys? During one span of his senior season at Washington-Marion, Kennison scored on the first play of three straight games.
He was also one of the state’s top sprinters in track, and recruiters liked the sure hands that made it clear he was a football player dabbling in the short-pants sport, not the dicey vice versa.
By the end of his junior year, the recruiting letters were coming in, 10-20 per day. Kennison didn’t know what to make of it.
By his senior year, when he was named to the prestigious Parade All-American team and ranked by many as nation’s No. 1 high school receiver, the rate had doubled.
But college? What was that?
“There was really no one in my family that even talked about college,” Kennison remembered. “It was never a top priority, football was just something to do.”
Lavergne and Washington sat him down several times.
“Basically they said this is a life changer. You need to do things in this manner to get yourself ready to go to college. This is a life you can have for yourself.
“Even when they were giving me the message, I don’t know that I really got it. I’d never heard it before.”
He heard pleas from just about every major football power, with the recruiting battle royale coming down to Florida State, with iconic coach Bobby Bowden, against LSU and Curley Hallman.
“Curley was just real,” Kennison said of his decision to become a Tiger. “An honest guy. You always knew where you stood. I still talk to him occasionally.”
Despite the badgering from his high school coaches, Kennison didn’t immediately qualify academically.
But after sitting a year getting his grades right — “It only made me want it badder” — he quickly became an integral part of the Tigers’ offense, and just as feared as a kick returner.
“It’s hard to pick out a highlight,” he said. “But playing in Tiger Stadium on Saturday night, there’s nothing like that.”
Anyone who was in Tiger Stadium on Sept. 10, 1994, wouldn’t have much trouble picking out his top moment.
That night against Mississippi State Kennison turned in his signature play at LSU, one that then-Bulldog coach Jackie Sherrill is positive to this day had to be illegal or impossible or vodoo-magic or … or something. Maybe trick photography.
But as long as there are record books at LSU and the NCAA, he’s probably destined to be remembered for the “punt return.”
Kennison still has no idea what made him chase down the line-drive punt, which first bounced at the 4-yard line, down to near-about the goal line.
“Football says you don’t field it inside the 10…and I knew that,” he recalls. “Instinct, I guess.”
He didn’t just let it bounce into the end zone, either. He complicated matters by slapping at it, losing the handle with a brief bobble and finally getting a grasp on it a half-step on the wrong side of the goal line.
“The one thing I do know now is that God is in control,” Kennison said. “That particular time, He must have said, ‘Pick the ball up and go with it.’ I did something you don’t normally do.”
It wasn’t looking much like God’s plan early on.
Kennison turned around to be greeted by a wild-eyed Bulldog Welcome Wagon, two of whom knocked him five to six yards deep into the end zone.
But they didn’t knock him down, a big mistake it turned out.
“Instinct took over,” Kennison said. “That’s the only explanation I have.”
Somehow he found a sideways escape route and, once the 2-point safety was avoided and he was sprinting down the sidelines, anything shy of an Olympic 4X100 relay was wasting its time with pursuit.
It went into the books as a 100-yard punt return, a record that can’t be broken since the NCAA measures anything from inside the end zone as an even 100 yards. It rarely comes up on punt returns anyway.
The next day when the team gathered in the film room to review the game, Kennison recalled that Hallman went into a small rant as the play unfolded on the screen, pointing out everything that was wrong, foolish and dang-near disastrous with what he’d done in breaking one of the game’s golden rules.
Hallman paused the film again as Kennison looked hopelessly trapped back there in the end zone, Bulldogs swarming around from every precinct.
Then Hallman let the film run loose for good.
“You SHOULDN’T do it,” Hallman shouted, suddenly grinning. “But if you do … then THIS is the result you want,” as Kennison was again — Ha, the joke’s on you, Bulldogs — sprinting down the sidelines into history.
These weren’t the glory days of LSU football.
Even coast-to-coast punt returns couldn’t save the Tigers from a sixth consecutive losing season — four under Hallman — and Gerry DiNardo took over as head coach for Kennison’s junior season in 1995.
Kennison didn’t have quite the warm and fuzzy relationship with DiNardo that he’d enjoyed with Hallman.
There were no major problems, Kennison said. “But we would have eventually butted heads if I’d stayed for my senior year.”
He was already mulling over the idea of leaving after that junior season for the NFL. The decision got a lot easier after LSU turned things around in the 1995 season with its first postseason trip since 1988. Kennison lit up the Independence Bowl -for 249 all-purpose yards against Michigan State, including a game-changing 92-yard TD kickoff return.
It got easier still after running a 4.28 40-yard dash for scouts at LSU’s Pro Day, and the St. Louis Rams made him their first-round draft pick in the spring of 1996.
He and head coach Dick Vermeil formed an immediate bond — they still communicate several times a month — and Kennison was the Rams’ rookie of the year and an alternate selection for the Pro Bowl.
Along the way he happened upon one of those rookie symposiums, sponsored by the NFL, lectures that many players see as an excellent opportunity for a nap. It was the usual warnings of players who made millions and still finished their careers dead broke, often leading to bigger trouble.
“I did a little research of my own,” Kennison said. “It wasn’t just football. It’s baseball, basketball, all athletes. I didn’t want to be a negative statistic.”
Suddenly, the guy who was so slow to take to schooling couldn’t get enough of it.
Over the years during the off-seasons he took part in three of the NFL’s MBA programs, one at LSU but also one at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and another at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business.
For fun, there was also a side trip to Dallas, where Emmitt Smith was sponsoring an “NFL’s Fastest Man” competition. Kennison, reliving his days on the LSU track team, edged two other speedsters to win the 60-yard dash in the finals.
“There wasn’t a lot of hoopla about it,” Kennison said. “Social media wasn’t big back then and I wasn’t flashy to talk about it. They kidded me about it more than anything.”
Kennison played three more seasons with the Rams, but his career looked to be waning after three nondescript years, one season each with the Saints, Bears and Broncos.
But then he signed with the Kansas City Chiefs, where Vermeil was now the coach, and resurrected his career — at least 800 yards receiving for five straight seasons, including 1,086 in 2004 and 1,102 in 2005.
But he and his wife, Shimika, got much more than that.
“Kansas City just so happened to be the place where it flourished for us, as much with our personal life as football,” he said. “It was that point when both of us I guess matured. Better husband, better wife, we were better parents (three boys) and understood what life should really be about. Everything clicked.”
Meanwhile Kennison was doing plenty for himself — and even more for others — off the field.
He had never heard of lupus, a chronic autoimmune disease, when Shimika was diagnosed with it in 2003.
But Quickstart – the Eddie Kennison Foundation was soon formed to raise money to learn more about it and fight it.
He was warming up before a Chiefs’ game in New York when on the sidelines he saw Jets owner Woody Johnson, who had had his a foundation fighting the disease since his daughter was diagnosed with it.
Kennison sprinted up to say hello and asked if he could talk to him sometime. Johnson suggested Kennison better return to his warm-ups, but the next week Johnson did make contact.
The football player and the football owner hit it off, eventually merged their foundations and in the last 10 years, he said, have raised over $90 million.
Perhaps it contributed to Shimika now being symptom-free and weaned from her medications.
Meanwhile Kennison formed and sold several businesses, but now is personally involved only in Barrel 87, an online club where he personally deals with wine and beer distributors, getting a jump on new products to get them to his members.
He now calls himself a “Pro Wine Receiver” and personally chooses new spirits for club members to sample once a month.
Usually the wine is delivered by mail order. But those members in the Kansas City area often get personal deliveries from Kennison himself.
Very quickly, no doubt.
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