Eddie Kennison... 07/24/98

Eddie Kennison concentrates on catching the football during the St. Louis Rams' training camp in Macomb, Ill., on July 25, 1998. Kennison, a Lake Charles native who starred at LSU before playing 13 seasons in the NFL, will be inducted to the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame on June 24.

Associated Press file photo by JAMES A. FINLEY

Best he can remember, it was during his sophomore year at LSU.

Maybe it was after that masterful punt return against Mississippi State.

But it was sometime that season that Eddie Kennison started thinking that, hey, maybe this whole football thing he’d been doing for fun might amount to something.

It certainly did — enough for Kennison to earn a spot in the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame. He and the rest of the Class of 2017 will be inducted June 24 in Natchitoches.

When it came to Kennison's football talent, many others had suspected sooner than Kennison himself that it would take him a long way. It was perhaps the only time Kennison was slow to come around on anything.

Most of the signs were there, and had been for a while.

It involved speed — the kind of speed that can turn you into one of the Southeastern Conference's most feared receivers and kick returners and a six-time track All-American, followed by 13 years in the NFL.

Oh, Kennison had noticed he was faster than the other kids growing up in Lake Charles, but he didn’t think much of it. Just neighborhood silliness, kids running around having fun.  

When the family moved to Houston for a couple of years, he was introduced to organized football with pads and coaches and whatnot. He still didn’t give it much thought.

When the Kennisons moved back to Lake Charles for his sophomore year at Washington-Marion High School, maybe he still didn’t realize he was anything special. But the Charging Indians’ coaches — most notably the late head coach, Robert Lavergne and assistant Brent Washington — surely did.

“And it didn’t take long,” Washington recalled. “We just knew we had to figure out how to get him the football. That would be a pretty good offense right there.”

You want the definition of man playing against boys? During one span of his senior season, Kennison scored on the first play in three straight games.

He was also one of the state’s top sprinters, and recruiters liked the sure hands that made it clear he was a football player dabbling in track, not vice versa.

By the end of his junior year, the recruiting letters were coming in, as many as 20 per day. Kennison didn’t know what to make of it.

By his senior year, when he was named to the prestigious Parade All-America team and ranked by many as nation’s No. 1 high school receiver, the rate had doubled.

But college? What was that?

“There was really no one in my family that even talked about college,” Kennison remembered. “It was never a top priority. Football was just something to do.”

Lavergne and Washington sat him down several times.

“Basically they said this is a life-changer. ... Even when they were giving me the message, I don’t know that I really got it," Kennison said. "I’d never heard it before.”

He heard pleas from just about every major football power. The battle royale came down to Florida State, with iconic coach Bobby Bowden, against LSU and Curley Hallman.

“Curley was just real,” Kennison said of his decision to become a Tiger. “An honest guy. You always knew where you stood. I still talk to him occasionally.”

One problem.

Despite the badgering from his high school coaches, Kennison didn’t immediately qualify academically.

After sitting a year getting his grades right — “It only made me want it badder” — he quickly became an integral part of the Tigers’ offense, and just as feared as a kick returner.

Anyone who was in Tiger Stadium on Sept. 10, 1994, wouldn’t have much trouble picking out his top collegiate moment.

That night against Mississippi State, Kennison turned in his signature play at LSU — one that then-Bulldogs coach Jackie Sherrill is positive had to be illegal or impossible or vodoo magic or ... or something. Maybe trick photography.

But as long as there are record books at LSU and the NCAA, he’s probably destined to be remembered for the “punt return.”

Kennison still has no idea what made him chase down the line-drive punt, which first bounced at the 4-yard line and trickled toward the end zone.

“Football says you don’t field it inside the 10 ... and I knew that,” he recalls. “Instinct, I guess.”

He didn’t just let it bounce into the end zone, either. He complicated matters by slapping at it, losing the handle with a brief bobble and finally getting a grasp on it a half-step on the wrong side of the goal line.

Kennison was greeted by a pack of Bulldogs, two of whom knocked him 5 to 6 yards deep into the end zone.

But they didn’t knock him down.

“Instinct took over,” Kennison said. “That’s the only explanation I have.”

Somehow he found a sideways escape route, and soon he was sprinting down the sideline.

It went into the books as a 100-yard punt return, a record that can’t be broken since the NCAA measures anything from inside the end zone as an even 100 yards. It rarely comes up on punt returns anyway.

The next day when the team gathered to review the game, Kennison recalled that Hallman went into a small rant as the play unfolded on the screen, pointing out everything that was wrong, foolish and almost disastrous with what he’d done in breaking one of the game’s golden rules.

Then Hallman let the film run.

“You shouldn't do it,” Hallman shouted, suddenly grinning. “But if you do ... then this is the result you want.”

But these weren’t the glory days of LSU football.

Even coast-to-coast punt returns couldn’t save the Tigers from a sixth consecutive losing season — four under Hallman — and Gerry DiNardo took over as head coach for Kennison’s junior season in 1995.

Kennison didn’t have quite the warm and fuzzy relationship with DiNardo that he’d enjoyed with Hallman.

There were no major problems, Kennison said, “but we would have eventually butted heads if I’d stayed for my senior year.”

He was already mulling over the idea of leaving after that junior season for the NFL. The decision got a lot easier after LSU turned things around in the 1995 season with its first postseason trip since 1988. Kennison lit up the Independence Bowl for 249 all-purpose yards against Michigan State, including a game-changing 92-yard TD kickoff return.

It got easier still after he ran a 4.28-second 40-yard dash for scouts at LSU’s pro day, and the St. Louis Rams made him their first-round draft pick in 1996.

He and head coach Dick Vermeil formed an immediate bond — they still communicate several times a month — and Kennison was the Rams’ rookie of the year and an alternate selection for the Pro Bowl.

Along the way, he happened upon one of those NFL rookie symposiums sponsored by the NFL. It was the usual warnings of players who made millions and still finished their careers dead broke, often leading to bigger trouble.

“I did a little research of my own,” Kennison said. “It wasn’t just football. It’s baseball, basketball, all athletes. I didn’t want to be a negative statistic.”

Suddenly, the guy who was so slow to take to schooling couldn’t get enough of it.

Over the years, during the offseason, he took part in three of the NFL’s MBA programs — one at LSU but also one at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and another at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business.

Kennison played three more seasons with the Rams, but his career looked to be waning after three nondescript years — one season each with the Saints, Bears and Broncos.

Then he signed with the Kansas City Chiefs, where Vermeil had become the coach, and resurrected his career — at least 800 yards receiving for five straight seasons, including 1,086 in 2004 and 1,102 in 2005.

Kennison and his wife, Shimika, got much more than that.

“Kansas City just so happened to be the place where it flourished for us, as much with our personal life as football,” he said. “It was that point when both of us I guess matured. Better husband; better wife; we were better parents (they have three boys) and understood what life should really be about. Everything clicked.”

Meanwhile Kennison, was doing plenty for himself — and even more for others — off the field.

He had never heard of lupus, a chronic autoimmune disease, when Shimika was diagnosed with it in 2003.

But Quickstart, the Eddie Kennison Foundation, was soon formed to raise money to learn more about it and fight it.

He was warming up before a Chiefs game in New York when on the sidelines he saw Jets owner Woody Johnson, who had his own foundation fighting the disease since his daughter was diagnosed with it.

Kennison sprinted up to say hello and asked if he could talk to him sometime. The next week, Johnson did make contact.

The player and owner hit it off, eventually merged their foundations and in the past 10 years, he said, have raised more than $90 million.

Perhaps it contributed to Shimika now being symptom-free and off medication.

Meanwhile, Kennison formed and sold several businesses, but now is personally involved only in Barrel 87, an online club in which he personally deals with wine and beer distributors, getting a jump on new products to get them to his members.

He now calls himself a “Pro Wine Receiver” and personally chooses new spirits for club members to sample once a month.

Usually the wine is delivered by mail order. But members in the Kansas City area often get personal deliveries from Kennison himself.

Very quickly, no doubt.