SB Nation

Mark Winegardner | February 7, 2013

The legend of Dan Kendra

The rise, fall and happy landing of the nation's top recruit

Twenty years ago, every wise man in college football cast his regal gaze upon a star rising over in the little town of Bethlehem (Pa.).

For it had come to pass that, nestled in this holy land of quarterbacks—Unitas and Namath, Montana and Marino—there was a humble, free-spirited, golden-haired boy, born in the year of his country’s bicentennial, whose daring feats of wonder seemed like nothing of this cold and wretched earth.

The boy’s name was Dan Kendra. And he was the stuff of legend.

His right arm was so mighty that all who beheld it sought comparisons to implements of war

He could run 40 yards in 4.5 seconds. He could bench press almost 400 pounds. He could leap so high he’d been penalized for stepping on the helmet of an upright defender. His right arm was so mighty that all who beheld it sought comparisons to implements of war (gun; pistol; rifle; rocket; Howitzer) and so accurate that he’d begun to erase the schoolboy records of the Pennsylvania legends who had come before. He once scored eight touchdowns in a game, four running and four passing. He wasn’t perfect; like any QB, he threw the occasional interception. But the first one he ever threw in a high school game (Kendra was actually an eighth-grader, playing up a level) was swiftly followed by him making a clean tackle so hard it broke the other kid’s arm in three places.

He read muscle magazines and fitness magazines and taught himself the most challenging exercises and the best stretching routines and became fascinated with nutrition and refused to eat fast food. He’d come to team pizza parties carrying fresh fruit and a turkey sandwich. Nobody made him do any of this.

As a little kid, inspired by Bruce Lee and ninja movies, the boy had donned a gi and, under the sage guidance of Master Kim of Allentown, spent six years studying what, in the East, was once called "the ways of flowering manhood" but which we, in our modern world, know as taekwondo—a discipline in which young Dan Kendra had received a red belt with four stripes: barely shy of the feared and coveted black. The rigor of this training served him well in his later pursuits. Although his feet were longer than the width of a snowboard, his balance was so honed that after a lesson or two, he could ably ride fresh powder down forbidding mountainsides. He learned to rappel off cliffs. He became a certified open-water scuba diver and dreamed, one day, of becoming not a football star but a Navy SEAL. In fact, the steps to becoming a SEAL were listed in a letter he’d gotten from a Naval officer, which Kendra kept neatly folded in the glovebox of his car.

And that ain’t all. For verily I say unto you, this remarkable boy had even achieved dominion over lowly, savage beasts. It began with a part-time job at the Blue Lagoon pet store. In no time, he had a tank in his bedroom full of red-bellied piranhas. Not long after that, he used his employee discount to bring home an alligator named Floyd. The creature was nasty and snappish, yet when the boy lifted it from its 100-gallon fish tank, Floyd submitted to the role of being the personal pet dinosaur who frolics in the daydreams of every happy child.

Day after day, from Kendra’s sophomore year onward, letters from football programs from sea to shining sea filled his mailbox. Every day at Bethlehem Catholic High School, his coach delivered even more letters—often a packet thicker than any of the boy’s textbooks. Every evening, the Kendra family’s phone rang and rang with calls from coach after coach after coach. Dan didn’t think of himself as a legend or anyone important and was too overwhelmed by all the attention to ask, Well, Coach So-and-So, what’s your training table like? What kind of weight room do you have? What’s your offensive scheme? Do you offer a major in nutrition? What about sports physiology? Instead, he listened and nodded and said little more than "that’s cool," "thank you," and "yeah."

One day, the caller was Florida’s Steve Spurrier. "Well, Dan, you have an alligator," said the Old Ball Coach. "And we are the Gators. It was just meant to be!"

Dan Kendra chuckled and was, as ever, surpassingly polite, if also noncommittal. It felt nice to be wanted, to know that he could go to college anywhere he chose, and he chose to take official campus visits to what felt like his four dream schools, any one of which might have been an ideal fit:

  • West Virginia, where his father (Dan Jr.) had started at quarterback for three years and was the MVP of the 1975 Peach Bowl. Morgantown was actually where Dan (Dan III) was born.
  • Notre Dame, which exerts a strong pull on almost every Catholic kid who has a chance to be a star there.
  • Florida State, now the home of Dan Jr.’s old coach, Bobby Bowden—a man well on his way to becoming the winningest coach in major college football history. After Dan III was born, Bowden had visited him in the hospital. Tucked under the coach’s arm was not gold, frankincense, or myrrh but rather a teddy bear wearing a football helmet. Pinned to it was a note that read, "To my future quarterback." Also, Florida State had won the national championship the year before—led by a mobile quarterback, Heisman Trophy winner Charlie Ward.
  • Penn State, just three hours away and the favorite team of most of the kids Dan grew up with: the perfect place for a certified eastern-PA local hero. Though that wasn’t the main reason he was leaning toward going there. Neither was the presence of Joe Paterno, another coaching legend, who was chasing the all-time wins record in tandem with Bowden and who, it seemed, was every bit as classy, genuine, and unpretentious. Penn State’s nickname was "Linebacker U," and most scouting reports on Kendra described him as having "a linebacker’s mentality"; some even thought he could be an even bigger star at that position or at fullback. But Kendra wanted to stay at QB, and all four of the finalists wooing him—including Penn State—promised to keep him there. True, Penn State ran (by far) the most conservative offense of the other teams. Paterno made it clear that Kendra would be a pocket passer, period. None of that exciting running stuff. That’s taking away my legs, Kendra thought. That’s the best part of me. But this negative was counterbalanced by a far bigger positive.

I’ll bet you, Dear Reader, that you can get it on the first guess.

You are correct!

Behold: our golden boy did indeed have a serious girlfriend: a 5’10 blonde named Christy Cochran—the captain of the Bethlehem Catholic volleyball team, an All-American outside hitter who could jump higher and bench press more than most boys at school, a beautiful girl who loved bodybuilding magazines and told people she’d rather be Ms. Olympia than Miss America. Christy Cochran had already accepted a full-ride volleyball scholarship to Penn State University.

* * *

As the recruiting process headed into the homestretch, Dan Kendra kept his friends and family close to him and tried to say as little as possible to anyone else. Here and there, though, he relented. The tabloid-TV show Hard Copy showed up at his school, unannounced, to do a story on him. ESPN got him to agree to a feature, too. They strapped a parachute to his back and had him run 40-yard sprints but had to stop filming after Kendra changed directions so sharply it tore a foot-long hole in the cloth. USA Today named him its high school player of the year—the capstone of a high school career in which he’d run or passed for 91 touchdowns and thrown for nearly 3.5 miles—and sent a reporter and photographer to do a story on him. He reluctantly agreed to pose with Floyd on his shoulder. When the flash went off, the startled gator urinated all over Kendra’s shirt. Sports Illustrated ran a little 636-word article in which, tellingly, Kendra is quoted but once, at the very end, in which he says of the recruiting process, "You go where your heart tells you to go."

"Why," the boy asked his mother one day, "are all these people so interested in me? I’m just a kid."

"Why are all these people so interested in me?
I’m just a kid."

Diane Kendra wasn’t entirely sure herself. For you see, in the days of yore in which our tale unfurled, this degree of national scrutiny was unusual indeed. The electronically fueled maelstrom of hype unleashed upon the recruitment of elite high-school football players was in its infancy, in tandem with its enabler, the three-year-old World Wide Web. There was no such thing as ESPN.com (it launched the next year) and certainly no ESPN150 (that ranking of top recruits didn’t debut until 2006). The word "blog" would not be coined for another three years. Rivals.com was four years in the future. Subscribing to a list that would ensure that you’d get an email every time your favorite team got a verbal commitment from a recruit? That wasn’t even a twinkle in the mind’s eye of anybody anywhere. There were, as yet, no message boards where fans of every big time college program could post manic, profoundly ungrammatical comments concerning the fetishistic dreams and nightmares they were having about the futures of various strapping young boys.

(Maybe what made this a story before its time was a baseball strike, one that wiped out the World Series, and a hockey lockout, too, leaving a lot of sports pages and broadcasts with space and time to fill.)

In November, Dan Kendra went on his campus visits and narrowed his choices to Penn State and Florida State—where he’d had his first taste of Southern college football, the Florida/FSU game, at which he drank in the atmosphere at Doak Campbell Stadium and saw one of the biggest fourth-quarter comebacks in NCAA history, as the Seminoles rallied from 28 points down to tie the Gators 31-31, a game that is to this day known as "The Choke at Doak."

National Signing Day was in February, but Kendra wanted to drive a wooden stake through the recruiting process’s black and bewildering heart; in December, he verbally committed to Penn State.

What he felt, then, was peace, blessed peace. He was able to go back to the kind of regimented, scheduled life in which he thrived and felt like himself.

But after a couple weeks, his decision began to gnaw at him. Tallahassee wasn’t far from the Gulf of Mexico, which was a far better place to go scuba diving than anyplace anywhere near State College, Pa. The gameday energy at FSU was unlike anything he felt at the other schools. And Dan kept remembering the day Bobby Bowden came to the house. How relaxed and folksy and smart the coach seemed. Diane Kendra served him pierogies. Bowden had never had them before. "Ma’am," he’d marveled, "I just love these dadgum things." He asked if she had any more and she went to get them. As Bowden tucked into his ample second helping, he made it clear to the boy that he’d probably redshirt for a year and then most likely he’d back up Thad Busby for two years after that.

The boy was surprised. He never expected to start right away anyway. He presumed he’d have to pay his dues. That Bowden wasn’t making big and quite probably empty promises—as so many other coaches had—endeared him to the boy. "You can do whatever you want, sir," said Dan Kendra. "You’re the head coach."

Bowden looked around the table in mock astonishment. "You know, I believe you’re right," he said. "I am the head coach."

Everyone had had a nice laugh. There’d been good feelings all around.

Over Christmas break, Dan III would say things to Dan Jr., here and there, about FSU. The son would mention something about the snow and make jokes about what the weather was like in Tallahassee; for a time, the father bit his tongue. They watched the Seminoles beat the Gators in the Sugar Bowl (at the beginning of the game, the scoreboard read, "Fifth Quarter")—an exciting pro-style game that looked to be as much fun to play in as to watch. Dan III kept talking about how he liked the Seminoles’ uniforms.

Dan Jr. pointed out that whenever Dan III mentioned Florida State, he lit up.

Dan III said that that was probably so.

Dan Jr. said that he was getting the feeling that Dan III chose Penn State not because he was passionate about going there but rather just to get the recruiting madness over with.

Dan III said that was probably so.

Dan Jr. asked Dan III if football were out of the picture, where would he want to go?

Dan III thought about the campus at FSU and how comfortable he’d felt there and then looked out the window and the horrid, gray sky and said that that was an easy question. Florida State.

A long conversation ensued, followed by an equally long and more difficult conversation with Christy Cochran.

Followed, two weeks before signing day, by the announcement that Dan Kendra had decommitted from Penn State.

Today, this would not have been seen as anything particularly unusual. Nobody but Penn State fans (and the message boards where they vent and troll) would be particularly troubled by it. Switching schools after making a verbal commitment has become exponentially more common. Today, nobody anywhere counts on anything or anybody until the written commitment is faxed or emailed in pdf form to the university in question.

But those were different times.

even casual sports fans suddenly knew who Dan Kendra was

Pretty much every sports section in America ran a story about it, with headlines like "AN 18-YEAR-OLD CHANGES HIS MIND … AND CAUSES NATIONAL UPROAR IN COLLEGE FOOTBALL". Never mind that said uproar was as much the result of the media making a big fat hairy deal out of it as anything Kendra had done: a classic example of reporting the story of how many places were reporting the story, thus making it a bigger story: big enough that even casual sports fans—ones who, sanely, tuned out the recruiting process, ignoring all those kids until they actually earned playing time in college—suddenly knew who Dan Kendra was.

Or thought they did.

* * *

National Signing Day itself, though, was nothing like what it has become in this, our strange and modern times. Between classes, Dan Kendra walked down to the Bethlehem Catholic gym. He signed his letter. No crowd to speak of. No ballcaps on a table in front of him. No live TV. No media at all, in fact, except for a reporter and a camera guy from one of the Allentown stations. The segment that aired was about a minute long.

That August, when Kendra arrived in Tallahassee (having, of necessity, left his gator behind), he presumed that, for a year or two, he’d be able to go about his business—adjusting to college life and college football, maintaining a long-distance relationship with Christy, working harder than ever in the gym (he was up to 245 pounds now, with single-digit body fat), and trying harder than ever to perfect his diet. He’d be redshirting, after all, and then riding the bench for the foreseeable future, studying and quietly biding his time.

Through no fault of Dan Kendra’s, it didn’t turn out that way.

At the very outset of summer practices, his legend grew once again. Like a lot of players, he’d reported early and had been working out informally for a week or so, but at the first official team meeting, the kid was a no-show. Dave Van Halanger, the strength coach, told Bowden he had a good idea where Kendra might be. Sure enough: he was in the weight room, where he’d lost track of the time.

"Just how long have you been lifting?" Van Halanger said.

Kendra looked up. He weighed the question.

"Well, Coach," he said. "I’d say since about the eighth grade."

Later that week, every healthy player went through a variety of routine strength and speed tests. This was a Seminoles team with almost 30 players destined to be drafted into the NFL. The 40 times were blistering, led by people like Warrick Dunn, Samari Rolle, and Randy Moss (a fellow freshman who’d later be kicked off the team for smoking weed), but Kendra’s 4.6 was crazy-fast for a 245-pound quarterback. Kendra bench-pressed 425, more than anybody but offensive tackle Tra Thomas. His vertical leap was 41.5 inches, best on the team.

It’s likely that some players weren’t giving 100 percent so early. It’s also likely that word of Kendra’s feats wouldn’t have spread farther than the FSU practice facilities—if it hadn’t been for the leg press.

Before he even began, Kendra asked Van Halanger what the team record was.

"Eleven hundred pounds," Van Halanger said.

Kendra methodically worked his way up. By the time he got to 1,100, all the people in the weight room stopped what they were doing.

The kid made it look easy. His teammates went nuts. Van Halanger put on another 40 pounds. The other players laughed and whooped. People nearby were streaming into the room to see what was happening. Kendra made 1,140 look almost as easy.

The machine was theoretically past its limit, but Van Halanger managed to pile on more weight. "This is it, Kendra," he said, pointing. "That’s 1,335 pounds. We can’t fit any more weight on. This is our last shot."

Kendra nodded. "OK, Coach."

He positioned himself under the weight, took a deep breath, and, with the weights sagging on the machine, powered up a single mighty rep.

The room erupted in screams and cheers.

Van Halanger helped Kendra up. The kid had ruptured blood vessels in his eyes and they were already devil-red. His face, too, was red and getting redder by the second. His breathing was uneven.

"Coach Van," he said. "I feel dizzy."

Van Halanger rushed him to training room. Kendra’s legs were unsteady. When they got there and the trainer took over, the coach, spooked, went out in the hall and dropped to his knees and said a prayer. When Van Halanger went back in the room, the trainer was still looking Kendra over, but the kid was perched on the edge of the training table. Other than his red eyes, he seemed fine.

"Coach!" he said. "That was the best rep I ever had in my whole life!"

the absence of any on-field sightings of the seemingly superhuman phenom made the anticipation greater, the expectations more lofty

For a year, these stories and others like them were the only impression the average fan had of Dan Kendra. In real life, he was a blithe spirit, funny and light-hearted and already popular with his teammates. He carried a one-gallon jug of water wherever he went and he made himself six small, nutritious meals a day, and he happily slaked his innate, restless curiosity with all that he was learning about football and in his classes. But, for the public, the absence of any on-field sightings of the seemingly superhuman phenom made the anticipation greater, the expectations more lofty, the mystique more intriguing.

In the spring of ’96, Thad Busby—a 6’3, 220-pound junior—secured the starting QB job, as expected, although he didn’t get the nod over Kendra, the people’s choice, until after the Garnet & Gold game, the intrasquad scrimmage that concluded spring practice. That fall, Busby struggled to master the FSU fast-break offense, which, by the standards of those primitive times, was awfully complex. Also, he was a pure pocket passer with unimpressive foot speed and uninspiring improvisational skills. Bowden called him "Old Buzz," which made Busby sound like some tedious coot thwarting the promise of a brighter tomorrow. None of this was especially fair. Busby became a good game manager and wound up with a 21-2 record as a starter (both losses were to the Gators; each kept FSU from winning the national championship). He was the 1997 ACC Offensive Player of the Year and set a school record for passing yardage. But throughout both of Busby’s wildly successful years as a starter, he could never quite escape the specter of limitless potential that was Dan Kendra.

Most of FSU’s games in those years were Biblical-proportion blowouts, which meant several substantial late-game cameos for the Seminoles’ crown prince. Which, thus, meant that seeing Kendra warm up on the sidelines became a regular Saturday occurrence, one greatly elongated because the coaches had to let him know well in advance that he was going into the game so that he’d have time to perform his especially thorough stretching routine.

At the first sign of Kendra limbering up, the crowd began to cheer. The volume rose once Kendra started to throw. The band would play the war chant and the crowd would do the tomahawk chop. When Kendra jogged into the game, he’d usually get a standing ovation. Sometimes this even happened on the road. No quarterback who won more than 90 percent of his games ever heard louder cheers for his backup than Old Buzz.

newspapers all over Florida began running giddy previews of "the Kendra era"

In two seasons of spot duty, Kendra threw for more than 1,000 yards and accounted for 12 touchdowns. He started once (Busby had a hairline fracture to his wrist) and went 20 for 39 for 241 yards and three TDs, leading FSU to a 44-7 win over Wake Forest. His most memorable moment in a Seminoles uniform, though, came in the Miami game, long after the outcome had been decided (FSU went on to win 47-0). On his first play from scrimmage, Kendra blew through a hole off-tackle and seemed to fly downfield for 48 yards. A Miami defender had a good line on him, though, but instead of stepping out of bounds, Kendra lowered his head and clobbered the poor guy. You could hear the hit in the parking lot. The crowd went bananas.

Within days after Busby’s final game (a 31-14 win over Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl), newspapers all over Florida began running giddy previews of "the Kendra era" or, even, "Kendra-mania."

In fact, the Legend of Dan Kendra was about to draw to a close.

* * *

He entered spring practice as the starting quarterback. Even though Bowden and Mark Richt, the offensive coordinator, both said that there would nonetheless be competition for the job, few people outside the team’s inner circle took that as anything but lip service. Sure, Kendra’s competition had also been a high-school all-American, but he was also 26 years old, having languished in the Toronto Blue Jays minor league system for seven years before quitting and resuming his football career. Chris Weinke approached the competition with the poise one might have expected from a veteran professional athlete. Kendra had an excellent spring, but Weinke made it closer than most fans realized at the time. Among the Seminole faithful, there were no recorded outbreaks of Weinke-mania.

Ten former FSU quarterbacks showed up at the Garnet & Gold game to watch Dan Kendra’s official ascension to the throne they’d once held. He did not disappoint. At halftime, as the QB emeriti—Charlie Ward, Danny Kanell, Brad Johnson, Peter Tom Willis, et al—sat at long tables and dutifully signed autographs, the fans asked more question about the kid’s bright future than they did their heroes’ gilded past. Seldom was heard a discouraging word.

In hindsight, the second half might have been a splendid time for the coaches to lift their starting QB and take a look at some of the kids.

They got a chance to see their chiseled, seemingly invincible young QB collapse in a heap

Instead, about halfway through the third quarter, they got a chance to see their stout defense flush Kendra from the pocket. They got a chance to see Kendra sprint toward the sideline—the last few strides he’d ever make at full speed—and they got to see him make a good decision to throw the ball away. As he did, they got a chance to see linebacker Bradley Jennings hit him, low and hard. Those closest got to hear a pop. They got a chance to see their chiseled, seemingly invincible young QB collapse in a heap. They got a chance to see him get wheeled out of Doak Campbell Stadium on a golf cart, giving thousands of Seminole fans a thumbs-up.

After the game, when the team doctor diagnosed the injury as a severe sprain, they got to breathe a little easier. It was, in fact, what Bobby Bowden had expected to hear. Even when Kendra was writhing on the ground, Bowden was thinking, There’s no way this kid’s hurt bad. He’s too dag-gone strong.

The next day, an MRI showed a complete tear of Kendra’s ACL. He’d be out for at least a year. The knee would have to be rebuilt and would, realistically, never be the same.

And so it was that the Legend of Dan Kendra came to its classically tragic end.

* * *

The bomb incident provided a fitting denouement.

Right after he got hurt, Kendra cycled swiftly through the first few stages of grief. After taking such good care of his body for so long, the denial was hard to shake. The anger set in after the surgery, when he was hobbling around on crutches and watching his uninjured teammates and dwelling on the stupid randomness of how his whole life had been upended.

Kendra tried to cope by making a set of goals and plans. He’d always been a man with a plan, right? Blow by blow, meal by meal, rep by rep, day by day, all mapped out in advance. The doctors said the rehab process would take a full year. But Kendra looked at the regimen they’d given him and modified it. More of everything: stretching, reps, yoga, sleep, sessions with the physical therapist, the works. And then everything would be just fine.

This, he soon realized, was mere bargaining. His body wouldn’t do what he wanted it to, and no amount of gung-ho overcompensation was going to change that. He wasn’t special and neither was his knee.

And so it was on to depression. That’s where the homemade bombs came in.

And so it was on to depression. That’s where the homemade bombs came in.

That summer, Kendra was stuck in his apartment in Tallahassee, suffering from unreliable air-conditioning, a semi-immobilized leg strapped inside a heavy black brace, and the loss of the endorphin rushes and the emotional equilibrium that he’d always gotten from working out. He was bored out of his skull.

One day, he and his roommate were talking and somehow got onto the topic blowing things up—do-it-yourself backyard stuff they’d heard about, the kind of explosions people set off for amusement purposes only. This only sounds like an odd conversation if you’ve never been bored and young and a guy.

Today, a person could learn to make such a bomb by simply going here or here or here. (I must now ask you now, Dear Reader, to raise your right hand and solemnly swear not to try this at home). Back then, Kendra and his roommate had to rely on word of mouth. Happily, at least at first, the bomb worked perfectly and was awesome. They kept at it. It was an imperfect balm for the blues, but it passed the time and seemed harmless enough.

Until the day came that they were out of two-liter bottles. What the hell, Kendra decided, let’s see what happens if I make one in this empty A.1. steak sauce bottle.

Almost as soon as he mixed it, the bomb blew up in his hand. Glass flew everywhere. Kendra was covered with blood. He had gashes in his nose, chest, and stomach and had to get 28 stitches. The injuries weren’t serious, other than the mortal wound delivered to the final doomed vestige of that improbable golden-boy legend.

In a way, maybe that was for the best. He was never really that guy anyway.

* * *
Photo Credit: Elizabeth Tompkins

If you remember Dan Kendra at all, there’s a good chance that that explosion serves as your last impression of him. It was just the kind of dopey, inconsequential story that gets picked up everywhere, and it colored the tone of nearly everything written about him after that.

His impeccable eating habits (no longer especially unusual among elite athletes) were suddenly "eccentric." Once, he sang the praises of ostrich meat and its tremendous leanness to a reporter. It was a perfect Dan Kendra detail. The man’s not a nutcase: he’s a seeker—someone perpetually curious about fitness and sensation and the next new thing. But at the time, ostrich meat became a good excuse to imply that Kendra was, as the Orlando Sentinel put it, "living his life close to the lunatic fringe."

The weight training that had once come off as dedication and evidence of greatness was now, somehow, evidence that Kendra was obsessive and unhinged. A couple years back, as a goof, he’d done a Tallahassee Democrat photo shoot wearing a tattered jersey and with his face and arms painted Hulk-green. That photo started showing up in other papers, illustrating the latest Kendra updates. What was once obviously jokey mock rage came off, in this new context, as real—a reckless inversion of Kendra’s actual personality.

Kendra now says that he was more or less oblivious to the way his public image had changed. He was preoccupied with making a graceful transition to that last stage of grief: acceptance.

He tucked into his rehab. He was still with Christy, and he drew inspiration from seeing her Penn State volleyball teams kick ass and make it to NCAA Final Four every year. He saw the FSU football team, under Chris Weinke, in the national championship hunt, and he got the itch to contribute. It was Kendra’s nature to want to compete—not out of obsession or rage or to prove anything to anybody but just because it was fun.

He decided to come back in 1999, his senior season, as a fullback
you certainly can’t call him a bust

He decided to come back in 1999, his senior season, as a fullback. It suited him. He understood the offense. He loved to hit and he reveled in the satisfaction of blocking for the sake of blocking. He had precisely what a fullback needs to be a good receiver: soft hands and no fear.

And so it was that the true story of Dan Kendra’s football career wasn’t that he was a blue-chipper gone bust or made irrelevant by a serious, ill-timed injury. The true story is that he was the starting fullback for the ’99 Seminoles—a team that went undefeated and won the national championship. If his comeback escaped your notice, you’re forgiven. Who remembers the fullback? That said, you can’t say that a guy starting and playing well for a national championship is irrelevant. And you certainly can’t call him a bust.

After that, Kendra graduated and did well at the NFL scouting combine and signed a contract with the Indianapolis Colts as an undrafted free agent. In camp, he got off to a good start. He was impressing the coaches. But Kendra felt his body breaking down. He was getting stingers, first in one arm and then the other. He was fighting an Achilles tendon tweak. And his back was killing him.

I just don’t want this anymore, he thought. He wanted more out of life than to be leaning over a walker when he was still a young man.

"Football sort of chose me," he says now. "I didn’t choose it. I didn’t love it. I enjoyed competing, but football didn’t define me. I had other things I wanted to do."

He requested a meeting with Colts coach Jim Mora.

"I think I’m done with this," Kendra said.

Mora looked shocked. He told Kendra he’d been doing well and that—no promises, of course—he had a good shot of making the team.

"I just feel used up," Kendra said. He thanked Mora for the opportunity. And then he walked out the door and never looked back, literally or figuratively.

Christy was coaching volleyball in Austin. Dan moved in with her. In short order, he figured out what he wanted to do next: try to become a Navy SEAL.

"Even when I was at Florida State," he says, "I was way more interested in what special forces do rather than who’s the number one contender for the national championship this year. But even before football, even the thought of just trying out for SEALs was always in me."

he figured out what he wanted to do next: try to become a Navy SEAL

He joined the Navy as a reservist. He got a doctor to write him a letter saying his knee was OK and then requested an active-duty assignment to the SEALs program. He was fully aware of the paradox of quitting football because it was so hard on his body and then trying to become a SEAL, which was even harder. But he had to give it a shot. That was just him, Dan Kendra.

After almost two years, he finally got the call to come to San Diego for basic underwater demolition training.

He loved the competition and regimentation and being around the other guys. He loved being yelled at and broken down, loved the physical and emotional challenges of it all. He saw what it took to make it through all this and was in far more awe of the men who made it through than he’d ever been of, say, Peyton Manning or any other football player he’d ever seen.

"It’s hard to explain to civilians what goes on there," Kendra says. "It’s not athletics. It’s serious stuff. It’s the beginning phases of being allowed to be in the club to be a real warrior."

When Kendra started, he had 130 other people in his class. The next year, when he dropped on request, there were fewer than 20.

"I didn’t fail any training sessions," he says. "But as I progressed through training and as I got a better understanding of the mindset of what it means to be a Navy SEAL—the training is designed to do that—you wonder if it’s really for you."

He found himself dwelling on the reality of killing people. In the end, he just couldn’t see himself, in the heat of the moment, being able to stop thinking about that and just do what needed to be done. "The men who do that, the ones who go downrange …" His voice trails off. "Again, they’re amazing guys."

His explanation of all this comes without a shred of rationalization or justification.

"As a positive," he says. "I’m glad I had the cojones to investigate that. I seek things. I don’t just wonder."

* * *
"I tend to go overboard," he concedes, "on anything that really interests me"

Today, Dan Kendra lives in a newish two-story house in a neighborhood that would be utterly quiet if the Pennsylvania Turnpike weren’t humming in the distance. He got out of the Navy and "tried to find a normal job for once." Things with Christy didn’t work out and he moved back to the Lehigh Valley. He had a couple friends in the medical device industry. It seemed to play to his strengths. He’s a preternaturally likable guy with a fascination and an engaging sense of wonder about the mechanics of the human body. The job requires him to show state-of-the-art medical equipment—a precisely arrayed set of metal rods and little pistol-like implements inside a vented steel box the size of a board game—to surgeons doing all kinds of arthroscopic procedures and explain how the newest gizmos work. "I’m basically a human owner’s manual," Kendra says, although a lot of the job involves driving around and picking up those trays on a procedure-by-procedure basis.

His territory spans most of eastern Pennsylvania. "I go as far over as State College," he says. "I go to certain hospitals, like in Altoona? I introduce myself and they’ll say, "Kendra?’" He lowers his voice, as if in accusation. "I remember you."

"Yeah," Kendra says, "that’s me."

This sort of thing doesn’t happen every day, but it’s less rare than he thinks it should be. It does, he admits, make him equal parts sheepish and flattered.

The job pays better than he would have thought, and he’s done well at it. A couple years ago, he met a pretty, Italian woman named Carmen, the director of operations for the U.S. division of a Milan-based Italian pharmaceutical company. When she was briefly reassigned to Milan, he surprised her there and proposed. She was shocked. But she accepted. They were married last year and she resumed her job back in the States.

Kendra is still fit and trim, though by no means freakishly so. As ever, workouts give focus to his daily life. In his garage, there is an impressive and obviously oft-used set of kettlebells. The largest is 176 pounds—twice as big as the heaviest standard size. "I call it ‘The Soul Destroyer'," he says.

But Kendra’s current passion is parked on the other side of the garage: a black Nissan GT-R, a low-slung 545 horsepower sports car. He bought it for the thrill of driving something that powerful. But then he joined a local car club. Which led to thoughts of racing the thing, which led to driving lessons, which led to him spending his summer Saturdays speeding around racetracks, including the tri-oval at Pocono International Speedway. He just got the car back from a custom shop in Ohio, where he’d had it sent to get souped it up in ways only a gearhead could fully understand. He walks around the car, pointing out all the work he’s had done, explaining what it will allow the car to do.

He senses I’m not following him.

"You’ll put the car in the story, though, right?" he says.

I assure him that I will.

He shrugs, by way of apology.

"I tend to go overboard," he concedes, "on anything that really interests me. That’s just me. Dan Kendra."

Design Team

Editorial Team

Photo Credits: All photos via Getty Images unless otherwise noted

About the Author

Mw_photo__1_

Mark Winegardner's novels include Crooked River Burning, The Godfather Returns, and The Godfather’s Revenge, as well as the story collection That’s True of Everybody. He is the Burroway Chair of English & Distinguished Research Professor at Florida State University.

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