CLINTON — Urhonda Beckwith leans against the hood of a white pickup truck parked in her driveway and smiles.
She’s staring some 50 yards into the distance as her son — 250-pound LSU linebacker Kendell Beckwith — stands between two horses. With his right hand, Kendell holds the rein of Coco Chanel, a 2-year-old, 800-pound mare. In his left, he’s grasping the rein of 9-year-old Vicki Mari, a 1,200-pound former racehorse.
Coco Chanel and Vicki Mari are listening to Kendell’s commands. They walk where he instructs. They raise their heads when he smacks their bottom jaws. They lower them when he slightly tugs the reins.
Kendell drops the reins and walks. The horses follow him. Kendell stops and changes direction. The horses do the same.
“It’s amazing,” Urhonda says.
This is her son’s passion. It’s his one true love. He breeds, raises, trains and rides horses.
“I ain’t nothing but an old cowboy,” Kendell claims. “They’re my children. They’re my kids.”
One of the nation’s most athletic, intimidating and ferocious football players kisses horses on the nose and strokes shaggy manes. He teaches them to walk and rides them across fields. He embraces them, and he disciplines them.
He cares for them in more ways than you can imagine.
When one of them tramples on her own food bucket, rendering it useless, Beckwith deconstructs an old dog house, using the roof as a food bowl.
“If he would have told me,” Kendell’s father, Wendell, says, “I could have bought another bucket.”
That’s not how Kendell rolls — not when it’s about his children. Vicki Mari needed a food bucket now, and he got her one.
This is the Kendell Beckwith you probably don’t know.
The one you know? He’s the bulky figure gracing the cover of LSU’s media guide, his fearless eyes staring off the cover directly into yours. He’s the guy who found his spot as a middle linebacker last spring, took over as a starter in October and finished 2014 as the Tigers’ second-leading tackler.
He’s the kid whom LSU players anointed as “the next Freak” — because of his size and speed — when he arrived as a freshman in 2013, a highly regarded prospect ranked as Louisiana’s best recruit.
As one Southeastern Conference coach put it to Athlon Sports, Beckwith enters this season poised to be “the best linebacker in our league.”
He’s a cowboy, too.
For now, the cowboy is finished showing off Vicki Mari and Coco Chanel for a couple of guests. After all, it’s 6 p.m. That’s feeding time.
Kendell Beckwith’s “kids” live about 50 minutes north of Baton Rouge next to his family’s four-bedroom house on a plot of 8 acres of land.
It’s a 10-minute drive from the center of a sleepy town. Clinton has a Subway and a McDonald’s, a few barber shops, a handful of banks and a population of about 1,600. It has a remodeled courthouse, the center of a town square that’s nearly abandoned at 4 p.m. on a Tuesday.
“We don’t have restaurants,” Urhonda says.
Urhonda is tall. She’s a half-inch from meeting her son’s height of 6-foot-2 and more than an inch taller than her husband. Her father was 6-4, so it runs in the family.
Urhonda and Wendell were high school sweethearts, both from the Clinton area, both country folks who live in an elegant home built seven years ago.
The house is spotless. It’s thoughtfully decorated. It’s welcoming. It’s removed from civilization.
The home sits a couple of miles off a lonely state highway, set back from a skinny road lined with trees and tucked behind a couple of smaller homes and trailers. A gravel driveway winds its way back. To the right is the Beckwiths’ home. To the left, Coco Chanel and Vicki Mari greet guests with a blank stare.
Inside, there’s a room dedicated to the three Beckwith children: Wendell Jr., a 23-year-old former Tulane defensive end; Kendell; and Justin, a senior receiver at East Feliciana.
“It’s supposed to be a computer room,” Urhonda says as she walks into a space littered with trophies, plaques, jerseys, photos, ribbons and medals.
Wendell picks up a photo of a young Kendell standing with LSU coach Les Miles during a youth football camp years ago. The Beckwiths showed Miles the photo during a recruiting visit three years ago.
“He almost started crying,” Wendell says.
Kendell Beckwith heard the neighing and the stomping coming from just outside his bedroom window. He told his parents, and together they walked outside at 4 a.m. on Christmas morning to find the trailer.
Inside was a Welsh Pony named Tasha. Welsh Ponies are a half-horse, half-pony mix. Finally, Kendell’s parents had purchased him a horse after years of asking for one.
Kendell was 6 years old.
“He just took an interest in horses really young,” Urhonda says.
Dad is to blame. Wendell’s upbringing included horses.
Horses and hunting.
“That’s what we did,” he says. “We raised horses.”
Wendell, a big rig and dump truck driver who works for the state, is a former horse racer. He raced cars as well. In fact, Kendell is driving the very same 1994 GMC Sierra that Wendell used to race in his younger days. Kendell has spent a year restoring a truck that’s older than he is.
“Do you plan to race it?” he is asked in his living room, his parents on the couch next to him. Kendell’s answer is anything but reassuring to a worried mother, and she shoots him a look.
“If you race it, the truck comes back here for good,” she snaps.
Urhonda, a nurse, doesn’t mess around. She doesn’t ride horses, either. She’s ridden once in her life, she says.
Kendell has owned eight horses. He currently has four: Coco Chanel and Vicki Mari, the two females, and Rambo and Rozay, the two male studs.
“They’re my boys,” Kendell says.
Rambo is the son of Spirit, Kendell’s second horse. Spirit is the offspring of Tasha, his first horse. He raised Spirit for 10 years before selling the horse in January.
Shortly after selling Spirit, Kendell returned to work with his father.
“I can’t believe I did what I did,” Wendell says his son told him then.
Kendell says he’s not the normal cowboy. First off, he’s 6-2, 250 pounds and plays middle linebacker for the LSU Tigers. There’s more, he says.
“I’m not one of these cowboys with all the boots and the big belt buckles,” he says.
Kendell wears one pair of boots. He rides in Levis.
During the summer, he rides in the morning or late afternoon, avoiding the hottest time of the day. He fits the horse-riding — he might do it for hours — around his weightlifting and running. He rides on the highway, on the road, in the fields, through the woods.
Coaches suggest he limit riding during the season — he has been bucked off Rozay at least twice — but you can’t take the cowboy out of this kid.
When he’s in season, Kendell makes the 50-minute drive from Baton Rouge to his home on Sundays. Players have Sundays off until early-evening meetings. He rides Sunday afternoon, eats a home-cooked meal from Mama and then heads back to school.
“You have to make him come in and eat,” Urhonda says. “He spends more time with the horses than he does with us.”
Kendell waited 17 months to be a starter at LSU. That’s a while for a consensus four-star prospect ranked as one of the 10 best athletes nationally in the 2013 signing class.
It’s not a while, though, for Kendell, horse-breaker and deer hunter.
An owner breaks a horse when the horse adapts to the owner’s commands. Kendell recently broke Coco Chanel. It took three months and sometimes entire days to do so.
“It takes a while,” Wendell says.
So what’s 17 months? They weren’t easy.
Coaches didn’t quite know where to play Kendell. He played a half-dozen positions in high school.
Is he a defensive end? Is he an outside linebacker? Is he a middle linebacker or a hybrid who bounces from end to linebacker?
For the first half of his freshman season, Beckwith was the hybrid. That changed after his game-securing sack/forced fumble in a win over Florida.
Coaches moved him to defensive end full-time. That didn’t necessarily work, either. During LSU’s preparations for the Outback Bowl, he was moved to middle linebacker.
“It was frustrating for him, but we settled him,” Wendell says. “We told him, ‘Let coaches try you in different positions.’ ”
He settled in at middle linebacker — the position he always had his sights on — and overtook D.J. Welter for the starting job midway through last season. He wasn’t ready to be a starter through the first half of that season, Kendell acknowledges.
The season opener against Wisconsin in Houston last year came in front of 71,000 people in an NFL stadium.
“I was so nervous. So many people,” Kendell says. “I knew the plays, but it’s almost like the first time when you get in. I just felt pressure.”
Coaches strung him along, giving him a series every quarter or so. Eventually, Kendell “got used to it,” he says.
And now? Well, he’s an All-SEC second-team pick, a 250-pounder running 4.55-second 40-yard dashes, a junior who’s turning heads — from opposing coaches to ones in Baton Rouge.
“I’ve been around some Patrick Willises and Ray Lewises,” first-year LSU defensive line coach Ed Orgeron says. “Hopefully, he’ll become that type of player for us.”
A rare breed
Kendell believes he’s one of two LSU football players who owns horses. The other: sophomore safety-turned-linebacker Devin Voorhies from Woodville, Mississippi, only about 35 miles from the Beckwith home.
Some of his teammates have made the trip to the Beckwiths, watched Kendell with the horses, and they all had similar reactions, Urhonda says: “He’s just different.”
Does he feel like the oddball on the team?
“Sometimes,” Kendell says.
His off-the-field activities might be different from most LSU football players, but on the field Kendell already has done enough in one half-season as a starter to warrant some professional attention.
NFLDraftScout.com has him as the third-best linebacker in the 2017 draft. He’s eligible, of course, after this year. He’s listed among 125 players for next year’s draft, too.
Folks around Clinton know how good Kendell is. Wendell already is being asked whether he plans to quit his job when his son makes it big in the pros.
“Never going to give it a thought,” Wendell says, leaning up in a chair in the family’s living room. “I try to stay away from it. I try not to talk about it with him.”
Horses are on his son’s mind, anyway.
Kendell’s been obsessed with horses since he was a toddler. He used to get on all fours, imitating a horse and begging his brothers to hop on his back. They wouldn’t.
“He’d get mad,” Urhonda recalls.
On this Tuesday, Kendell is now the one mounting — this time, it’s Vicki Mari. He taps her twice on the back, hops atop her with ease and trots her around the pen.
He did it without using a saddle. Bareback. Clearly, he’s done that before, right?
“Not with her, no,” Kendell says.
They say there’s a bond between horse and man. Urhonda and Wendell have seen that first-hand.
They always know when Kendell’s back from school. It’s not the gravel crunching under his tires they hear.
It’s the horses neighing, trotting and pounding the earth.
“They make all kinds of noise,” Urhonda says. “It’s crazy.”