NFF Black History Month Q&A with Lincoln Kennedy

Hall of Famer and NFF Board Member shares his thoughts on Black History and its connections to football, his career experiences and current events.
Lincoln Kennedy joined the National Football Foundation Board of Directors in 2018.
He currently works as a color commentator for the Las Vegas Raiders Radio Network and host of a talk show on FOX Sports Radio. He also is a restaurateur and CEO of EL-K Cigars.
A unanimous First-Team All-America offensive tackle at Washington in 1992, Kennedy led the Huskies to a perfect 12-0 national championship season in 1991. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2015.
A first-round pick in the 1993 NFL Draft, he played 11 seasons with the Atlanta Falcons and then the Oakland Raiders, twice earning All-Pro honors.
What does Black History Month mean to you?
It allows us to reflect and understand history to enhance our future. You know, the old saying, if you don’t learn from history, you’re doomed to repeat it. You can look at history and the trials, tribulations and triumphs of a particular ethnic group, in this case Blacks, and everything that they’ve done for this country and then even in the world, which helps frame your future.
Do you have a favorite Black historical figure who you admire and aspire to follow in their footsteps and why?
I don’t have one person. Everyone is different. You can learn from a lot of lessons from key people. For example, I read the book on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and his history as well as Jim Brown and Muhammad Ali, who are great individuals and fought for what they believe, using sports as their platform to help get their message out. Then also the writings of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Langston Hughes, and even the story of Oprah Winfrey, all these things helped mold my outlook on what it means to be Black in America. And connecting that to my responsibilities to my children and trying to raise them to be as prosperous as they possibly can in our country. So, I’m just taking the lessons from all of those people I mentioned to help mold me and make me a better father and a better person.
Are there any specific lessons you learned from the Black historical figures you cited?
When Kareem changed his name, he came under a lot of scrutiny, but he did it for his own personal beliefs. There are a lot of lessons like that, especially when you talk about hope. It’s not one lesson in particular, but it’s supporting or standing by something you believe in and not letting the pressure of the outside world or what other people think change it. I think that’s incredibly strong.
To me, as somebody who has been in the media spotlight, sometimes you can feel pressure to always want to answer or respond to people criticizing you. In my younger years, it definitely affected my team. And then I realized, wait a minute, that’s not true to who I am. Especially when I got into the broadcasting business, I had to learn to develop my own voice. What I mean by that is you can’t be like everyone else. I couldn’t do a radio show like Rich Eisen. I had to be different. I had to be Lincoln Kennedy, and I had to understand it takes time to develop your own voice. And it’s still a work in progress. I feel pretty confident that the people who know and follow me in this business truly take my opinion for what it is. Because it is exactly that, my opinion, and they can do whatever they want to do with it.
Do you think athletes should use their platform to address social issues?
Yes, their platform gives them an opportunity to get people’s attention. When I go into a school, if I was just a big guy who did not play football, I probably would not get the attention of a lot of the kids. But the fact that I played football, am a big guy, and a lot of times played for their favorite team, they want to learn, listen and know what life was like for me. So, I use that as an opportunity to get in front of them. But that being said, athletes are people too. Social issues affect them. What’s different for them voicing their opinion, talking about how it affects them or sharing their viewpoints? More times than not people will listen to athletes because they have the platform than somebody just walking on the street ranting and raving.
What advice do you give kids at schools when you speak to them?
Happiness is not about how much money you make. It’s one of the big things I always say. Every time I’ve talked to kids, they want to know what kind of car I drive, the watch I wear, how big is my house. Happiness is not about how much money you make. It’s about what makes you feel good. So, if you love art, do art. If you love to paint, do what you love to do. Follow what you love and you’re passionate about because that’s true to you. You’ll figure out a way to survive. Money doesn’t solve everything. So, you shouldn’t always spend your time chasing it because you’ll forget about the world and the things that might really truly matter to you and your life.
What are the messages that you share with young Black students about the challenges they might face?
Be an individual. Don’t be a follower. Be a leader. As a young Black man, I didn’t have a father figure in my life. So, I gravitated to hanging out with crews and gangs and stuff like that. My life could have taken a very serious turn in a different direction many times before I got it together, realizing that I wanted to get out of the inner city of San Diego. Figuring a way out was not necessarily easy. I didn’t start playing sports until I was in the 10th grade. So, I didn’t really know much about sports. I did not know how I was going to get out. But I see so many people, especially kids, wanting to belong and fit in instead of being their own individual and finding the [right] place to fit in. I didn’t just join, and I didn’t have to share all the unanimous viewpoints. Sure, I love stuff like that. But, you know, I wanted to be an individual and do my own thing. That’s the way I saw myself. If it’s meant to be, it’s up to me.
What has football meant to you?
My dad was in the Navy, and my mom and dad got divorced. We moved around quite a bit in San Diego. I didn’t start playing sports until high school when I was discovered by my high school football coach during halftime as a member of the marching band, playing trumpet. He saw me later on campus asking me my grade, which was ninth, and told me great, next year you’re coming out for football. Once I got bitten by the jock bug, I wanted to play all the sports. So, I put down my trumpet to play football, basketball, track and field.
I was just going at it, enjoying myself as an athlete. It wasn’t until my junior year when I started getting recruiting letters that this was a great way for me to get out of San Diego and get a higher education because I had no way to pay for it. So that’s when Washington came around. I originally wanted to be a lawyer, but the political science classes were in the afternoon and interfered with football practice. So, I went into the arts and minored in communications just because I could talk. So, it was a little bit of a challenge. I’m happy to have a college degree and to be a successful businessman.
Do you feel that football provided you opportunities as an African-American that you might not have had otherwise?
Football allowed me to get a college degree. It also allowed me to go to the National Football League, creating a comfortable lifestyle for me and my family. So, football did that for me. But I still had to go out there and do it. So, it molded me in a way and gave me an opportunity to do things and afforded me opportunities afterwards to do other things.
Football allowed me to buy my businesses. Football helped me to understand the world when it comes to money and credit. All the things that are powerful that a lot of people don’t learn because they don’t have the means. I didn’t know what to do with my first contract because I’ve never had that type of money before. I made mistakes. But I was able to rebound and learn from those mistakes. If you’ve never had money, you don’t necessarily know how to deal with it. So, it took me time to figure those little life lessons out. But overall, football gave me that opportunity. And as well as to not necessarily be caught up where you’re working so hard just to make it. Football allowed me to explore other things. Originally, I wanted to be a lawyer, but because of football I got into the communications and broadcasting business, which I would not be in without football.
Do you feel that our country has made progress in the past year addressing some of the issues faced by African-Americans?
This country has been racial tense for quite some time. What happened last year with the Black Lives Movement, George Floyd was like the powder keg to really bring a lot of awareness. But you go back to when Colin Kaepernick took a knee, everyone was all up in arms about what’s he doing. Tell him not to disrespect the flag. The misunderstanding of what he was trying to stand for was to bring awareness to a rather serious issue. It set a lot of people off and rightfully so. But here’s the thing, I wish people would sit and try to understand and see exactly what they’re going through and referring to, and in this case it’s police brutality. And it wasn’t until George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and the other mistakes and misfortunes of last year when people started to slow down and say wait a minute, this seems a little out there and irrational. Let’s try to understand it, you know what’s going on? Even so, you still have people who are saying, oh, you’re disrespecting the flag. And that created even more tension. Leaders should stand up and try to make sense of everything rather than calling someone an enemy because that just creates more divisiveness. So, I always thought that racial tensions were hot. It’s kind of calmed down a little bit, but the problem is still there.
How would you summarize the issues faced today by African-Americans in our country?
The problem is the ignorance and lack of attention to the details and misfortunes. As a Black man, it worries me because I’ve got kids. I’ve been racially profiled. I’ve been stopped in my nice cars in my neighborhood by police officers for nothing. You know, but at the same point, I don’t want my status as an athlete to be a pass. I tell my kids: ‘You’re out there. You got to be aware. You got to be respectful of people that you’re talking to.’ I don’t want anything to happen to someone that I care about over something silly like you didn’t have your hands on the steering wheel or a hand in your pocket. These are the types of things we see going on. And it’s not just Black people. It’s other people as well. But it’s still unfortunate for someone to lose their life over a foolish incident, something that could have been prevented with just a little more attention to detail and little more awareness. It’s sad.
The best thing about the Black Lives Movement was that around the world, all types of ethnicities, all ages, all colors, everyone had their own way of protesting what is going on with racial injustice. These things have happened in this country for far too long. I’m approaching 50, and in my 50 years, I’ve experienced racism. I’ve been called [the n-word] to my face many times during my life. But that hasn’t swayed me from trying to be nice to everyone because that’s just the type of person I am. But as far as we think we’ve come; we still haven’t come as far as we should. Let’s put it that way. There’s still a lot to be learned, and there’s still a lot that needs to be done. But hopefully, for the future, there will be a lot more awareness and people will try to understand someone who is different from them a lot better before they judge them.
How do you feel when you receive preferential treatment because of your status as a professional athlete?
When I go places and someone recognizes me as former football player, I don’t want that to be an excuse to be treated differently, especially as a Black guy. If I was just a regular guy who worked at UPS, I would like to be treated the same way that I am now. I know it’s different and odd when people recognize Michael Jordan, he’ll probably get treated a lot different than someone else. But it shouldn’t be like that. I would appreciate it when someone comes up to me, and rather than saying, man, your big, you must do something. [Rather] you’re a nice-looking guy, what’s your name? Get to know me before you judge me. These days, I get asked all the time, do you play sports? Nope. [laughter] I answered their question truthfully. If they asked me did you play sports, it would be a different answer. But it’s strange how people feel uncomfortable, especially when they’re around me on how to address me because of my size.
Do you feel that you get hit twice being profiled not just as a big man, but as a big African-American man?
There is no doubt about it. One of the things I have stressed raising my kids, who are tall too, is you’re not going to be a bully but you’re also not going to allow people to push you around. With my size, the first thing people want to assume, especially if they figured out I played for the Raiders, is to tell me ‘I’m not a Raider fan.’ Well, okay, that has nothing to do with me. The double whammy comes when I hear things like: ‘Oh, he’s so well spoken. And, you know, I didn’t think you could talk like that.’ It’s insulting because I am an intelligent person. Try to get to know me for my intelligence before you think just because I played football that I can’t put two sentences together.
What have you tried to teach your sons about being profiled as a Black man when they walk into a room?
The biggest thing is to treat everyone with respect. You never know who you’re going to meet, and more importantly, you got to be an individual, not be a follower. Know the difference between right and wrong. So, if you do wrong, there are going to be penalties. Make your own choices and do what’s right for you.
What does it mean to you to serve on the NFF Board?
Obviously, it’s a tremendous honor to me. Being voted into the College Football Hall of Fame was a tremendous honor, and I take the future of college football very seriously. Football has made a tremendous impact in my life, and to be a part of the board to help the future of the sport is important to me. Youth football helps bring communities together and it gives kids something to do and get them off the streets. There is just an overall value of football and being on the NFF Board means that I have a voice.

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