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HBCU Football

Linebacker Rico Kennedy found a home at Morgan State

Transfer from West Point is on the watchlist for Black College Player of the Year

Players who transfer from FBS schools to historically black college or university (HBCU) football programs usually come with a lot of hype, especially when they come from a Power 5 school. Sometimes that hype doesn’t translate to the field and that high-level transfer becomes just another player.

Rico Kennedy has been on both sides of that equation, but he is now a player to watch.

Coming out of Dillard High School in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, as a 6-foot-2, 200-pound linebacker, Kennedy had some looks from a couple of schools. But the U.S. Military Academy was the only Division I school to make him an offer, and to Kennedy the decision was a no-brainer.

“I just wanted to do the best thing for my family. And at that time, saving a lot of money, getting a full ride and being blessed to do that, it was the only option I had,” said Kennedy, who is now 6 feet, 3 inches and 215 pounds.

West Point, though, is not like other Division I schools. Every student works toward a commission in the Army, and for Kennedy, that took some getting used to.

“It was a big culture shock to me,” said Kennedy. “It gave me new perspective.”

Even with that new perspective, Kennedy would stay at West Point for only one season before returning home to resolve personal matters. He didn’t reveal what they were, but he did say his faith helped him through it.

His break from football was short-lived, as Morgan State’s then-defensive coordinator, Chris Fangoa, offered Kennedy a chance to play for the Bears. This was Fangoa’s second shot at the linebacker. He had tried recruiting Kennedy out of high school when he coached for Division II Benedict College.

Kennedy, now 22 and a redshirt junior, ultimately accepted the offer from Morgan but had trouble getting back on the field because he had upperclassmen playing ahead of him. After transferring to Morgan in 2015, Kennedy played just one game his first year and was on the scout team in 2016.

In 2016, Kennedy also was dealing with the death of his close friend and former Army teammate Brandon Jackson. Jackson was killed in a car accident and it hit Kennedy hard, especially because Army and Morgan were scheduled to play each other that season. To honor his fallen friend, Kennedy changed his number from 46 to 28, the same number Jackson wore at Army.

“It’s very exciting to see Rico play. He has great speed, great size, and he’s very athletic,” said defensive captain Damare’ Whitaker.

“Twenty-eight is everything you know. I just try to carry on his legacy, and that’s why I’m wearing the 28 as long as I play this great game of football,” said Kennedy.

Kennedy’s faith and deep spirituality guided him to take the adversity he was facing on and off the field and turn it into fuel to become better at his game, and it didn’t take long for people to notice.

“He understands and appreciates the opportunities that he’s getting, and he does not take those for granted,” said Ernest Jones, who was Kennedy’s defensive coordinator last year before being named interim head coach this season.

Coming into the 2017 season, teammates playfully called Kennedy a scout team All-American. But Kennedy wanted to make sure he’d never be put on a scout team again.

“It was just me finding myself and just thinking what can I do to help the team more, where can I take my game to the next level to just help the team,” said Kennedy, who is on the 2018 watchlist for the Black College Football Player of the Year Award.

Kennedy had a breakout season last year, leading his defense with 70 tackles and four forced fumbles, and he was third in the FCS in tackles for loss with 19.5, which really caught the attention of his coach. So far this season, he leads the team with tackles for loss with six, 34 total tackles (18 solo, 16 assists) and 2.5 sacks through six games.

“He’s a tackling machine behind the line of scrimmage,” said Jones.

Having a player who can wreak havoc in the backfield is important, said defensive captain Damare’ Whitaker, and he could tell what Kennedy was doing was special.

“It’s very exciting to see Rico play. He has great speed, great size, and he’s very athletic,” said Whitaker. “We have a great chemistry together, just knowing you can trust your brother and knowing that nothing will get outside of him, even in passing [plays], whether it’s zone or man coverage.”

As great as his stats are, Kennedy leaves a bigger impression with people off the field with his maturity. He says that comes from a mixture of his upbringing, his time at Army and, most importantly, his faith.

“I live every day with my faith. It’s just what I do,” said Kennedy. “I just try to touch as many lives as I can playing this game, and even when I’m off the field I tell the guys all the time if they need me for anything, all they got to do is call and ask.”

Along with his maturity, he’s shown leadership by the example he sets for his teammates.

“He’s what we call our RKG, or ‘right kinda guy,’ ” said Whitaker. “He does everything right off the field, on the field, and he makes sure his brothers are always in good hands.”

With two years of eligibility left, Kennedy still has work to do. But if he can replicate the numbers he had last season, he might just have a chance to make it to the next level.

Asked about his chances of reaching the NFL, Kennedy said he’s focused on how he can help his current team.

“You know that’s every kid’s dream, but I just want to make an impact while I’m here at Morgan,” said Kennedy. “I love it here, man. It took me in when I had nowhere else to go, so I want to give back as much as I can to this school. And hopefully if I’m blessed enough to get that opportunity, I’ll definitely look into it with my family.”

Isaiah George is a senior multimedia journalism major from Temple Hills, Maryland. He's a reporter for BearTV at Morgan and is a fan of all the major Washington, D.C., sports teams.