Playing for keeps on semipro football team

A routine football play turned out to be anything but for a 32-year-old semipro from Duarte

As the last traces of daylight vanished, players for the semipro Hollywood Stars tugged on shoulder pads and pants behind their cars. The smell of stale sweat, along with rap music and laughter from shouted jokes, drifted through the November chill of another night on the margins of organized football.

The pregame routine couldn't hide Kevin Kenny's absence. The white No. 12 jersey he wore in his final game rested next to a jumble of blue and silver helmets and Gatorade bottles in the near-empty parking lot at Paloma Valley High School in Menifee.

Almost five months had passed since Kenny slammed into a running back on a routine play during a game in South Los Angeles.

"Coach," he said, "I can't feel anything."

Camaraderie drew Kenny, 32, to semipro football. He and thousands of others like him risk their bodies for the chance to relive their days performing in high school or college and for the thrill of delivering a big hit. The overriding reason they play, though, is love of the game.

"They embody, for me, what football is about," Stars defensive coordinator Henry Rodriguez said. "They still have that inner child in them that wants to compete."

There are 1,200 teams like the Stars, by one estimate, scattered around the country. Teams come and go. They rent fields at high schools or small colleges. Each of the 53 men on the Stars' roster pays $250 to play in the six-month season. Coaches volunteer. Players buy their own equipment. They crash into each other at full speed.

Kenny's collision lasted a split-second. The memory of it hung over the parking lot as the Stars prepared to face the North County Cobras in the National Developmental Professional Football League's championship game.

Unanswered questions still troubled the Stars. So did lingering guilt as they struggled to reconcile the game Kenny adored with what coaches and players call "the accident."

::

Football tied together Kenny's life. Sundays were set aside to watch NFL games with daughter Aaliyah, 4, as they indulged in pepperoni pizza with extra sauce. He and his fiancée, Ericka Berumen, bet on games with each other — he supported UCLA, she rooted for USC — and threw Super Bowl parties.

Kenny trained six days each week at a gym – sometimes even during his lunch break as a service adviser at Advantage Ford Lincoln in Duarte. Those sessions helped to develop the speed that made the 6-foot-3, 230-pound defensive lineman difficult to block.

On the field, Kenny always seemed to be moving. He never slowed down. The game mattered too much to him to play any other way.

At first, nothing seemed unusual about the second play after halftime ended in the June 28, 2014, preseason game between the California Tide and the Stars. The Tide running back took a handoff and sprinted to the left toward the gap that appeared between two offensive linemen. Unblocked, Kenny lowered his head as he rammed into the running back.

Screams for help followed the thud of two bodies colliding.

Berumen walked into the stadium at Maya Angelou Community High School about 30 seconds after the play ended. Kenny didn't want her to attend the game because he didn't think the neighborhood was safe. She drove the 26 miles from their home in Duarte anyway.

"I hope that's not Kevin," she told a friend after noticing the injured player.

Kenny lay on his back as Rodriguez held his left hand. Kenny's eyes were all that moved.

"Can you feel me?" Rodriguez asked.

"Coach, I can't feel anything," Kenny repeated.

In the midst of the commotion, his words were clear. He asked the team to keep playing.

Jeff DeVito, the Stars' owner, can't stop replaying the hit in his mind. What if he hadn't persuaded Kenny to join the team three years ago?

Duke Carr, Kenny's best friend, regrets encouraging him to commit to one last season before retiring. Kenny had wanted to stop playing because his feet ached.

"I feel like it's my fault," Carr said.

Rodriguez thinks about the accident every day. What if he had called a different play? What if the hit came six inches in another direction? What if Kenny kept his head up?

"It happened on my watch," the coach said as he cried. "He was on my defense. I had him out there. It's not easy to not take the blame for this. ... I question myself all the time."

::

After emergency surgery at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center to insert metal plates in Kenny's broken neck, doctors gave him a 1% chance to move again. He was paralyzed from the neck down and needed a ventilator to breathe. Any recovery would be measured in years, not months.

When teammates and coaches visited after the surgery, Kenny told them he wanted to be on the sideline when they played for the league's championship. He never doubted the Stars would make it there.

"The first words out of his mouth were, 'You've got to win the whole thing for me,'" Rodriguez said.

Kenny didn't know what led him to lower his head during that play. Doing so is regarded as fundamentally unsound because it raises the danger in a game built around men slamming into one another. He knew better.

The hardest part to grasp, at least for those who lined up on the field next to Kenny, was that no one was to blame. No piece of equipment malfunctioned. No rule needed to be rewritten. This wasn't a dirty hit or the consequence of an official not blowing his whistle in time to end a play. This was football.

"Ain't nobody come out here because you don't like this game," Stars head coach Shaun Dennis told the team during a pregame speech weeks after the injury. "This game is important, man. This game is important. It ain't got nothing to do with a win or loss. It's important because you all have still got the ability to do what you love to do."

The team responded with cries of "Let's get it done, baby!"

Throughout the six weeks in the hospital, Kenny fixated on leaving. He planned his first meal on the outside: fish tacos from Max's Mexican Cuisine, followed by the Monrovia Pizza Company's pepperoni pie.

On Aug. 9, the Stars' Facebook page noted Kenny's progress: "It will be a long road of rehabilitation … but he is strong."

Two days later, Kenny couldn't sleep. Nothing seemed to help. He was supposed to leave intensive care the next day. A physical therapist arrived about 9:30 a.m. and started stretching Kenny's arms and legs. Berumen soon noticed that his eyes weren't responding.

Attendants tried CPR. Nothing worked.

Kenny died. Doctors told Berumen the cause was complications from the injury.

At least 13 other football players have suffered fatal on-field injuries in the last two years. All were in high school. A semipro player in Ohio died after a hit during a game in 2012. Those deaths drew media attention. Kenny's remained anonymous.

In the weeks before Kenny died, he stopped watching football. He and Berumen stuck to movies and television shows on her iPad.

"He was mad at football, that football hurt him," she said. "He didn't hate it. He was just mad at it. I am too.

"He couldn't believe what it did to him."

::

At the championship game, Berumen slipped past the concession stand hawking chili dogs and $15 T-shirts and onto the metal bleachers that seemed to swallow the hundred or so supporters on hand.

She made the hour-long drive to Menifee to accept the league's most inspirational player award on Kenny's behalf.

She wondered if she was ready to face the sport that took the man whose engagement ring glittered still on her left hand.

Kenny's football pads and helmet remain in the trunk of Berumen's Mazda. She can't bring herself to remove them. They make her feel as if he's still here.

Best-friend Carr shifted from side to side in the bleachers as players on the field below finished warm-ups and high-fived and chanted in the final minutes before kickoff. He wasn't comfortable. But Carr felt obligated to be here because he knew how much this game mattered to Kenny.

"I hate football," Carr said.

It didn't use to be this way. Carr figured he missed three of Kenny's games in five years. He'd do most anything to support the buddy who made a habit of doing things like buying socks for Carr after he stepped in a puddle. At the hospital, Carr sometimes sat outside Kenny's room and imagined that they were preparing to enjoy a day of watching NFL games on television at home.

A few steps away, Berumen stared at the field with her hands folded. The crunch of collisions from the opening kickoff echoed off the bleachers.

No Stars players quit the team because of Kenny's death. A seed of doubt, however, existed where none had before, leading some to question whether they should jeopardize their health for a pastime. What united them now was a desire to win the championship for Kenny.

One of the Stars, Terrance Knox, put on a No. 12 jersey to remember Kenny. They had played football together at Duarte High School. Midway through the second half, Knox caught a kickoff, eluded a half-dozen attempted tackles while he ran 96 yards and tumbled into the end zone.

"There's a smile from up above," the announcer shouted.

Berumen thrust a finger skyward.

After the game ended in a 32-10 defeat for the Stars, she carried a yellow bag filled with paper lanterns onto the field.

Twelve lanterns — in honor of the number on the jersey Kenny wore — rose into the black.

nathan.fenno@latimes.com

Twitter: @nathanfenno

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
53°