Mr. Versatility

Ask Clinton Jones, and he doesn't even hesitate. Sure, he coached Anthony Davis, now a star running back at Wisconsin, at Plainfield High in New Jersey. Doesn't matter.

"Darryl Kennedy is the best player I ever coached," Jones said. "He had a sixth sense, maybe a seventh sense. He was always a step or two ahead."

"I'm like the Incredible Hulk or something," Kennedy said. "I just go out there and play. I'm unstoppable. My mind is focused on that. Every kickoff, I just black out and play like a madman."

Kennedy, as natural an athlete as the Syracuse football team has on its roster, came to SU two seasons ago after attending Nassau Community College where he played fullback. Since, he's been moved to safety, quarterback and back to fullback. This season, Kennedy has thrived on special teams.

"Darryl's a guy that's willing to do anything for the team," SU safety Diamond Ferri said. "Put him at quarterback. Put the guy at offensive guard. If you told him he had to do it, that's what he would do. You see him out there on special teams. He's always setting the tone for the game, smacking people in the mouth."

It was as an option quarterback, though, that Kennedy made a name for himself. He ran for 5,076 yards and 60 touchdowns at Plainfield. Once, in his senior year, Kennedy leapt over eight Farris High defenders at the goal line for a touchdown.

He led Plainfield to an 11-1 record that season, scoring 22 touchdowns, and the community lionized him. Pop Warner players lined up for his autograph after games. The school retired his number in a ceremony the following year. As a baseball player, Kennedy was equally prolific. A shortstop, pitcher, centerfield and catcher, Kennedy drew interest from the Cleveland Indians and New York Mets.

"Kids still say they want to be like Darryl Kennedy," Jones said.

As easy as football came to Kennedy, he struggled at times in the classroom. Teachers sometimes gave Kennedy an easy time because of his athletic exploits, and it caught up with him in the end. Kennedy thought about football so much that he forgot about school

That changed during his junior year at Plainfield. His then-girlfriend, Maleeka Bealler, gave birth to Darryl Jr. They called him D.J. As Kennedy, just 17, held D.J. in his arms, he had an epiphany.

"That's when the turning point happened," Kennedy said. "It got serious. I'm a role model to him. If I can live a better life, my son can have a better life."

Kennedy gradually started to buckle down. As letters poured in from college recruiters from around the country (Michigan State, Penn State, North Carolina State, Pittsburgh and Boston College all vied for his services along with Syracuse) Kennedy realized football could help him get an education and provide a better life for D.J.

Thing is, his immense success had blinded him to that. By his junior year, it was too late. Kennedy didn't qualify academically to play NCAA football.

"If he had," Jones said, "he could have played anywhere in the country."

After his final high school game (a Thanksgiving day game against rival Westfield High) Kennedy enrolled at Nassau Community College in Garden City. At first, Kennedy slacked on his school work. But with his mind on D.J., who lived back in Plainfield with Kennedy's parents, Evelyn and Willie, Kennedy quickly matured.

"I was thinking about my son," Kennedy said. "I wanted my son to get a better life."

With that, he gave himself a better life, too. His grades rose. He desperately wanted to earn his way into Syracuse, whose coaches kept in touch with him while he played at NCC.

His talent remained, of course. In 2001, Kennedy finished second among all junior college non-kickers with 126 points.

Still, he focused more on baseball, since the Indians had told him they would draft Kennedy after he played a season at Nassau. But a deep, left-thigh bruise that he suffered playing football forced him to sit out a year. During the hiatus from baseball, Kennedy said he lost his passion for the sport and decided to focus solely on football.

After all he had been through, Kennedy's maturity grew and he was determined to pursue his goals.

"If he stood in the rain, he wouldn't get wet," Jones said. "The water would hit him and run off. That's how thick his skin is."

That newfound maturity helped Kennedy adjust to Syracuse. When he arrived at SU last year, a logjam of R.J. Anderson, Perry Patterson and Troy Nunes at quarterback meant he would be switched to fullback. At the beginning of spring practice this offseason, coaches transformed him to a safety.

After Nunes graduated and Patterson tore his anterior cruciate ligament during spring practice, Kennedy went back to quarterback. That's what he played in the spring game, and he put on a show running the option.

But when Patterson healed quicker than expected, coaches moved Kennedy back to fullback.

"At this level, not too many kids can do that stuff," Syracuse linebacker and captain Rich Scanlon said. "He's a rare bird."

Though versatile, Kennedy has specialized this season in SU's "hambone" formation, a short-yardage configuration in which two fullbacks line up in front of tailback Walter Reyes. Whether slamming holes (Reyes scored two touchdowns of over 30 yards on the play against Toledo) or running the ball (Kennedy scored his first career touchdown out of the "hambone" formation against Louisville) Kennedy has been doing his job well.

"He blocks hard," SU fullback Greg Hanoian said. "It's a natural position for him. Nobody's here that's like that. They're tough to find."

But wherever Kennedy plays, he's one of SU's hardest hitters. Teammates joke that his head is made of cement because of his vicious special teams tackles.

High praise for a player who avoids long weight-room sessions.

See, Kennedy's too busy focusing on classes. He's found a way to balance his God-given talent with the rest of life. He's on track to graduate this spring. He remains close with Bealler, D.J.'s mother, and is engaged to Crystal Henry, an aspiring lawyer set to graduate from St. John's.

He spends weekends of home games with D.J., who comes from Plainfield with Kennedy's parents to visit Kennedy. Already a first-grader, D.J. reads so well he earns gift certificates to eat at places like Old Country Buffet and Subway. Kennedy said. D.J. also plays flag football, but maybe he's watching Dad too much- sometimes, he tackles opposing ball carriers.

"I was like, 'You gotta wait' " Kennedy said. "He'll be playing tackle next year."

Kennedy's wait is over. He's harnessed his talent, controlled his emotions and found, at last, his true blessing.

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