Sometimes mental toughness is every bit as essential to a football team as its physical strength. Case in point, the Kennedy Knights.
Last Friday, the Knights had to endure more than a few distractions, snafus and mix-ups as they prepared to head across the Bronx to Evander High School, the site of their regular-season finale versus Lehman.
“First there was some kind of anonymous tip (to school officials) that there was going to be a brawl at the Kennedy-Lehman game,” Kennedy head coach Alex Vega said. So the education department, “as usual, overreacted and told us that we couldn’t have our fans at our game. Only parents of our kids were allowed to come.”
But wait, there’s more.
“Then to top if off, our bus doesn’t show up at school, so we literally had to put the kids in cabs, and coaches had to drive other kids over to Evander,” Vega said. “So we were trickling into the field a few at a time, and the game then didn’t go off until 7:30. But our kids persevered and didn’t use all the adversity as an excuse.”
Instead the Knights used it as motivation, and no one more than the tandem of Emmanuel Nkwocha and David Obeng-Agyapong. The Knights’ running back duo shredded Lehman’s defense for a combined 375 rushing yards and four touchdowns as Kennedy closed out the regular season with a convincing 28-6 victory over the Lions.
The win upped the Knights record to 8-2 overall, 7-2 in the Public School Athletic League.
“We came out and played a very good game against a quality opponent,“ Vega said.
It was the biggest road victory of the season for the Knights, and one Vega is not sure his team would have won in the past.
“Last year, in my first season, all the things that we didn’t get to do with the kids caught up to us in the end,” Vega said. “But this year, because we had a full off-season and we’re able to install our offense and defense properly and have guys in the weight room, it has really helped us. I thought we were the more physical team.”
Kennedy jumped on Lehman for a pair of scores in the first half with Nkwocha scoring his first TD followed by Obeng-Agyapong’s scoring jaunt for a 14-0 halftime lead. But it could have been much worse for Lehman had Kennedy not shot itself in the foot on several occasions.
“We had several long runs called back for holding,” Vega said. “Otherwise we could have had a bigger lead.”
Lehman did trim things to 14-6 with a touchdown early in the third quarter. But Kennedy answered on its next possession with Nkwocha scoring his second touchdown of the day for a 20-6 Kennedy advantage. He then closed out his day with his final touchdown run in the fourth quarter to complete the scoring as the Knights claimed fifth-place in the 16-team PSAL City Conference.
Regardless of what happens in the quarterfinals this weekend, Vega believes it’s been a season where Kennedy has resurfaced as a major player in the PSAL after several seasons of mediocrity.
“This is pretty much what I thought we could be,” the coach said. “I didn’t think we’d be the best in the city, but I thought we’d be one of the more competitive teams in the league and have a very good season record-wise.”
But the one thing Vega wasn’t sure of entering the season was how mentally tough his Knights would be. He learned all about that during last Friday night’s travails.
“What I didn’t know about this team were the intangibles, like their toughness,” Vega said. “The fact that we’ve had so many guys get injured this season, and the next man has just stepped up and played. All those things, like keeping everything together despite all the adversity, has been very rewarding and has been a life lesson for all the young men on my team. I hope they take this with them moving forward in their lives long after football is done. That no matter what life throws at you, you just keep fighting.”
Now Kennedy turns its attention to the playoffs, where the Knights — the No. 6 seed — will visit third-seeded Curtis Saturday at noon. That team represents one of Kennedy’s losses, 42-6, on Oct. 25.
“We’ve seen them already, and obviously we had a tough game against them,” Vega said. “They jumped on us early, but I don’t think they are 42-6 better than we are. I just think that now that we’ve seen them already, we’ll compete better. Our mantra is let’s go 1-0 next week.
“Anything can happen.”