Joe Davidson

Portrait of progress: Kennedy football has image of a winner

Video: Kennedy High football on an upswing

Kennedy High School hasn't been to the football playoffs since 1991, hasn't won at least a share of a league title since 1987. Coach Matt Costa and the Cougars enter week ten with a record of 8-1, behind seniors, quarterback Sean Allison and lineb
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Kennedy High School hasn't been to the football playoffs since 1991, hasn't won at least a share of a league title since 1987. Coach Matt Costa and the Cougars enter week ten with a record of 8-1, behind seniors, quarterback Sean Allison and lineb

Monday was picture day, and for a spell, only the football coach wore a frown.

Matt Costa thought about the irony of the moment, and then grinned. Costa can still recall how bleak picture day was at Kennedy High School not long ago. A 28-game losing streak in 2012 and a two-victory season in 2013 made it tough for the photographer to muster smiles.

Who wants to chronicle a group of grumps? It’s different now, and that’s what winning can do to a team and its image.

“Before,” Costa said, “picture day was a morgue here.”

The rain was pounding outside the gym where the photo session was taking place, but the weather didn’t dampen anyone’s spirit. Said one player: “Don’t forget to smile; it’s a good year.”

Kennedy (8-1) hasn’t enjoyed this sort of success since 1990, which featured the program’s last playoff team.

And the Cougars haven’t just roared back to relevance by jumping into The Bee rankings for the first time since 1992. They can take it a step further. A home win over Burbank on Friday night would crown Kennedy as Metropolitan League co-champions – shared with Sacramento High – for just the third time. The program’s other Metro titles came in 1974 and 1987.

Living the dream right now. Before, we just wanted to compete, not get blown out. Now we expect to compete and win. I’m so excited for these kids. We had some tough years.

Matt Costa, Kennedy football coach

But it won’t be easy. Burbank, the four-time defending Metro titlist, is inspired after being crushed by Sacramento 56-20 last Saturday. That’s the same Sac High that beat Kennedy 42-0 earlier this season, a game that was 14-0 at the half.

“Living the dream right now,” Costa said. “Before, we just wanted to compete, not get blown out. Now we expect to compete and win. I’m so excited for these kids. We had some tough years.”

Low roster numbers, shaky team morale and a revolving door of coaches culminated in Kennedy posting back-to-back 0-10 records in 2011 and 2012, the latter Costa’s first season. The Cougars improved from 2-8 in 2013 to 4-6 last season. This season has featured five Kennedy shutouts as linebackers Ramar Crump and Terrell Barron have combined for 33 sacks. Quarterback Sean Allison, a 4.3 GPA student, has passed for 1,447 yards and 17 touchdowns, and rushed for four more.

Allison and Crump represent the team’s diverse backgrounds and are examples of opposites coming together. The slightly built 6-foot Allison is the third Allison brother to play football at Kennedy. Despite watching the beatings his brothers’ teams took in previous seasons, Allison wanted to help turn the program around.

“I kept coming back because it was the right thing to do,” Allison said. “We wanted to get this team better, and we believe in Coach Costa. No one puts more time into this than Costa.”

The 6-foot-3, 240-pound Crump is new to the game. He didn’t play football until last season, finally succumbing to the pleas of classmates and teachers who thought his body and energy might be ideal for tackling. Crump now prides himself as a complete student-athlete, playing basketball, competing in track and pulling a 3.0 GPA.

“Coming to Kennedy really changed my life,” Crump said. “To see all the teachers embrace students who want to learn, to get better, to see and experience the support system here has made a huge difference.”

Home games on campus have been full and festive on a new field, with scores of alumni stopping by on Friday nights.

It didn’t take Crump long to figure out football – just chase the ball carrier. He jokes that the peripheral stuff is still a work in progress: figuring out where all the pads go, how to slip on a jersey that’s skin tight without help. Now he has college programs expressing interest.

Kennedy’s efforts have turned heads. Costa has already been approached by many freshmen already champing at the bit to play varsity – impressionable teens wanting a piece of the action.

“Allison has been phenomenal,” Costa said. “He won’t blow you away with size and stats, but he makes the right decisions. And Ramar was the guy – the first guy – who helped turn the culture. A guy who said, ‘You know what? I’m going to play football. I can help.’ Great player. I’ve never seen a kid love this game like he does.”

A die-hard Notre Dame football fan with the tattoos to prove it, Costa turned Mira Loma around before taking on the reclamation project in Greenhaven. From the start, he deemed Kennedy a sleeping giant. Home games on campus have been full and festive on a new field, with scores of alumni stopping by on Friday nights. Costa has chatted tradition over the years with Pete Scorza, who coached Kennedy to its only playoff showings, in 1987 and ’90.

“When I applied for this job,” Costa said, “a lot of people thought I was nuts, including my wife, Karyn. Here’s the thing: Kennedy wasn’t terrible. It just needed a jump. If you look at the interior at what was going on – academics, facilities, administrative support – the seeds of a successful program were all here.”

Just look at all the smiling faces chronicled on a rainy day.

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Joe Davidson: 916-321-1280, @SacBee_JoeD

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