Marcus Hayes: Eagles' Kendricks poised to be a star on a new stage

Posted: October 11, 2012

AFTER THEY SIGN their national letter of intent, most top college recruits celebrate with teammates and coaches, or with a girlfriend, or with family. They go to a restaurant and they gorge on meats and on cheeses and on sycophancy.

When Mychal Kendricks signed to play and study at the prestigious Berkeley campus of the University of California, he wanted to celebrate at someplace special, too.

His school.

His grade school.

He looked at Yvonne Thagon, and he said, "Mom? Can we go back to Bullard Talent?"

"Why?" she asked, startled.

"So I can thank them. For all they've done for me."

She was delighted to take him.

In 1995, as the single mother of three mixed-race preschoolers, Thagon entered Kendricks in a lottery to attend one of the magnet schools in racially strained Fresno, Calif.

Bullard Talent, which stresses training in the fine arts, was across town, but its reputation for innovative teaching attracted Thagon. Only 90 children win admission in a blind draw every year.

They sing. They dance. They paint and they play instruments and they act in intricate theatrical productions each year. Bullard Talent produced "Private Practice" star Audra McDonald, also an accomplished soprano, and "Dreamgirls" costar Sharon Leal, a Broadway regular.

Kendricks won admission.

There, he discovered that the world rewards boldness.

"There's two kinds of people in the world: cockroaches and ants," Kendricks said. "When the lights come on, the cockroaches run. The ants? They just keep on working."

For an NFL linebacker Kendricks, 22, is undersized at 5-11 and 239 pounds. He sees every challenge as a new rubber tree plant. He learned patience and determination at an early age.

At Bullard Talent, Kendricks became an excellent dancer, a passionate painter, a natural actor - and a reluctant trumpeter and a lousy singer.

Had he not attended Bullard, he might never have gone to Cal, much less reached the roster of the Philadelphia Eagles, where, as a second-round rookie, he has started the first five games this season at strongside linebacker.

"To be honest, Mychal was not the best student," his mother said.

Like many children, Kendricks learned best by seeing and doing, not just by reading. The faculty at Bullard Talent adjusted without a problem.

By the time Kendricks reached Hoover High, academics were not a problem. The structure at Bullard Talent prepared him for rigors of any type.

Bullard Talent allowed only real shoes, real shirts, and pants that actually fit over boys' behinds; no body piercings; no mohawks, faux-hawks or bro-hawks.

Individual expression is channeled to the arts. From the time they enter kindergarten, students at Bullard Talent participate in plays, even if they are just extra Munchkins in "The Wizard of Oz."

As a seventh-grader, Kendricks took fencing lessons to prepare for battle scenes in "Robin Hood," scenes so realistic that sparks flew from the clashing swords on the night of the production.

They learn to play instruments, to sketch and to draw. They learn dance: Kendricks studied tap, jazz and modern.

They maintain a regular academic load, as well. There is little time for frivolity.

Kendricks remains clean-cut and focused.

"That definitely helped me, being disciplined, in the transition into high school," Kendricks said.

His introduction to mainstream education was violent. For 2 weeks, he said, there were brawls among the racial factions: blacks, whites, Asians, Latinos.

He just watched.

He earned a 3.7 grade-point average his freshman year, a typical performance from a Bullard Talent kid, even as other freshmen struggled.

"Other kids come to high school, have a little more freedom," he said, "they tend to go in the other direction."

Kendricks was moonwalking his way to the NFL.

Lanky, light-eyed and light-skinned, Mychal Kendricks at age 11 had more in common with Michael Jackson than with Marvin Kendricks, Mychal's dad. He gave Thagon three children, but he never gave her his name.

Certainly, Marvin gave Mychal a wealth of talent. An accomplished running back at UCLA who, coincidentally, briefly had a training-camp spot in 1972 with the Eagles, Marvin seldom was a part of his young children's lives, Thagon said.

Their lives were full, anyway, thanks to Thagon's efforts and thanks, in part, to Bullard Talent, where Eric followed 2 years later and Danielle followed after 5 years. Mychal left for them a . . . thrilling legacy.

In sixth grade, Kenricks auditioned to be one of the six boys in Jody Lipari's 18-member dance troupe. He made it.

Then, he donned a red leather jacket and a single, sequined glove, and he made it something special.

"He was amazing. His Michael Jackson routine got standing ovations!" Lipari exclaimed. "He brought down the house!"

The troupe required after-school practices every day. Lipari allowed no horseplay. It was a privilege, not a right, to be on this team.

Besides, at the time, it was one of the only teams Kendricks could be on. He played soccer, because all Bullard Talent had was soccer.

He didn't play football until he was in eighth grade. Bullard Talent has no traditional gym class.

For that matter, it has no gymnasium.

It had, however, manageable class sizes - Kendricks' class winnowed to 68 by the time he left - and a faculty committed to helping children blossom, not just pushing them through.

It also has a sense of family.

"This was his home," Lipari said.

Dancing let Kendricks use his body in space, let him dissipate his endless energy.

And, so, Kendricks loved it.

"I was best at dancing," Kendricks said, though he is just as comfortable in pancake makeup.

The camera is kind to his blocky, regular features and his dazzling smile.

"Acting is definitely on my list. The improv classes at Bullard Talent were real productive," he said. "I believe I could do that right now, if I wanted to."

This self-assurance is the product of 9 years of constant encouragement and support.

"He learned not to be afraid to get up in front of a group of people and perform," Lipari said. "I think it gave him a lot of confidence."

Kendricks went to Berkeley and hoped to be an art major, but he soured once he realized how demanding art history classes were and how much time it took to complete art projects.

"The studio hours were compromising my schedule," Kendricks said.

By then, it was clear that Kendricks had a better shot at starring on Broad Street than on Broadway.

In eighth grade, his last year at Bullard Talent, Kendricks opted to play football. That meant he forfeited his other after-school activities.

His mother was crestfallen.

"I didn't want him to play," Thagon said.

She always knew he would.

Chad and Terrence, his older half-brothers, played at Sacramento State and Fresno State, respectively. Mychal always was athletic, but as he became a teen, he began to fill out beyond soccer-player proportions. He grew 6 inches the summer before high school, where he starred . . . and began to develop a relationship with his father.

Kendricks then played in every game in his 4 years at Cal. He was the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year as a senior in 2011, with 106 tackles, three sacks and two interceptions.

What fascinated the Eagles as much as his playmaking ability was Kendricks' capacity to learn quickly what he needed to know and to put himself in the right spots to make plays.

"He's highly instinctive. He has a great idea about what's going on," general manager Howie Roseman said. "To come in as a rookie and play all three downs is a hard thing to do. We did a lot of research on Mychal. They moved him around a lot at Cal. Talking to his coaches, we knew he was versatile."

Kendricks plays next to veteran DeMeco Ryans, the other part of the franchise's sudden commitment to linebackers, a position whose importance the team has regularly minimized. That cost them in 2011, as the newly configured defense blew five fourth-quarter leads and the team missed the playoffs by one game.

Kendricks is fourth on the team, with 23 tackles, but it is the one he didn't make that he remembers best.

On Sunday in Pittsburgh, he found himself matched up alone against Rashard Mendenhall with no help on his half of the field and with the end zone only 10 yards away. Mendenhall faked left, went right and exploded past Kendricks, who just got a hand on him. That was the Steelers' only touchdown in their win.

"I've got to make that play," Kendricks said, miserable, in a sodden and stained uniform afterward.

The point, of course, is that, unlike the rest of the defense, he was in position to make the play.

He is accountable.

Later in the game, after leaving with a sprained ankle, he soon returned to finish.

He plays hurt.

Not since the Eagles drafted fabled ax-man Jeremiah Trotter has there been as compelling a linebacker in the franchise. All Kendricks needs is a signature move after a big play.

Maybe they'll play the opening fanfare from "Thriller" when Kendricks makes a jarring tackle at Lincoln Financial Field.

Think he can moonwalk in cleats?


Contact Marcus Hayes at hayesm@phillynews.com. For recent columns, go to www.philly.com/MarcusHayes.

 

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