BREMERTON, Wash. (AP) — When Joe Kennedy arrived at the Flying H Youth Ranch for troubled boys, he was mad at the world.
“He was pretty angry, like a lot of kids,” said Terry Fike, a counselor there in the 1980s, when Kennedy’s pattern of defiance and disruption landed him at the ranch, near Yakima.
“Something that is indelible in my mind about young Joe, was he was fearless. He had no fear of anyone or anything,” Fike said.
Joe was a small kid, Fike recalls. In the volatile cocktail of dysfunctional youth at the ranch, most other boys towered over him, and yet, said Fike, “I never saw Joe back away from a fight.”
Kennedy’s hard scrabble youth and his rocky faith journey that started at the ranch laid the foundation for his recent confrontation with the Bremerton School District over whether he has the right to pray on the field after football games. On Oct. 28, the assistant football coach was put on paid leave, setting the scene for a protracted legal battle with the district, although he hasn’t filed suit ... yet.
Kennedy’s habit of praying on the 50-yard line, often joined by players, came to the attention of school administrators in September. Kennedy initially abided by a district edict to leave religion out of his postgame pep talks, but on Oct. 16, backed by the Liberty Institute, he announced he would defy the prayer ban, sparking a national maelstrom of dissent over religious freedom.
Kennedy’s face has been plastered all over the media. He’s appeared on NBC’s Today, Good Morning America and The O’Reilly Factor. Facebook and Twitter have blown up with passion and vitriol over #CoachKennedy. Even Donald Trump weighed in.
Kennedy says those who’ve made it an argument about Christianity are missing the point. He and the district differ on his constitutional rights as a school district employee. The former Marine felt he couldn’t back down.
“My rights and my faith, they don’t outweigh each other. They’re intertwined,” said Kennedy. “This is about my rights as an American to go and do this.”
Mostly, he said, he did it for the boys.
Kennedy’s troubled youth
Kennedy, 46, was an adopted child who had an unhappy home life. He never felt like he belonged in the family, which included a sister, also adopted, and younger siblings born to his parents. “It was like being an outsider,” he said.
At Tracyton Elementary, “I fought a lot. I was very mischievous. I was very rebellious,” he said. “I had a problem with authority, discipline problems, just a really angry kid.”
Later, he attended Our Lady Star of the Sea school and was expelled. He stole, lied and hung with the wrong crowd.
When he was 13, his family sent him to Flying H in Naches, a Christian residential program for boys struggling with their families. He he felt betrayed, especially by his dad.
Kennedy’s thick shell of anger melted slowly under the patient, tough love of Fike and other counselors at the ranch. Fike and Kennedy remember that day when they were working together on a construction project and talking. The organization’s message about God finally got through to the boy’s heart. For a while, life was better.
Released from the ranch, however, “I ended up getting right back in trouble.”
He stumbled his way toward a diploma from Bremerton High School with a dismal GPA, “but in gym, wrestling and swimming I had A’s.”
His high school years were a blur. By graduation, he lived alone in a tiny apartment in Bremerton, working part-time at a restaurant.
“I can’t think of even a single name of a classmate,” he said. “I was a ghost in school.”
Scars and stripes
Kennedy joined the Marines as soon as he turned 18. His uncle Dan Kennedy was his inspiration.
“My uncle was a Marine. He was one of those really tough guys, really scary,” said Kennedy. “He always had this confidence about him you see in all these movies about John Wayne.”
Kennedy wanted to be like that. And although being in the Marines wasn’t quite like a John Wayne movie, it was a good fit. Boot camp broke him down and built him back up physically, mentally and emotionally. Most of all, it taught him teamwork and discipline.
Kennedy served in the Marines from 1987 through 2006, including service in the Gulf War. At one point he was stationed with an artillery unit in Khafji, on the border of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. “That place took a beating,” he said.
So did Kennedy. At Al Jaber Air Base he was knocked unconscious by an explosion.
The horrors of war extinguished any flicker of faith left over from his Flying H days.
“I didn’t believe in anything,” he said. “If there was a God, this wouldn’t happen, seeing your friends die.”
During and after his military service, Kennedy did mixed martial arts, kickboxing and other forms of competitive fighting. He carries an assortment of scars and old wounds — including 16 screws holding his jaw together from a war injury. None of it has kept him from running marathons and ultramarathons.
“There’s a line between tough and stupid. I don’t have that line,” he said. “I only know one way forward.”
Finding God again
Kennedy’s personal life has been a rocky road. He is estranged from his parents and siblings and has been married three times.
Kennedy has a son, Jacob, 23, by his first wife.
He’s known his present wife Denise since he was 9, when he told her he loved her, and she said, “Go away. You’re creepy.”
Ten years ago, they reconnected, adding her daughter and two sons to his family circle. Kennedy works in quality assurance at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard and lives in Port Orchard.
Denise was a churchgoer. Joe was not, at least at first. The issue of church caused friction between them, even after he started attending to set an example for the kids.
It wasn’t until he was invited by a friend to NewLife in South Kitsap that he fully reconnected with his faith.
“NewLife is accepting of people right where they’re at,” he said. “I walked in and heard the message. It was a really, really good fit for me.”
Fike, who reconnected with Kennedy on Facebook, said, “The Joe I see today is evidence of the transforming power of Jesus Christ. He knows who he is, and he knows what he is about. And I think that is rare to find.”
The church has largely flown under the radar in the controversy and has not taken a formal position, said Jonathan Stone, NewLife South pastor.
“We do believe that there’s a difference between the sacred square and the public square of society,” Stone said. “I do not believe that public squares should be devoid of all faith. There can be discourse with civility, and that’s our hope, that there will be civil discourse about the issue.”
Field prayer a ‘nonissue’
By now Kennedy’s told the story many times of how he was inspired by the movie “Facing the Giants” to start a private postgame prayer of thanks on the 50-yard line.
Shaun Hall, who played junior varsity for the Bremerton Knights in 2008 and varsity in 2009 and 2010 said he hardly noticed and didn’t participate the first couple of years.
“Nobody really cared. It was just Kennedy doing what Kennedy wanted,” said Hall, now a graduate student in Idaho. “It was a total nonissue.”
Hall became a Christian late in his junior year, but not through Kennedy. Hall was one of the first students who asked to join the prayer circle. “It just kind of grew from there,” he said. “It didn’t have a tone of overt religion, but rather like gratitude for the opportunity, for sportsmanship and health, for what we were doing out there.”
Hall said Kennedy was well-liked and respected by most players, including non-Christians.
“He taught us a lot of stuff, what it means to be authentic, responsible, accountable,” Hall said. “He would challenge us, and then he’d make sure we understood why he was doing that.”
It’s about the kids
As Kennedy’s story was picked up in September by national media, he was courted by close to a dozen law firms eager to represent him. Liberty Institute of Texas was recommended by an acquaintance. Kennedy evaluated his legal options and went forward with his challenge to the district’s policy knowing it could jeopardize his coaching job, for which he makes $4,398 per season.
The money is irrelevant, he says.
The fact Kennedy taught his boys to stand up for what they believe propelled him to press his case, he said. “How do I look myself in the mirror if I back down?”
Kennedy has been showered with support on social media, but he’s well aware of his critics, who blast him for hogging the spotlight, creating a distraction. They’ve got him all wrong, he said.
“I’m not a holier-than-thou person,” he said. “I’m a train wreck just like everyone else.”
Kennedy has struck an uneasy bargain with instant fame.
“This whole grandstanding show thing was brought on by the media, that I didn’t really want,” he said. “I didn’t want it to be a big show. How do you stop that snowball or tidal wave that came up?”
And yet, he admits, he needs the media right now. “There’s no other way to get the word out,” he said.
He’s also gained attention on the political circuit and is scheduled to appear at a religious freedom rally with GOP presidential candidate Ted Cruz in South Carolina on Nov. 14. Kennedy said his presence at the rally is not an endorsement of Cruz.
People on both sides mistakenly peg this as a religious issue, Kennedy said.
“I’m not out there to start a war with anybody just because somebody has a different faith than me,” he said. “That has nothing to do with what I’m doing. I’m standing up for my rights as an American to practice my faith, and I just happen to be Christian. I’m not going to say I’m sorry for that. I’m not going to hide it.”
Kennedy sees in his players a little bit of himself — who, as a youth was a messed up kid longing for the father figure he found in Fike and others at Flying H Ranch. The uncertainty about next season weighs on him.
“I want to be the light out there for these kids that, you know, some of them are in real dark places, and they need somebody there,” Kennedy said, choking up. “This wasn’t about religion. It wasn’t about anything else. It was my calling to come and serve those kids and give ‘em everything I had.
“I don’t really care if we win a single football game. I don’t care about all that other stuff. I mean, I care about those freaking kids.”