When Derek Kennard, Jr. steps onto the practice field at Desert Vista High, he commands respect. He is, indeed, master of the “Dog Pound.”
Kennard, who played defensive line on the Thunder’s 1998 state-championship football team, now is their defensive line coach.
In between, he was a four-year starter at the University of Nevada, earning all-conference honor three times, and a professional player, first with the Indianapolis Colts in the NFL and then with the Ottawa Renegades of the CFL.
“I love football, and I really want to be able to give back to the community,” Kennard said. “This school is really important to me. I learned a lot here, so I want to bring back the pedigree of the school and keep building the character of the guys here.”
Having played on a Desert Vista state-championship team gives him a special connection to the players. He can talk strategically about arm placement when shedding a block, but he’s a motivator as much as anything.
Players quickly turn their heads in his direction after a big play, just to see if Kennard, a member of the Desert Vista Hall of Fame, pumps his fist or gives verbal congratulations. His approval is valued reinforcement that they’re doing things right.
“He can relate to us, and he was in our shoes before, and won a championship here,” Desert Vista sophomore Taron Thomas said. “It makes people really respect what he tells them, and it’s a big deal for people.”
Although Kennard often gives examples from his playing career to teach his players, Thunder coach Dan Hinds said it is rare that Kennard ever utters a “back in my day” story.
“The kids already know what he’s done with our program and in Nevada,” Hinds said. “He doesn’t need to keep talking about it because they already want to listen.”
Kennard refers to the defensive line as the “Dog Pound,” a nickname it had in his playing days. Hinds said it reflects both Kennard’s mentality and the work ethic of the players.
Remembering how important his own coaches were to him in his development as a young man, Kennard said he knows just the type of role model he wants to be, as much off the field as on.
He had similar role models, himself, and he didn’t have to leave the house for them. He is the son of Derek Kennard, Sr., a former NFL lineman and Super Bowl champion with the Dallas Cowboys. His brother is Devon Kennard, an active linebacker for the Detroit Lions.
“Beside my father, my grandfather and my uncles, some of the most influential people I had were some of my football coaches, especially a few of the high school ones,” Kennard said. “I really take pride in it because I know how important they were to me, so it’s a passion to give that back to the kids now.”
Kennard doubles as a Thunder conditioning coach. He also owns Pro Edge Performance Training, an athletic-training facility in Chandler. He said he has students not just from Desert Vista but from all over the East Valley who train with him to become better overall athletes.
“I really am coaching people all the time, even when football’s done,” he said with a smile.
In his second stint with the Thunder, having left while Devon played at Southern California, Kennard is in his ninth season overall as a coach. Through his enjoyment of the game and making a difference in the lives of his players, Kennard just cannot seem to separate himself.
“I think I love it too much,” he said. “I really don’t think I’ll ever give it back again.”