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SOUTH HOLLAND — High school football coach Terry Kennedy would bang his Indiana State University class ring on every player’s helmet before they took the field.
Any kid who ever heard that crisp clack echo in their ears will tell you it was more than a pre-game ritual.
“That was his little wake-up call,” says Jake Thormeyer, who played on the 1990 Thornwood High School team that Kennedy coached to a nine-win season, a school record.
More than anything, maybe even winning, Kennedy dedicated his career to teaching players to be prepared for whatever it was they were up against.
With a chiseled six-foot-three frame and a lollipop dangling from his mouth, Kennedy was a sideline general straight out of central casting. He barked instructions in a booming, gravelly voice that commanded respect and obedience from, well, everyone.
In 1999, after 11 seasons, Kennedy retired as Thornwood High School’s winningest head football coach. He helped dozens of players earn college scholarships including Michael Blair, who went on to play in the NFL.
“He used to always say to me, ‘Tuck that ball away, you’re not Walter Payton,’ Blair said. “That always stuck with me. I knew it was coming from a good place, and always ended with a smile and a tap on the helmet with the ring on his finger.”
Kennedy, who lived in Woodridge, died on Sunday.
He was 73.
“Once You Got To Know Him”
Terry Kennedy was born in Chicago on Aug. 1, 1946.
His father, Edward Kennedy, worked for the IRS and his mother, Cecelia Kennedy, worked at Calumet Cleaners in Riverdale.
Kennedy and his two sisters, Beth and Mariann, lived in the Grand Crossing neighborhood until the family moved to suburban Dolton.
Kennedy attended St. Jude the Apostle and Thornridge High School, where he excelled as a three-sport athlete in football, swimming and track-and-field.
“Everybody always said it was an unusual combination to have a football player also be a swimmer and run track as a quarter-miler,” his long-time pal and assistant coach Stu Vogel said.
As a senior, in 1964, Kennedy was named Thornridge’s Athlete of the Year. That same year, Thornridge girls picked Kennedy as the boy they’d most like to be stranded with on a deserted island, Vogel said.
After high school, Kennedy was too skinny for Division 1 football, so he played at Thornton Community College and hit the weight room, bulking up enough to make the Indiana State football team in 1966. The next year, Kennedy was named team captain.
After graduation, Kennedy taught special education at Thornridge, where he coached football and track.
“Not a lot of people know that Kennedy also was considered one of the best shot put and discus coaches,” Vogel said. “He helped several kids qualify for state.”
For three seasons in the late ’70s, Kennedy took over as head football coach at Thornton Community College, while continuing to teach at Thornridge and counseling kids with behavioral issues at District 205 schools.
Politics pushed Kennedy out of the junior college coaching ranks. He resigned because he thought it was wrong to recruit players knowing that school administrators at TCC (now South Suburban College) were considering eliminating the football program, Vogel said.
So, Kennedy joined the Thornridge varsity football staff as defensive coordinator. And in 1988, he took over as head football coach at Thornwood, a District 205 rival. Kennedy brought fellow Thornridge alumni Vogel and Bob Morgan along for the ride as assistant coaches.
“Terry loved to teach. He just loved coaching. He was tough, but a great guy once you got to know him,” said Morgan, who first met Kennedy when he was a student on the Thornridge track team in 1977.
At Thornwood, students who weren’t football players typically met Kennedy at their worst moments in his off-the-field role as dean of discipline. The “recalcitrants,” he lovingly called them.
Over 11 seasons, Kennedy lead the Thunderbirds to the state quarterfinals four times, and a 63-46 record.
Thormeyer, who took over as Oak Forest High School’s head football coach this year, said playing under Kennedy at Thornwood helped shaped his coaching philosophy.
“He always said football isn’t a show-up-and-play sport. Preparation means more than everything else,” Thormeyer said. “Being in the weight room in the off season and being close with your teammates matters. He was no nonsense, team-oriented man. He was always honest with us, gave good advice about not being delusional about the future without crushing our dreams. That’s something I always remember to do with my guys.”
Coach Of The Year
Kennedy retired as Thornwood’s head coach in 1999, stepping away from the spotlight to quietly coach freshmen and sophomore football at Thornridge. He taught driver’s education part time, read two or three mystery novels a week and played as much golf as the weather would allow, until 2006 that is.
That’s when Kennedy’s longtime pal and Thornridge athletic director at the time, Kay Rampkey, called with an offer he couldn’t refuse.
“My varsity football coach had taken ill and I had to figure out what to do,” Rampkey said. “Terry epitomized what a coach should be. I considered him a brother. We didn’t live far from each other. Our babies grew up together. He was a first-class man. I asked him to come back to be the head coach. He couldn’t believe it.”
Kennedy quickly got the old gang back together, including Thornridge alumni Morgan and Vogel.
“He told me to help him out, and we’d be done by October,” Morgan said. “Then we got on a roll.”
The 2006 Falcons snapped an 11-season losing streak and tied the school record with nine wins. Kennedy’s team beat district rivals Thornwood and Thornton and made the state playoffs for the first time since 1993 in season that ended in a loss to the eventual state champions in the Class 6 A quarterfinals.
The Illinois Times named Kennedy 2006 Coach of the Year under the headline, “What A Way To Go.”
But if you ask Rampke about how Kennedy should be remembered, she doesn’t mention football.
“His legacy? Three daughters and his grandchildren,” she said.
Kennedy’s daughters said growing up with her dad was probably a lot like playing on his football teams “except there were no helmets and head slapping.”
Kennedy’s growling baritone, for instance, struck fear in the hearts of his girls’ boyfriends. “Our friends would say, ‘Your dad is so scary.’ We always laughed at that because to us he was just dad,” Lauren Kennedy-Tharp said.
Kennedy always had an opinion about his daughter’s fashion choices, making it known that he preferred to see them wearing sweatshirts (even poolside in sweltering heat) and sensible shoes instead of “clodhoppers.” That’s what he called their collection of high-heels and funky sandals.
“He gave us a lot of life lessons. And lot of those lessons had to do with football. Most our lives revolved around the game,” Kennedy’s middle daughter Katy O’Donnell said. “His big thing was go to college, get a great job with benefits and be prepared for life. And we all did that.”
Kennedy wasn’t as successful at coaching his girls to love sports.
“He always wanted to raise independent girls. He tried to get us into sports but sort of failed at that,” Kennedy-Tharp said. “We never took it very far. But we had so much fun at those football games. Watching him after a win, all the reporters waiting to talk to him, and he’d make them wait so we could run out to him on the field. It felt like dad was a celebrity.”
Kennedy eased back into retirement after his coach-of-the-year season, spending time watching his grandsons’ baseball games and swim meets, never missing an opportunity to coach them up.
“Dad was constantly giving my kids little tips on how to improve their stroke in swimming and take off from the starting deck to get the edge in a race,” O’Donnell said.
Kennedy also remained close with assistant coaches that he counted among his best friends. Every few weeks he’d meet up for beers with Morgan, Vogel and a rotating cast of his favorite characters to catch up on things and talk about old times.
“Later in life we became really good friends,” Morgan said. “We were planning on getting together again next week. And then …”
Well, there are some things you can’t be prepared for.
“It’s heartbreaking,” Vogel said. “He’s gone too soon.”
Kennedy is survived by his daughters, Anne Otzen, O’Donnell and Kennedy-Tharp, and six grandchildren. Funeral services will be private.