A father's legacy and concern

Devon Kennard's hard work in returning from injury is paying off on the field for the Trojans. Ric Tapia/Icon SMI

LOS ANGELES -- Devon Kennard says his first memory came the night of Jan. 28, 1996. He was at Sun Devil Stadium in Arizona and he was riding on his dad's shoulders. The celebration was manic.

His father, Derek, was the starting center for the Dallas Cowboys, and after the Cowboys beat the Pittsburgh Steelers 27-17 that night to win Super Bowl XXX, the hulking offensive lineman celebrated by hoisting his 4-year-old son for a ride.

The Kennards have a picture of the moment at their home in Arizona.

Now, Devon Kennard is one of the leading playmakers on a fast, aggressive USC defense that has helped the Trojans return to relevance again in the Pac-12. Devon Kennard ranks fourth in the Pac-12 in sacks. He's been waiting a while to bask in the glory he tasted when he was so young.

"That's about as awesome a feeling as a young kid could imagine, with their dad, horsing around on top of his shoulders after a Super Bowl victory," Derek Kennard said. "It was something to behold."

Other memories of Derek Kennard's NFL career, though, aren't as jubilant. Many of them are fuzzy if they still exist at all. Now 52, he's one of dozens of former NFL players who think an accumulation of concussions, sometimes undiagnosed, during their playing days has contributed to difficulties in later life.

Kennard played 11 seasons in the NFL and two in the USFL. In addition to stints at guard, center and tackle, he also was a member of the "wedge" on kick return teams, a formation the NFL has now banned because of the frequency of dangerous hits during returns.

Now, he's an enrollment counselor at Grand Canyon University in Phoenix, and after getting his master's degree in business administration, he still struggles to recall details from his education during job interviews.

"I have to recall some things I learned over the years and it's hard to recover them when you've sustained the injuries we sustained," Kennard said.

In addition to issues with recall, which he says have "shaken him," he also worries about bouts of blurred vision, difficulty coping with oncoming lights when he's driving at night and a tendency to become irritable more easily than before.

There is increasing scrutiny of the dangers football can cause to its players' long-term mental health. Pro Football Hall of Famers Tony Dorsett and Joe DeLamielleure, as well as former All-Pro Leonard Marshall, recently have been diagnosed with signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative condition many scientists say is caused by head trauma and linked to depression and dementia. Autopsies of more than 50 former NFL players, including Junior Seau, have shown signs of CTE.

In August, the NFL agreed to pay a $765 million settlement with more than 4,500 former players.

All of that has made Derek Kennard question how he feels about his son following him into his chosen profession.

"That has crept into my mind," Kennard said.

On the other hand, Derek Kennard doesn't want to stand in the way of an exciting and potentially lucrative opportunity for his second son. He thinks the rule changes in football will help protect players' long-term health. And his son is eager to play as long as he can, particularly since he had to wait so long for this moment.

Devon Kennard, an outside linebacker who ranks fourth in the Pac-12 in sacks, missed the entire 2012 season with a torn chest muscle and, before that, he struggled to make an impact, in part because the coaches -- and coaching changes -- made him move his position so frequently. He was used at middle linebacker, outside linebacker in a different formation and both defensive end spots.

With all that to deal with -- as well as the task of completing his master's thesis for a degree in communications management -- he says he hasn't spent much time fretting about what head injuries could do to his future.

"I'm 22 years old. I'm not really worried about that. I think he's worried about it because he's 52 now," Devon said.

His coaches have seen Kennard thrive after his season off, likely a combination of the change in schemes under new defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast and Kennard's hunger to make an impact in his final season at Troy. If he continues to play well and USC continues its return from the ashes, NFL scouts will likely take note.

While Kennard was recovering from the injury last fall, USC coach Ed Orgeron kept him close to him -- in the film room, on the practice field, in drills.

"Now, he's like a coach on the field," Orgeron said.

It doesn't hurt to have a father who spent half his life playing the game. Derek Kennard watches his son play and is reminded of another athletic, edge pass-rusher who he had to contend with for years: four-time Pro Bowler Charles Mann. Derek Kennard said he would approach blocking his son just as he did Mann.

"Play him soft, light on your toes, keep him out there on the edge," Kennard said.

Not long ago, Devon asked his father about a move that bothered him when he played, one he could use to stun an offensive lineman long enough to get the split-second edge it takes to reach the quarterback. Derek said that, in practice, Charles Haley used to grab his wrists and wrench them backwards. He hated it. His son tried it recently, combined it with a spin move and wound up with a sack at Oregon State.

Devon says he'll play as long as he can, but he hasn't left himself without options.

In a month or so, when the fun of his college career is over, he will have to make the choice: push hard for the NFL draft or start lining up other professional opportunities.

"My priority is football," he said "But I was here 4½ years and I've always had the mindset to come in and get as much out of school as I could while I was here."