By Stacy M. Brown, NNPA Senior National Correspondent
When the NFL canceled a national combine in 2020 for athletes from historically black colleges and universities, former Morgan State standout linebacker Rico Kennedy figured he’d never get another shot.
One year later, with the NFL Draft taking place, Eastbay teamed up with the HBCU Combine to help Kennedy and other prospects who may otherwise have never gotten an opportunity to realize their pro football dreams.
“I feel great. Blessed that I got a second opportunity in being able to go to Morgan State and now the third opportunity because of Eastbay,” Kennedy exclaimed as he prepared for the combine at the University of Alabama-Birmingham.
The combines took place on April 30, and May 1 as the NFL Draft took place.
The NFL canceled last year’s combines because of the pandemic.
“Things have come full circle, and the best word that I can use is blessed,” Kennedy continued.
Eastbay, which supplies athletic footwear, apparel, and sports equipment, surprised Kennedy, Jalen Steward (the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff), Deondre Francois (Florida State University), and Elijah Bell (North Carolina A&T) by producing a promotional video of the HBCU players.
The company filmed their reactions and made donations to their respective schools.
Kennedy, who attended a Ray Lewis-run camp as a high school star in 2013, earned a degree in construction management. He married his sweetheart Destinee, and the couple is expecting their third child in September.
“I was still training and working out to make sure that I was ready for that call,” Kennedy stated. “Once the HBCU Combine came around, I started to get butterflies.
“When I got the call, I thought people had forgotten about me and that I was done. I was moving along with my life, but I credit my wife and my family because they implored me never to give up. “This is an opportunity of a lifetime, and it can change your life.”
According to the sports website “The Undefeated,” the idea of reviving the combine came from Charles “Yogi” Jones, Bethune-Cookman’s assistant head coach and Payne’s cousin, as well as his former client when Payne was a player agent, and Jones was still playing.
“Jones had seen up close how the pandemic had derailed the hopes of HBCU players,” the website reported.
“Just one HBCU player, Tennessee State tackle Lachavious Simmons, was drafted in 2020 (in the seventh round by the Chicago Bears), and only a handful of others managed to make an NFL roster or practice squad during the season.”
The Undefeated noted three of the four NCAA HBCU conferences (the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association, and the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference) canceled football.
“The fourth, the Southwestern Athletic Conference, had its defending champion Alcorn State opt-out after Bethune-Cookman was one of the first programs anywhere in the country to abandon the season,” the website editors wrote.
Just two of the 323 players invited to participate in this year’s version of the main combine are from HBCUs: cornerback Bryan Mills of North Carolina Central (who chose to opt-out even before the school canceled the season) and guard David Moore of Grambling. Last year, there was just one out of 337 at the full, pre-pandemic combine in Indianapolis.
“Jones told Payne that he didn’t want two entire classes of HBCU players to get erased in this way,” reported the website.
“Payne didn’t hesitate, in the spirit of a similarly bold move with an HBCU athlete from his days as a baseball executive: drafting Rickie Weeks out of Southern second overall in the 2003 amateur draft. Weeks became an All-Star and played in the majors for 14 years.”
Kennedy said he plans to make the most of the opportunity. He said his wife, Destinee, and daughters Ayanna and Ava (“The Boss”), provide all the motivation necessary to succeed.
“I’m a husband, a father, and brother, a son, first. But being able to go out there and get an opportunity to shine with all my HBCU brothers and to tell my story is amazing,” Kennedy exclaimed. “Who knows,” he remarked when asked what it might feel like if the hometown Baltimore Ravens drafted him.
“That would be great because I love Baltimore, I love the community. I just want an opportunity, and any team that takes a chance on me will get all of me, a versatile player on and off the field. I’m eager to learn, I’m optimistic, and wherever I land, I’m ready to make an impact.”