Devon Kennard was always known for his accolades on the football field.
A 2009 graduate of Desert Vista, Kennard dominated opposing offenses from the defensive line position. As a junior, he accounted for a state-record 24.5 sacks. He was well on his way to doing the same before tragedy struck against Chandler early in his senior year.
“I just had to stay healthy,” Kennard said. “We had the game won but one of our running backs fumbled the ball, so I was put back in just for ball-security purposes. I ran a sweep and took a helmet to the knee and tore my ACL.
“For me, that was a very pivotal moment in my life because up until that point I really didn’t face a lot of struggles or obstacles. That was the first time I felt like I needed to find a purpose outside of football.”
Before his injury, Kennard was being recruited by nearly every major college football program in the country. It wasn’t uncommon for Kennard to be pulled out of class by the likes of Les Miles and Pete Carroll. But after his ACL tear, some of those schools began separating themselves from Kennard.
But not USC. Carroll, who is now with the Seattle Seahawks, and the Trojans never wavered from their desire to have Kennard join their program. The next fall, Kennard was on USC’s campus to begin his college career.
“At the time, I was going through a tragic time with my injury,” Kennard said. “Some schools said they were still interested, but they didn’t seem as committed. Luckily, USC stayed on board and that’s where I really wanted to go.”
Kennard battled through more injuries and several position changes throughout his college career. By the time he prepared to enter the NFL Draft in 2014, he had gone back and forth from defensive end to outside linebacker.
But it was his hard work and dedication to improving his craft that got him noticed by NFL teams. He was drafted by the New York Giants in the fifth round.
“There were multiple times in my career along the way that I thought none of this would happen,” Kennard said. “I had a dream of always being in the position, but I faced a lot of challenges, so I am just so grateful that I was able to do it.
“I’ve been able to live out my dream. I recognize I’m in position to make an impact people’s lives.”
The Giants required all rookies to become involved with charities in New York. Kennard took a liking to New City Kids, a non-profit organization catered to low-income youth.
He immediately saw the impact he and the rest of the Giants’ organization could have on those less fortunate.
“I immediately fell in love with what New City Kids was doing,” Kennard said. “I committed myself and got very involved. I encouraged my teammates to go out there, donated money, just anything I could to help them continue their mission.”
Kennard spent four seasons with the Giants, taking time to visit New City Kids and other charities on his off days. When he was signed by the Detroit Lions in 2017, he carried on his mission of helping the less fortunate from New York to Detroit.
Kennard is coming off two breakout seasons with the Lions. The 6-foot-3, 256-pound linebacker had 14 sacks combined the last two seasons and 70 solo tackles. The Lions signed him to a 3-year deal in March 2018.
From the moment he stepped foot in Detroit, Kennard involved himself in several charitable organizations. From taking the time sit down with a family to eat dinner to taking kids on shopping sprees at Footlocker, Kennard has become a staple for helping the less fortunate in Detroit.
He was awarded the 2019 Detroit Public Safety Award for his work with the Lions Social Justice Initiative, which was created by players in 2018 and raised over $600,000 for non-profits. He began working with the Midnight Golf Program in Detroit, which is an after-school program for high school students in Detroit that offers SAT tutoring and help filling out applications for colleges and scholarships.
He created the Devon Kennard Scholarship Fund in conjunction with the Midnight Golf Program, which awards two students $5,000. Students were required to read a book of their choice and submit essays to Kennard and his fiancé, Camille, about the impact the book had on their life. Students were also required to submit their GPAs and the acceptance letter from the colleges they wanted to attend.
Kennard and Camille sat down and read through over 50 essays, narrowing it down to two finalists for the scholarship. The winners were announced last May.
“We had a really cool moment with them at the Midnight Golf Program’s graduation ceremony,” Kennard said. “We even created custom footballs for the winners. They were surprised, they had no idea until we announced it. I plan to do it again this year.”
In November, Kennard, Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford and wide receiver Danny Amendola donated new equipment and a van for transportation to the Detroit Boxing Gym, which is a non-profit for kids to go after school.
Despite Kennard now playing in Detroit, the impact he made during his time in New York was still being felt thanks to his former team. In 2018, the Giants donated $27,000 to New City Kids. Kennard was invited back to donate the check.
Kennard’s dedication to helping those in need didn’t go unnoticed this season. While he was never looking for recognition, he was named the Detroit Lions nominee for Walter Payton Man of the Year, an annual award given to an NFL player for excellence both on and off the field.
Kennard was awarded $50,000 to a charity of his choice for his nomination. At NFL Honors on Saturday, Feb. 1 – one day before Super Bowl 54 – the Walter Payton Man of the Year will be announced. Should Kennard win, he will receive a $250,000 donation to the charity of his choice courtesy of the NFL Foundation and Nationwide.
“I’ve already committed to giving a higher amount and more scholarships this year with the money I’ve already received for being nominated,” Kennard said. “I’m pretty excited about that. For me, the peak of what I want to do in my career is win a Super Bowl and win the Walter Payton Man of the Year.”
Kennard spends his offseason back home in Chandler. He trains at Pro Edge Performance, which is owned by his brother, Derek Kennard Jr., who is also the defensive line coach at Desert Vista.
Kennard has plans to purchase a home nearby. In many ways, it’s him setting his family up for his future after football, whenever that comes. He said he’s always had an interest in real estate investing. He now owns properties all over the United States.
With his search for a new home back in Arizona comes his desire to start giving back to the Ahwatukee community and others all across the Valley. He wants to continue making the same type of impact he had in New York and Detroit in the place that helped him grow into the person he is today.
“Up until this point, I really haven’t had a lot of time to connect with the Arizona community,” Kennard said. “But that’s something I want to look into and make happen.”
While Kennard sees the impact he has made on the lives of thousands throughout his NFL career, he doesn’t look at it as something he was forced into doing because of his status as a professional athlete. While he loves playing football for a living, he doesn’t place himself on a pedestal over anybody else he comes across in the community.
Football just happens to be a career path he followed, and he plans to continue using it as a way to encourage people in Detroit and Arizona and empower them to achieve their goals.
“As professional athletes, we have to make a decision on what we want to do with the spotlight we are given,” Kennard said. “I want to disarm myself and let people know I’m not that different from them.
“I’m a regular kid that grew up right around the corner from Desert Vista and I want to show kids they can achieve their dreams of becoming whoever they want to be.”