Kennedy (click for larger version)
June 25, 2013 | 04:18 PMLAKE IVANHOE — Wilbert Kennedy is quite intimidating when you see him in person.
However, once you sit down with him, the 6-foot-2, 350-pound Bloomfield cop is a soft-spoken, friendly guy who loves to talk about his 16-year-old daughter, who attends Badger High School.
But there was a time when Kennedy used that intimidation along with some freakish athleticism to dominate opponents on the football field.
The 46-year-old lifelong Lake Ivanhoe resident and Badger High School graduate is leaving town Thursday for Canton, Ohio, where he will be inducted into the American Football Association (AFA) Hall of Fame. It's the ultimate accolade for semi-pro football players, and Kennedy is well-deserving.
For 21 years, he starred at defensive lineman for the Racine Raiders, one of the oldest and most well-known semi-pro clubs in the state.
Kennedy's teams played in eight national titles and won four of them. Kennedy played college football at the University of Wisconsin-Stout and had a cup of coffee in the Canadian Football League.
After playing his last season in 2009, Kennedy is now a defensive line coach for the Raiders, and he makes the 55-minute trip east usually twice a week in the summer.
Always the strongest player on the field, Kennedy possessed rare speed for his size. At Badger, he played fullback, and he even got carries in goal-line situations as a Raider.
Kennedy first heard about the Hall of Fame induction from his first Raiders coach, who called to tell him he had nominated Kennedy for the honor. A few days later, Kennedy received a call from the president of the AFA saying he got in.
"This is our Hall of Fame," Kennedy said. "It hasn't really hit me yet. But once I get there and put that blazer on, it will probably start setting in. I've never been to Canton. This is going to be an awesome experience."
Most notably, Canton is the site of the National Football League Hall of Fame. Kennedy said he is excited to visit, but he is no stranger to halls of fame in general. In 2010, the Raiders retired Kennedy's No. 55 with a ceremony in front of more than 4,000 fans. The Milwaukee Brewers racing sausages even made it out to Horlick Field in Racine for the game.
"That was my most memorable moment of my career," Kennedy said. "It was a pretty special night."
A rough start
When Kennedy joined the Raiders in 1989, he had to wait his turn. He was backing up a future Hall of Fame defensive end, and the team was loaded with ex-NFL and ex-college talent. He said it was the most difficult time in his Raider career.
"Not starting for the first time in my life was hard," he said. "Guys were telling me to hang in there, and I almost left the next year."
But Kennedy stepped up and started the next 20 seasons and became the heart of the defensive line. He said he trained six days a week at the Lake Geneva YMCA.
"I was fortunate to play in the organization I was in," Kenneday said. "We had a lot of success and had a lot of good coaches. I played from my heart. You couldn't run on us. I got double-teamed a lot, but I got accustomed to it. It's a family over there."
Kennedy would sometimes line up in the backfield and pound the ball in for touchdowns on goal-line situations. It was called the "2-ton" package.
"One time I got a handoff and got absolutely killed," he said. "So I flicked the ball to the quarterback and he ran it in for a touchdown. It was luck."
Through the years, Kennedy often played through injury. He never had surgery, but he said he once played through a torn tricep.
"I wouldn't go to the trainers because I wanted to win another ring," Kennedy said. "We all played through pain. You're only 100 percent that first day you walk out for practice."
Kennedy's mother came to all of his games, he said. She would follow his teams across the country. Also, Kennedy's father was an avid supporter before passing away 15 years ago.
"My mother never forced me into doing anything I didn't want to do," Kennedy said. "She told me if I started something, I had to finish it. She let me be a kid. My dad came to games until the end. He would give opposing teams a hard time at our games in Racine. He was just having fun. They loved Sports."
Ironically, baseball is Kennedy's first love. He was a power hitter at an early age. But playing football was difficult. He only played football with kids his age one year because he was so big.
"I didn't like football as much as baseball," Kennedy said. "I loved flag football more because I could play anywhere on the field. I could always run fast even though I was big. I was a very outdoors-type kid. I wanted to play from sun up until sun down."
Kennedy said he had so much fun playing, he was "a kid until he retired."
Since he works weekends, Kennedy saves his vacation time for game days on Saturdays.
But he loves being a cop.
"When I was a kid, I always told my mom I wanted to play pro baseball, football or be a cop," Kennedy said. "So I did pretty much everything I wanted to."
When he's not helping the Raiders in the trenches, he takes his daughter to basketball and track practice at Badger. Also, Kennedy has volunteered with the Badger football team in recent years.
"My daughter keeps me busy," he said. "I assist Coach Curtis with defensive linemen a couple days a week during the season. Sometimes I have to leave to go to Racine. I was still playing when I first started helping. They'd laugh at me because I'd come to practice hurting or limping."
Kennedy it will be hard to find dynasties nowadays in semi-pro football like the one he played for in Racine. He said there are far more teams these days. In the Mid-States Football League, which includes the Raiders and the Lake Geneva Generals, there are 21 teams.
"The face of semi-pro football has changed," Kennedy said. "With so many teams, it has over-saturated the talent pool. There are a lot of good players around here, but they're not on the same team. When you win, it's easier to stay around for a long time. You can have a couple bad seasons, and it's over. You have to win to keep players interested."