Mychal Kendricks: For the Love Of Family

Photo by: Jeff Fusco.

Photo by: Jeff Fusco.

Mychal Kendricks has been practicing meditation for the past year-and-a-half.

It is what brought him to the Arizona desert this offseason. It’s what helps to get him focused before a game. Whether it’s on top of the red rocks of Sedona or in the sauna at NovaCare, he uses it to clear what can only be described as a unique, complex and busy mind.

“I’m thinking about my loved ones, I’m thinking about my job, I’m thinking about breathing. I’m thinking about everything that’s been in my life and then it kind of (snaps fingers) all goes away at one time,” said Kendricks. “And then it’s all blank.”

As we discovered through our lengthy conversations with Kendricks, the past that flashes behind his eyelids is beautiful and confusing and at times, heart-wrenching. The loved ones that he sees do not leave his thoughts for long. And this job, seemingly predestined, has been the instrument used to help glue a family back together.

Mama Was A Rock

“We were definitely on the lower end of the social class but you never knew that because of how my mom raised us, carried us, clothed us, fed us,” said Kendricks. “I was never like, ‘Oh, I’m a poor kid.’ ”

Yvonne Thagon had three children with Marvin Kendricks – Mychal (the oldest), Danielle and Eric. She uprooted from her home town near Portland, Oregon and moved to Fresno, California because Marvin had a job opportunity there. When the couple split, the responsibility fell largely to Yvonne to raise and provide for her three children as well as Mychal’s half-brother Chad, whose mother passed away when he was in high school.

Thagon had no family in the area but made some good friends who would help watch the kids as she worked endless shifts as a pharmacy technician to make ends meet. Sometimes Chad, who was a good bit older than Mychal, would draw baby-sitting duties. It was on one such occasion that Mychal made his most memorable football debut.

“It was the highlight of Chad’s day one day when Mychal was playing football right with the big high school kids,” said Thagon.

“When I got old enough, which was like four-and-a-half, five years old, he would actually have me out there playing with kids that were older,” Mychal said. “I’d get the ball, run, get knocked down. He said I would never cry, I’d get right back up and want to go again. These are bigger kids. They’re in high school.”

“In his Mom’s house there’s a picture of him with a football helmet on before he could walk,” said Marvin. “It was inevitable that he was going to be a football player.”

But organized football would have to wait.

Thagon entered Mychal in a lottery to attend Bullard Talent, a magnet school across town in Fresno that specialized in the performing arts. To his good fortune, his name was chosen.

The only sport offered there was soccer and so it was soccer he played (and played quite well. He was a defenseman, of course.) He also fell hard for the arts. He sang in all the choirs; acted in all the plays; learned to dance in hip-hop, urban, tap and jazz. Given some of the dark clouds surrounding his home life, it served as a welcomed distraction.

“It was a huge escape to be honest with you,” said Kendricks.

He didn’t start playing football until the eighth grade. With the new sport came expenses that Thagon simply couldn’t afford, so she worked to get the cost down.

“New cleats, activity fees, etcetera. I’m like, I can barely pay my bills, how am I going to pay for this? So we did fundraisers. And I worked a lot of snack bars for the school. Every Friday night when the other parents were sitting in the stands watching their kids play football, I was in the snack bar working to help make money for the football group to lower my part that I had to pay. I watched my sons play football from the snack bar.”

Safe to say her sacrifices paid off. Mychal went from Bullard to Hoover High School (where his brother Chad coached him) to Cal before being selected by the Eagles 46th overall in the 2012 draft. His little brother, Eric, might be right behind him. A redshirt senior at UCLA, Eric – also an inside linebacker – had 16 tackles, a forced fumble and an interception return for a touchdown in the Bruins’ opener against Virginia and was named Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week. NFL Draft Scout projects that Eric will go in the second or third round next spring.

Danielle is entering her second year of college.

“My time off when I wasn’t at work belonged to my children. I didn’t have anything else that I did that occupied my time. My time belonged to my children,” said Thagon. “They were my focus. I strived to raise them. I didn’t want them to grow up not being able to support themselves. It was a struggle for me to support my three kids but we did it. One time, Mychal said to me, ‘Mom, if I ever did without anything, you sure did a hell of a job of not letting me know it.’

“That’s not for a kid to know.”

The Ups And Downs Of Marvin Kendricks

Marvin Kendricks pointed to two pivotal moments in his life during his phone conversation with Birds 24/7. The first was when he survived a stabbing as a teenager.

Growing up in the South Side of Chicago, Marvin said he was a part of a street gang called the Blackstone Rangers. When he was about 15 years old, another young man stuck him in the back with what Mychal described as a bayonet. The lingering scars, Mychal says, are a sight to behold.

“It came all the way through,” Marvin said. “It was a straight blade and it came back out the same way it went in. If it was a jagged edge I wouldn’t be talking to you today.”

That incident scared him straight and he turned his energies away from the streets and towards football. A running back chock-full of talent, Marvin made his way from Chicago to Los Angeles to play for UCLA, where he led the Bruins in rushing for two straight seasons. In 1970, Marvin’s offensive coordinator at UCLA was none other than Dick Vermeil. When Vermeil took over as the Eagles head coach in 1976, he brought Marvin into training camp for a tryout.

“A very, very intense competitor, a physically tough, very unselfish type kid, hard worker,” said Vermeil. “A perfect role model, and that’s why I brought him to the Eagles. I brought him there out of respect and admiration.”

Marvin, who spent some time in the Canadian Football League before getting the call from his old coach, injured his neck during the preseason. He did not make the team but helped a new coach establish a new culture early on.

“His Dad was the kind of guy, he was on your team the rest of your life,” Vermeil said. “Regardless of who you coached or where you coached after, you always have a soft spot in your heart for him.”

When Mychal made it to the Eagles all those years later, he met Vermeil and told him who his Dad was. Vermeil hugged him and said, “You have a great father.”

But somewhere along the line Marvin lost his way.

His addiction was crack cocaine, and he was under its spell for much of Mychal’s childhood. It led him down dark paths. Regrettably, he sometimes walked them with his children by his side.

“I would take my kids with me to the drug places, if you can believe that. Every time I think about that it makes my heart hurt. I took them some places they never should have been,” said Marvin.

“At times I would go with my Dad and God knows what he would be doing, but I would be swimming in canals, walking the canal line and just roaming all throughout Fresno, California all by my lonesome,” Mychal said. “Me being a young kid and with other kids who I didn’t really know because we would be in some place in some area where other kids’ parents are doing the same things. Very young children — five, six, seven years old — doing whatever without any parental supervision.”

Eventually, the realization of what he was exposing his family to cut through the haze and struck Marvin. That was the second seminal moment.

“All of my kids suffered because I had a drug addiction. But I came out of it by the grace of God,” said Marvin. “Mychal is a good person. All my kids are. They stuck with me through the whole thing.”

Mychal said his Dad got clean when he was about 12 or 13 years old. Whether it was coincidence or otherwise, that was right around the time Mychal began playing football. The relationship took a dramatic turn for the better.

“The man has been there for me a great deal,” said Mychal. “I think me playing football and him seeing us play was a way for him to kind of get out of that. He tells me he hit rock bottom and he kind of just got off everything because he heard God, he said God really saved him.

“By the time I reached high school he had been there for me and was really helping me with my game and it really gave us something to connect with. We had something to talk about and something that we had in common, and that was the game of football. I saw when I played and I did good it made my whole family happy. It brought them together. Coming from where everything was so separated and so disperse and so messy, that the game that I play can actually bring my family together and clean up some things? I went hard as hell.”

And all the way to the pros.

A Different Kind Of Cat

Tell me about Mike.

That request triggered the same response from just about every teammate we approached.

Mychal Kendricks?” they’d say, a big smile shooting across their faces. A few seconds of pondering and then, inevitably, laughter.

“There’s nobody like Mike. There’s not much I can say on the record, but there’s nobody like Mike,” said linebacker Emmanuel Acho.

“He’s different. That’s one way to explain Mike,” offered Earl Wolff. “Hey [Brent] Celek: Kendricks a little different? Like in his personality?”

“Oh yeah. He’s big time,” Celek jokingly shot back from a couple locker stalls over.

“The best one now is that he is a video musical star,” said Connor Barwin.

Kendricks is the object of Teyana Taylor’s affection in her new video, Maybe. That’s made its way around the Eagles locker room, to be sure.

“Mike is a rapper-slash-actor. He is definitely what you could call California,” said Najee Goode. “He is definitely a comedian. We’ll be working out and he’ll start freestyling, he’ll start dancing. Mych is one of the funniest story-tellers I’ve ever heard. Mike definitely needs his own VH1 or MTV show. I’ll help direct it. He doesn’t need a video, he needs a reality series: True Hollywood Story.”

Kendricks describes himself as socially awkward. Not because he has trouble interacting — the 23-year-old is a clear extrovert and seems perfectly comfortable in his own skin — but rather due to the fact that he doesn’t “abide by the social contracts that normal people sign.”

“I definitely think outside the box. I like to think I am against the grain but in a good way,” he said. “I have always wanted to stem away from that stereotypical ideology of a football player. Of, ‘Oh, he is just a football player.’ It is so hard to get away from that because people already have their prefixed notions of how you are as a person. They think they know everything about you because you wear a helmet and pads.”

He aspires to be an actor and a world traveler. He wants to head a company one day where the unique ideas that routinely zip through his mind can take tangible form. Those are just a few of the goals.

“To be as successful off the field as I am on. To put my family in a better position. I just want to make them proud, really.  My goals are the same as any other man, too: I want kids. I want a beautiful wife one day. I want two dogs – three dogs – a couple jeeps, a couple guns. I want to live in Tahoe somewhere in the mountains with my snowboards and my snowmobiles and kind of live a rustic life, kind of like a mountain man, kind of caveman-ish kind of thing. Hunt for my own food, sometimes. I want to have a helicopter so I can fly into the city and get away from the city, too. I’m not going to be driving and commuting like that. I want three homes: one on the beach, one in the city, one in the mountains. All levels of elevation…”

In the meantime, there is a budding football career to attend to. In his second year in the pros, Kendricks posted 137 tackles,  four sacks, three interceptions and four fumble recoveries. He has perhaps the highest ceiling of any player on the defense.

“I don’t know any other inside linebackers that are fast as he is,” said Barwin. “I know there was one play [against the Steelers] where he saved me because I kind of took a bad angle and the running back cut back and I thought it was going to be a race between me and the running back, and Mike just came flying out of nowhere and made the tackle.”

Here’s the play Barwin is referencing. Kendricks is nowhere to be found in this frame.

Barwin 1

But in the next?

Kendricks 2

“I was happy Mike showed up. I was like, ‘Thank you, Mike.’ ”

Kendricks 3

“He does a lot of that stuff. His speed shows up all the time on the field.”

“He’s a good player and I think he has the potential to be a great player, no doubt,” said Cary Williams. “He’s on the right path. He’s a warrior, and I know that when the chips are down he’s going to give me everything he’s got. That’s what you want in a linebacker. That’s what you want on this team.”

“You haven’t seen nothing yet,” Marvin predicted. “This year I think is really going to be his breakout year. Mychal has so much talent, he hasn’t even begun to scratch the surface yet. He’s something special.”

Papa Was A Rolling Stone

So there’s Mychal and Eric and Danielle, Yvonne’s children. Then there’s half-brothers Chad and Terence. And half-sisters Heather and Lorena. Mychal didn’t even know about Heather and Lorena until they showed up at one of his soccer matches when he was in the sixth grade.

“Dad was a rolling stone, for real,” Mychal said.

Once all the siblings were introduced, they stayed connected. Though spread out over different areas of the country, they’ll get together for major events or meet up at one of Mychal’s football games. Apparently, it is a sight to behold when they gather under one roof.

“We have a real mixture of people. We have Asians in our family. Black, white, Mexican. When we come together for like Easter or Thanksgiving or Christmas, you’d be like, ‘There is no way you guys are all a family. It’s f—– up because we have like full-blooded Chinese, full-blooded Mexican. We have different languages speaking in the same house.”

To Mychal, it’s bliss. He says his Mom gets along with Marvin and his new wife, Joanne, and that things have turned around 180 degrees from where they once were.

“Ever since I got a scholarship to college, we’re like one big happy family,” he said. “Even with all that stuff going on, there was always a feel of family between all of us. Families have problems. Families are dysfunctional in so many ways. But at the end of the day you’re family, and you don’t turn your back on family. Ever.”

Mychal was so active and so physical as a child, Marvin remembers, that “he almost lost all his baby teeth before he was too big. Because they had been knocked out so many times, they advised us that if it happened one more time they were going to have to get him some false teeth.” (Mychal says all of his six of his front teeth up top were missing when he was in kindergarten.)

He went hard as hell from the beginning. Attribute that to the football genes that Mychal inherited or the Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder that he was eventually diagnosed with. Whatever the reason for the initial surge, there’s little doubt what kept the momentum rolling all the way to the NFL.

“You don’t know that when you’re doing it, it’s really subconscious, but now that I am in this situation and I look back I’m like, damn, that’s why I did this. That’s why I played this game: because it made the people around me happy and it brought them together and it gave them something they could talk about and all take interest in,” he said.

“At some point in time it’s not about the child support, it’s not about the drugs, it’s not about three kids and no help, it’s not about anything. It’s just about football.”