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Snyder: This Lion’s forever reminded of football’s lifelong toll

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Jimmy Kennedy meets with the media in Arizona during Penn State's practice. - AUDREY SNYDER / DKPS

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Jimmy Kennedy isn't looking for sympathy. In fact, the former Nittany Lions defensive lineman and 2003 NFL first-round draft pick isn't angry about the sport that gave him so much.

As he was saying Wednesday after watching his Penn State successors go through a Fiesta Bowl practice, "What am I going to get from complaining?"

Selected 13th overall by the Rams, Kennedy's NFL career spanned nine seasons and six teams, allowing him to live out a dream,. But it also left him with the harsh reality that his life, for better and for worse, is forever changed because of the hits he delivered and absorbed since he was a boy.

"The CTE stuff? We all go through it. I can snap off on (people), but I keep myself reserved in Arizona, staying toasty out here," Kennedy said. "But we all go through it for the most part."

He, of course, isn't the first player and certainly won't be the last whose day-to-day life has been impacted by his star-studded youth and professional career.

And perhaps that's the scariest part about all of this. Kennedy's admission comes just weeks after former Nittany Lion running back Larry Johnson Jr. outlined for The Washington Post his post-football life that's filled with pain and depression, part of what the ex-NFL running back blames on CTE. Johnson said he's contemplated suicide multiple times, has violent urges, memory loss and snaps on his daughter as she tries to complete routine tasks such as doing her homework or getting off to elementary school. He's had run-ins with the law as his life spiraled out of control, whether because of CTE and or other issues. But his father, former Penn State defensive line coach and current Ohio State assistant head coach Larry Johnson, still remains heavily involved in the sport that's provided so much for him and his family.

"It's like when I go and talk to my dad and my family it's like, 'Hey, are you in this concussion stuff and so on?' I'm like 'Yeah, I'm gonna go and do it.' But it's not like they're gonna say hey, here's X amount of dollars," Kennedy said. "You can't even figure (a value)."

Kennedy is reminded of the pounding his body took from his days that extended beyond the NFL and Beaver Stadium. He said he's had two strokes since retiring, back surgery and knee surgeries, too. Still, he said his health is "the best it could be" considering years of taking a pounding.

"Everything seems to be falling on just the NFL when most of us played from pee-wee, college and so on and people made millions off of us, but the focus is on the NFL, obviously," he said. "Colleges and everything else made tons of money."

While the NFL is the league taking most of the heat with ongoing concussion lawsuits, Kennedy wonders why youth football and colleges have seemingly been given more of a pass. Colleges are making millions off athletes while rewarding them with a free education, a stipend and the opportunity to play at the next level. Youth leagues, including high schools, serve as the introduction to the sport and the vehicle for players to get recruited to get to that next level. By the time players get to the NFL, the wear and tear of the past 15 or so years is part of their journey. Turning it into a full-time job means sucking it up regardless, as Kennedy recalled.

"It's ingrained in us to not complain," he said. "From the time you start to play this game to the time I turned pro, and hit my knee or something like that, I would have a coach look at me and say, 'The best ability is availability. You're a first-rounder. Pick it up. Let's go.' You gotta play through that. 'There's a difference between being hurt and being injured.' Those are the things that we heard. When you see stars, it's like, 'All right, come on, let's go.'

"When I hit somebody and my eye got stuck, and I'm literally like, 'All right, next play,' " he continued. "I've got plates in my hands and plates in my thumbs, but it's like I'm going to play two more plays because I don't want the guy to know that it's broken. It's ingrained in us. And it's not that we don't want to complain about it. But that's when football was tough. That's just what it is. Now as older guys, as former players, it's like, do I really want to complain?"

The only complaining Kennedy does now is when his 11-year-old son asks him to play. Some days Kennedy simply can't. His son doesn't play football, and while Kennedy wouldn't rule out his son playing at some point if he so chooses, he also realizes with his son watching every move, ache and pain his dad goes through, he probably will opt against it.

You certainly couldn't blame him.

"He sees the pain that we go through," Kennedy said. "They love watching dad play and so on, but it's like, 'Ah man, dad had knee surgery. Dad had back surgery and so on. Dad's hands feel like this. Dad's in a room and he can't play with me.' As a kid, do you think he's going to want to say, 'I want to play football like dad?' Especially when they look and see, 'You know what, dad makes money doing this. Dad makes money doing Instagram videos and TV and everything else. ... I want to do what dad is doing now. I don't want to go out there and have CTE or different situations.' You set the example that way."

WHAT'S BREWING

• Don't miss any of my weeklong coverage out here of Penn State at the Fiesta Bowl.

• Reminder: All of our recurring features -- the weekly ones, plus those in the Daily Fun Thing cycle -- as well as most of our multimedia will take this week off so that our staff can enjoy a little more time off for the holidays. We'll do the same for Morning Java, though the Postgame videos will continue.

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