Why ex-lacrosse pro is chasing NFL dreams with the Lions

Tom Kennedy's toughness and athletic ability served him well in football and lacrosse at Bryant University. Courtesy of the Detroit Lions

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- James Perry had been Bryant University's football coach for less than a month when his new players came to him with a combination of a request and a suggestion. There was a lacrosse player on campus -- possibly the best athlete at the school -- who expressed interest in playing football.

Would Perry reach out? Would he even be interested? Perry, still learning his team and preparing to install a new offense, figured it couldn’t hurt. So he inquired. Tom Kennedy was interested, which is how Perry ended up sitting next to Kennedy’s parents at one of Bryant’s first lacrosse games of the 2017 season, telling them he wanted their son to play two sports for the second time in his college career.

Kennedy had initially been recruited to Bryant as a two-sport athlete -- part of the reason he chose the school was due to lacrosse coach Mike Pressler and the football staff agreeing he could play both -- but he quit football after his freshman year.

Kennedy focused on lacrosse and became Bryant’s best player, a midfielder with uncommon speed and exceptional agility who led the Bulldogs to the NCAA tournament as a junior in 2017. Yet an unfinished football career nagged at Kennedy -- a feeling that would lead him to the Detroit Lions two springs later, first as a minicamp tryout player. Following minicamp, he signed as a rookie wide receiver.

"Even though I stopped playing after my freshman year, I always wanted to take a fifth year somewhere or definitely play again," Kennedy said. "Then going into my senior year, I missed it a lot, so I asked my lacrosse coach and he said, 'Yeah, whatever you want to do, I support it.'

"So that's pretty much how it went down. And I found out I had an extra year, that's why I did the fifth year."

Pressler understood better than most lacrosse coaches. He played both lacrosse and football for four years at Division III Washington & Lee and recruited another two-sport lacrosse-football player roughly a decade earlier in Will Yeatman, who played at Notre Dame and Maryland and then with the New England Patriots, Miami Dolphins and Houston Texans.

Playing football was part of Kennedy's initial plan at Bryant -- so Pressler told him to go for it, with the understanding that the advice would be the same as when he was a freshman.

"What I said to Tom early on was that I'm all for the football, but if you're going to end up holding a dummy here and not be a guy, you're better served playing fall lacrosse, and he agreed to that," Pressler said. "But that was after his freshman year. When he went back out his senior year, I mean, as soon as he shook off the rust a little bit in training camp, I went out to practice in August to watch him.

"And he was like their best player."

Perry recognized after a few weeks that there was something Kennedy had that many of his players didn't. He could send Kennedy over the middle to endure big hits. His conditioning was better than that of anyone else on the team.

By the fourth game of his rejuvenated football career, Perry thought Kennedy could be a pro after he took a jet sweep 62 yards down the left sideline for a touchdown against Fordham, accelerating past every Rams player who tried to tackle him. It was his second touchdown of the day and the second one on which he juked and outran an entire defense.

"It was like, this isn't just my best receiver," said Perry, now the head coach at Brown. "This is a kid I have to get the ball to. He's my best player. We gave him that award at the end of the season."

Kennedy finished the 2017 season with 57 receptions for 888 yards and nine touchdowns, while adding 12 carries for 66 yards and three touchdowns on the ground. He was named first-team All-Northeast Conference less than six months after returning from a two-year layoff from the sport.

Following the season, Perry knew Kennedy was returning to lacrosse for his final season in that sport. He also told Kennedy he had a potential future in the NFL and advised Kennedy to meet scouts that came by.

During his last lacrosse season, another football connection popped up. Dante Pasqualoni joined the Bryant lacrosse team. His father, Paul, had just been named the defensive coordinator of the Lions; he and Pressler knew each other well.

Kennedy's final lacrosse season went well. He again was a first-team All-NEC player and was selected in the third round by Major League Lacrosse's Boston Cannons in the 2018 draft.

But everyone involved knew Kennedy wanted a football future. It was his favorite sport. Professional lacrosse could still be there later. There was probably one shot at the NFL -- plus, he still had one last year of college football to play. So, he left the Cannons in mid-July, returning to Bryant on Aug. 3 for the start of training camp.

Kennedy missed four games with a knee injury last season, but he still managed 33 catches for 410 yards and a touchdown after his return. In two seasons, he finished eighth in Bryant history in receptions (90) and receiving yards (1,298).

After the season, both Perry and Pressler reached out to NFL contacts -- including Paul Pasqualoni -- trying to get them to consider Kennedy for a tryout or a free-agent contract. Only one team, the New England Patriots, was represented at his pro day. Yet after the draft, the Lions were the ones who decided to give him a shot.

Lions head coach Matt Patricia saw Kennedy's on-field play during rookie minicamp. He saw a smart, tough player with upside and some potential movement transfer from his time playing lacrosse.

Detroit signed him after minicamp, making Kennedy one of a few players to make a roster in multiple professional sports. Kennedy wants more than a preseason roster spot, though. He chose to make a run at football because he believed he had a shot at creating a career out of it.

"I'm definitely grateful that I'm here and stuff and the way everything has worked out," Kennedy said. "I just try to live in the moment. I don't think, like, 'Oh my God, I've come such a long way.' Or, 'Wow, I've made it.'

"Because I haven't made it. Even though I'm here, I have a ton more to go."