Joe Kennedy is a former Marine who serves as an assistant coach for Bremerton High School’s varsity football team. And for the past few years, the 46-year-old Christian has made a ritual out of praising God at the 50-yard line after games.
I should probably start by saying that I’m not religious.
I don’t go to church. I don’t quote Scripture. And while I ask people for forgiveness constantly, it’s been a while since I’ve asked a higher power.
I should add that I cringe at the way non-Christians are made to feel sometimes. Police in Texas arrested a Muslim teenager last month after determining the clock he made was a “hoax bomb.” I realize this was an extreme, nationally-maligned reaction, but I still think it offered a glimpse into a prejudice that persists throughout much of the country.
So Wednesday, when I talked to a high-school football coach who, despite receiving a letter from his school district demanding that he stop, said he will continue his postgame tradition of praying at the 50-yard line, all I could think was this: I hope my kid has a coach like that one day.
Joe Kennedy is a former Marine who serves as an assistant coach for Bremerton High School’s varsity football team. And for the past few years, the 46-year-old Christian has made a ritual out of praising God at the 50 after games.
He has never asked anyone else to partake, and he hasn’t gone out of his way to attract attention. But after a while, players took notice and decided they wanted to join. Kennedy welcomed the company.
For several seasons, this scene went unobstructed. Actually, that’s the wrong word — this scene was embraced. The midfield meeting allowed players from both teams to enjoy a moment of community after four quarters of carnage.
It wasn’t just the Christian kids, either. Bremerton team captain Ethan Hacker is an agnostic who has yet to miss the postgame prayer. To him, those few minutes aren’t about a Father in Heaven — they’re about his brothers on earth.
“It’s about unity. We can be mad at each other all we want during a game and get upset, but once the game is over, that all goes away,” Hacker said. “What (Kennedy) does brings us all together no matter how much we despise each other.”
Hacker, a senior, added that he has just three 50-yard-line gatherings left and hopes outside forces don’t interfere with something so rewarding. Hacker’s atheist mother, Kaci Sun, shares his zeal, and said the idea of halting the prayer session is “absolutely ridiculous.”
But Bremerton is a public school, and separation of church and state is a principle America was founded on. So when you have coaches and players bowing their heads in prayer, you can see why an administrator might shake his with disapproval.
On Sept. 17, District Superintendent Aaron Leavell wrote a letter to Kennedy saying that his prayers with student-athletes had to stop. He acknowledged that his actions were “entirely well-intentioned” but also in violation of district policies and the law.
As a result, Kennedy waited until everyone had left the field before praying after a game last month, but he has since reconsidered. From here on in, the coach is staying the praying course.
Wednesday, Kennedy and his attorney held a news conference at Seattle Center to announce his intent to pray at the 50 after Bremerton’s game vs. Centralia on Friday. Asked why, he said that it was something worth fighting for, adding, “How do you teach your kids about courage if you don’t do it?”
The Bremerton school district would not comment on Kennedy’s plans or whether he would face discipline — nor would it allow Bremerton High principal, John Polm, to give an interview. But the understanding is that Kennedy is putting his job at risk as a matter of principle.
Like I said, Joe can coach my kid any day.
First off, Kennedy is the furthest thing from a Pat Robertson-like Bible thumper. He is soft-spoken, gentle, and clearly conflicted over his stance. He admitted Wednesday that he has repeatedly gone back and forth in his mind as to whether he should go through with defying the district, citing the way it might affect students as the reason why.
Secondly, Kennedy isn’t lifting a middle digit to the Constitution. He used to invoke God’s name during halftime speeches, but backed off as soon as someone mentioned that his audience wasn’t necessarily voluntary.
He gets it. Really. But he also wants to protect the other constitutional element in this discussion — freedom of religious expression.
Some people have asked, “Why not just pray silently on the sideline?” And that’s a valid question.
But Kennedy’s point is that he doesn’t have to — and that his choice has been beneficial to the kids. It’s not like he is imposing his beliefs, either. In fact, instead of saying “in God’s name” at the end of the prayer, he invites those around him to use any name they want.
But the real fact of the matter is that public displays of faith are everywhere. They’re on television, in the streets, and on NFL fields galore.
A coach praying after the game isn’t exposing kids to anything new. If anything, it’s an example of someone being comfortable with who they are — even in the face of unemployment.
“I tell my kids to be bold in their beliefs,” Kennedy said. “I want to set an example to stand up for what you believe in, even if it isn’t popular.”
I don’t know — I feel like those are the words of a true role model. I feel like that’s the attitude of the kind of coach we want around kids.
Like I said, I’m not really one to look to the heavens. But Joe Kennedy? It’s hard not to look up to him.