Hancock County

Down Syndrome doesn’t keep Bay High Tiger off the football field

Editor’s note: Back in 2014, Sun Herald photographer John Fitzhugh and Patrick Ochs visited the Bay High School to do a feature on Clarence Kennedy, Jr., listed as a running back on the Tigers football team. Kennedy made his school proud. Not because of highlight runs or bone-jarring tackles, but because he was defeating the odds as a student with Down Syndrome. Kennedy has has stuck it out and just kicked off his senior season with the Tigers. What follows is the original feature, profiling Kennedy’s experiences as a football player who wasn’t letting Down Syndrome hold him back.

Clarence Kennedy Jr. stood at midfield on the Tigers’ worn practice field Wednesday afternoon. Dust kicked up around his ankles, coating his black cleats and once-clean blue-and-yellow uniform. Whistles and loud clacks from collisions pierced the silence.

Clarence was fully engaged in the practice, watching his Bay High coaches direct teammates as he spun a football in his right hand, tossing it in the air to himself every so often.

It may not sound like much, to be weighed down by several pounds of equipment, baking in the Mississippi sun, but there’s truly nowhere else Clarence would rather be than suited up alongside his Tiger teammates.

Clarence, a Bay High sophomore, has Down Syndrome. There was a time when one of his doctors said he would never be able to walk, ride a bicycle or do day-to-day things most people take for granted.

“Now look at him,” his mother, Temple Lyons, said. “He’s 15 and playing on the football team. That’s awesome.”

Just one of the guys

Clarence is easily the big man on campus at Bay High. During his lunch periods in the cafeteria, he’s a social butterfly, bouncing from table to table, sharing hellos and jumping into conversations.

He has a few favorites, teammates of his such as Chase Barbay and Larnelle Lewis, who he’ll slide alongside at the lunch table. He might put his arm around their neck. Or there’s this gag he likes to pull: He’ll swipe their drink or apple off their tray when they’re not looking, and silently place it on the other side of the table.

Their confused look when they realize something is missing elicits the biggest of laughs from Clarence, who almost never stops smiling. He’s just one of the guys at Bay High; a football player and Mr. Popular.

“That’s just how he is,” assistant coach Trevor Adam said. “It’s uplifting. You get him to smile and he gets you to smile. You just can’t help it.

“That’s one of the hard parts about having to correct him — keeping a straight face.”

There was a time when students with special needs were sectioned off from the general student population. That’s not the case at Bay High. Clarence is very much a part of the student body.

Lyons said Clarence spent one year up north at a school for disabled children before returning to her hometown.

“I didn’t want that for him. I didn’t want him to be separated,” she said. “I wanted him to be with normal people where he could be treated normal because that’s how Clarence wants to be. He wants to be treated normal. He doesn’t want to be treated like he’s handicapped.”

A teacher on the field

Lyons said she first learned of Clarence’s desire to play football late last spring when coach Jeff Hopgood called to run the idea by her.

“Who am I to deny him the right to play football as a high school student?” Hopgood said before Wednesday’s practice.

Even after she signed off and Clarence passed his physical, Lyons still wasn’t quite sure just how involved Clarence would be.

Hopgood filmed Clarence going through drills and sent the video to Lyons.

“This is what Clarence does? My Clarence does this?” she thought, amazed at his participation.

Clarence lights up just at the thought of having his own uniform and being able to ride on the team bus.

Sometimes it’s the little things in life.

Wednesday afternoon, Clarence stretched with the team and ran through passing drills during the individual portion of practice. Although Clarence is somewhat limited in what he’s able to do, Hopgood said his newest linebacker provides more than just roster depth.

‘They have taken to him’

“They have taken to him and he has taken to us. I really do think they learn more from Clarence than Clarence could ever learn from any of us,” he said. “Coaches as well.”

When the Tigers kick off their season today against Gulfport as part of the annual Shrimp Bowl, Clarence will be on the sideline, No. 3 on his back.

“For him, it’s like he’s in the pros,” Lyons said. “He’s just that excited. This means everything to him because he’s a part of something.

“Even if he doesn’t get into this game, I’m going to be excited just to see him run out there with his teammates.”

Patrick Ochs: 228-896-2321, @PatrickOchs

Related stories from Biloxi Sun Herald