He was laughed at by his peers in high school, bad-mouthed by another a coach when he tried to start his own team, but that hasn’t stopped Benjamin Kennedy Sr. and his family from making track and field the core of their bond as a family.
Kennedy Sr. has returned the love of a sport that has guided him throughout his life by taking it upon himself – along with his family – to coach and mentor youths so that they don’t go down the path that Kennedy Sr. himself almost went down.
“It’s good because it makes me feel like I’m giving back to someone who gave to me. Because if it wasn’t for somebody that did for me, I wouldn’t be where I’m at today. I wish I would have went further but it didn’t happen,” Kennedy Sr. said.
In 2007, Kennedy Sr. branched off from another team to form his own, the Southeast Striders track and field team. When he did it, the coach he was previously with took offense to Kennedy Sr.’s actions. According to Kennedy Sr. the coach said that he would never get started and that Kennedy Sr. wasn’t good.
Despite the bump in the road created by someone Kennedy Sr. used to work with, he was able to start the club in the summer of 2007 with seven kids.
“The team wasn’t looking out for a lot of the kids really. If you were not the best kid, they were not really looking out for you. I got tired of it,” Kennedy Sr.said about his former team.
The Striders winded up having a pretty decent summer; some of the kids made regionals, and one kid made nationals. Over the years he’s had many kids qualify for nationals. However, that’s not what’s important to Kennedy Sr.
His primary goal is to mentor these kids and get them to college.
“My thing is to get somebody into college,” Kennedy Sr. said. “I don’t care if it’s a junior college, NCAA level three, two or one. Whatever it is [my goal is] to get them to a college.”
“My team is more than just about running track. Kids who have low self-esteem, I’m trying to work with kids who have issues at home or with the books at school. I’m trying to give them more self-esteem and leadership [qualities].”
The same qualities Kennedy Sr. tries to instill in his kids are qualities that he wouldn’t have if it weren’t for his high school coach, Irvin C. Goldberg. During Kennedy Sr.’s sophomore campaign he came in dead-last in an 800-meter race.
“I came in so far behind they were waiting to start the next race,” Kennedy Sr. laughed.
When he did, kids laughed at him. His coach came over to him and made sure he was okay, while offering some encouragement. Kennedy Sr. told his coach he would never come in last again, and he never did.
He would later beat the kids that laughed at him. Kennedy Sr. was a state champion his senior year, 15th in the country, and he won the Iron Horse Award for most outstanding athlete in outdoor track.
The fact that Kennedy Sr.’s coach gave him a chance meant so much to him. Kennedy Sr. said he wasn’t that good at first, but he had heart and he worked hard.
“When I came out of New York I was not the top runner. When I went to John F. Kennedy Sr.in the Bronx, I was one of 60-something kids on the team and I was just getting started coming from freshman to sophomore, and all of a sudden I broke loose. I made the varsity team by my mid-sophomore year,” Kennedy Sr. said.
“He stood with me, man — he pushed me. When I was having issues and problems in the streets he kept on me. He’s the one that got me to college.”
Kennedy Sr. tries to emulate Goldberg in the way he coaches and mentors his team. He credits Goldberg for much of his success.
“He’s been a mentor to me, and he’s been like a father-figure. He’s a great man overall,” Devon Hines, one of Kennedy Sr.’s assistants, said. “A lot of times you come across people and they say they (will) do this or they can do that, but he shows action. If he says he’s going to do something he does it. With the kids I just see that he loves them, he loves the sport.”
“A lot of the kids, they come in there with problems, emotional problems or whatever and he’s just like, ‘Okay we’re not going to focus on track. I’m going to talk to you and we’re going to see what the issue is, and we’re going to take care of it.’”
Kennedy Sr. tries to teach his kids – since many of them face an upbringing similar to his – that they can do better than what they have. Kennedy, his wife Angelyn Kennedy and their son Benjamin “BJ” Kennedy Jr. volunteer as a family. BJ has been running since he was five. Now he attends Troy University on a scholarship where he’s studying sports therapy.
Angelyn and Ben Kennedy Sr. met in 1982 and have been married for 24 years in August.
“He’s good. He’s good at coaching the kids in a couple different disciplines, especially the jumps and the throws,” Angelyn Kennedy said.
Kennedy Sr. works at the Newton County sheriff’s office as a detention deputy and his wife Angelyn Kennedy works at Salem as a school teacher. Between the months of January and July the Kennedy family is busy with track and field.
All of the Striders’ activities are paid for out of the Kennedys’ pocket, with some help coming from the parents.
“It is a burden. We take a lot of our own personal money to put into this,” Kennedy Sr. said. “I have some parents who’ve been helping out giving some of their money to help, but it’s still a lot. We’ve got to pay for our own hotel, traveling and gas. We travel to these places, and it’s a lot, but we do it for the love of the kids.”
“What I’m trying to do for these kids is give them hope,” Kennedy Sr. said.
Kennedy Sr. wants his kids to grow up and be able to make contracts instead of signing them, and that all starts with getting an education.
“I’m trying to do something for the community to get them more involved into athletic sports,” Kennedy Sr. said. “Even with the kids that get involved some of these parents are not involved with their kids. I want to wake these kids up that there is more out there than the streets and drugs, because kids who are on a low totem pole feel like they can’t go anywhere.”
“Some of these kids have never been anywhere,” Kennedy Sr. said. “The last couple years they’ve been somewhere. The kids have gone to South Carolina, North Carolina, last year we were in Florida. So we’ve taken some of these kids and encouraged the parents to get these kids and let’s go somewhere.”