Detroit Lions linebacker Devon Kennard is racking up accomplishments on and off the field. His biggest score yet: making a difference in the lives of Detroit’s kids.
By Susan Peck
Photography By Brett Mountain
Over the course of his football career, Detroit Lions linebacker Devon Kennard has racked up many accolades. In 2009, he received the University of Southern California’s John Mackey Award for college football’s most outstanding tight end. In 2013 he was named a finalist for the Lott Impact Trophy, an award presented to a college defensive player who displays excellence in values like integrity, maturity, performance, academics, community and tenacity. He was also ranked the NFL’s Number One defensive end by ESPN.com. In 2014, he was drafted by the New York Giants and four years later he signed with the Lions as a free agent.
More recently, the 28-year-old — who’s been voted team captain since joining the Lions — set his best NFL season record, with 46 tackles and seven sacks.
Despite his athletic accomplishments, Kennard is focused on much more than his gridiron legacy. He’s making a difference off the field, too — and his efforts haven’t gone unnoticed. Now, Kennard is up for perhaps one of the biggest honors in his career: He’s the Lions 2019 nominee for the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award.
The award, which has been around since 1970 and recognizes an NFL player who demonstrates outstanding community-service activities as well as excellence on the field, is considered one of the league’s most prestigious honors. (Past winners include Eli and Peyton Manning and Drew Brees.) This year, Kennard is up against players like Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton and San Francisco 49ers defensive back Richard Sherman.
The 2019 winner will be announced on Feb. 1, the eve of Super Bowl LIV, and all 32 nominees and the final winner will receive a donation for a charity of their choice. “This is a very special award for me, because the players who have won it are a group of men who are exceptional football players,” says Kennard. “But at some point, they made the realization that real success is helping others succeed and grow.”
Kennard prefers to remain mum on which charity he’ll award the funds to should he win, but given his involvement with certain causes, it’s not hard to guess where the money would go. “Youth mentorship, education and literacy have been passions of mine since entering the NFL,” says Kennard, who recently completed his masters in communication management from USC. “I’m excited to shed light on the amazing organizations I have had the honor of working with here in Detroit.”
Since joining the Lions, Kennard has volunteered his time with initiatives like the Midnight Golf program in Detroit, which helps under-served youth transition from high school to college and into professional careers. Renee Fluker, the program’s founder, says Kennard has made a huge impact because of his professional platform — not to mention the fact that he’s helped the program establish a track record where 100% of its students have graduated high school and 70% have graduated college. “Devon takes the time to forge meaningful relationships with students,” says Fluker. “That is life-changing for them.”
Kennard has also established the Devon Kennard Scholarship Fund to further assist in the students’ college education, she adds.
Growing up in Phoenix, Kennard set out early on to break the stereotype of the jock who didn’t excel at anything but sports. To that end, he maintained a 3.8 GPA throughout high school and college. “I think we are meant to continue to grow throughout our lives and you can’t grow without educating yourself and exposing yourself to new thoughts and ideas,” he says — a mentality he shares with the kids he mentors. He wants young people to realize that despite their circumstances, success is possible in any profession they choose, as long as they’re willing to work hard.
“Devon has exemplified what it means to be a mentor and a man that serves his community in many ways,” says Lions head coach Matt Patricia. “His natural leadership skills on the football field translate to everything he gets involved with, as he sets an example for people of all ages in our city. He was voted team captain for a reason. ”
Kennard has “heart, leadership, courage and commitment,” adds Lions defensive end Trey Flowers. “Devon is a passionate leader who truly goes beyond what is expected from a teammate. I believe that all great teams and relationships are built on honesty and he is not one to shy away from the truth, which helps to make us a better team.”
Off-season, Kennard lives in Phoenix with his fiancée, Camille Firestone (whom he’s set to marry this month), and their 20-month-old daughter, Camryn. (His parents and brother and sister reside nearby.) Kennard belongs to a family of footballers — his older brother, Derek Kennard Jr., had a stint with the Indianapolis Colts and his father, Derek, played in the NFL for 11 years, even starting for the Dallas Cowboys in the 1996 Super Bowl.
“I still have a memory of riding on my father’s shoulders after his winning Super Bowl game,” says the youngest Kennard. “It’s something that I dream of doing if I have my own son someday.” He adds that both of his parents instilled in him the importance of serving others, and got him involved with charity organizations in Arizona when he was growing up.
During the NFL season, Kennard resides in Royal Oak. “When I told people I was moving to the Detroit area, everyone said there was nothing to do here,” he says. “But I really love the energy in this city.” He likes Royal Oak for its walkability and counts Atomic Coffee, Town Tavern and Sushi Ronin among his favorite spots. Post-game, you can find him downtown at San Morello in the Shinola Hotel, or one of the soul-food restaurants he’s discovered, or Prime & Proper for what he calls “the best steak in town.”
With only a year left on his contract with the Lions, Kennard hopes to sign an extension to stay with the team and city he’s grown to love. Not surprisingly, he plans to continue his non-football pursuits, too, which include investing in real estate (he currently owns 12 properties across the country) and, of course, philanthropy. “I’ve always been of the belief that football is part of what I do, but it isn’t who I am,” he says. “It will eventually end, but my other passions, including education and helping others excel, will continue for the rest of my life.”