On an equipment building on the far side of Kennedy’s football field are reminders of the glory days of Knights football.
The five Public School Athletic League city titles Kennedy won are all commemorated in paint on the building wall, with the first title coming in 1984 and the latest champions crowned in 2000.
But since then, for almost two decades, there have been no additions to the shed. “Red Rage,” a favorite Kennedy rallying cry, has gone somewhat dormant. Sure, there have been occasional playoff appearances over the years, but the steamroller that was Kennedy football in the 1980s, ‘90s, and at the turn of the new century, has more often than not been replaced with mediocrity.
Now Alex Vega is back to restore the roar and make Kennedy a viable city title contender once again. Vega is no stranger to Kennedy, having played for the Knights in the 1990s, before leading the team between 2005 and 2009.
“In my first go around as coach I think I took a little bit of it for granted,” said Vega, who was a linebacker for the Knights in 1992 and 1993. “When I was coach the first time at Kennedy, I thought I would stay there forever. But now that I’m back, I walk out there every day, and it just feels surreal.”
When Vega was named the Knights coach back in April, he decided that he wanted to go back to basics with his new team and teach them the “Kennedy Way.” And at a recent practice on a sweltering August morning, there was Vega, showing his new team how they are to line up and come out of the locker room, and how they are to conduct themselves on the sidelines and on the field.
Just a couple of items on his “Kennedy Way” checklist.
“Our pregame warm-up is unique to us,” Vega said. “It’s nothing fancy, it’s just what we do as Kennedy Knights. It’s something that we learned from (former Kennedy) Coach (Jerry) Horowitz and that every alumni that comes back here would identify with. That’s what I was trying to show them. The kids want that, too. They want the tradition that the previous coaches, who were not Kennedy guys, didn’t do.”
It was no slam dunk that Vega was going to take the job at first. After leaving Kennedy after the 2009 season due to a clash with a former principal, he coached one season at Mount Vernon High School before a six-year stint as an assistant at Kennedy-rival Clinton. That’s when he thought he had enough.
“I didn’t jump right on it right away,” Vega said of the Kennedy opening. “I was actually done coaching, and I was pretty committed to staying retired.”
But once Vega received assurances from school officials he would get all the support he needed to turn the program around, Vega re-upped for a second stint as the Knights coach.
Vega even went as far as to bring back Horowitz, his former coach, and whose name adorns the Kennedy scoreboard, to talk to his team and give them a crash course in Kennedy history.
“They really paid attention to what he had to say,” Vega said . “They didn’t even know he was still alive.”
Vega is as hungry as his team for a return to greatness for Kennedy. Vega missed out on two city titles in his playing days and just missed another in his first stint as coach at Kennedy.
“I was on junior varsity in 1991 and they won it that year,” Vega said. “Then my last year playing varsity was 1993, and I graduated, and then they won in 1994. I also missed it in coaching. They won it in 2000 and I started coaching in 2001.”
The Knights are most likely not championship-bound this season, but that doesn’t mean the turnaround won’t begin this year.
“I want to establish a culture of winning and accountability and responsibility,” Vega said. “And if I can establish those things this year, I think we could make the playoffs. To me that’s a realistic goal. But I just want to get things back like they used to be here.”
And it all begins for Vega and the Knights on Sept. 8 when they travel to Staten Island to take on Wagner in the season opener. The first step in returning Kennedy to elite status in the PSAL.
“They understand that I’m just like them, I’m a Kennedy Knight as well,” Vega said. “They embraced me and I embraced them. I like this team. And I don’t feel like it’s work.
“I never thought I’d coach at Kennedy again. But I’m happy to be back.”