FOXBORO — The story of how Tom Kennedy was discovered by the NFL is as remarkable as his journey itself.
A dual-sport athlete at Bryant, Kennedy starred in Smithfield as a midfielder on the lacrosse team and as a receiver on the football team. His performance on the gridiron was extraordinary as Kennedy left Bryant’s football program and went three full falls without playing a game. In his first year back, he put together one of the best seasons for a receiver in program history.
What put him on the NFL radar, however, was his speed and athleticism on the lacrosse field.
In the spring of 2018, Kennedy was teammates with freshman Dante Pasqualoni on the Bryant lacrosse team. Pasqualoni’s father is Paul Pasqualoni who was just starting his first offseason as the Detroit Lions defensive coordinator. When he watched the Bulldogs play, he couldn’t keep his eyes off the team’s star midfielder.
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“I’ve coached college lacrosse for 40 years. Division 1,2 and 3. USA team twice to gold. (Kennedy) is in the top three athletes I’ve ever seen,” said then-Bryant lacrosse coach Mike Pressler. “His speed, his athleticism is off the charts. So, Paul’s son Dante was a defenseman on the Bryant team. Paul was the defensive coordinator for the Lions. He would come to our games and he would say, ‘who the heck is No. 4?’ That was T.K.”
In sports, some things happen by chance. Fast-forward a year, Kennedy was invited to workout for the Lions during the pre-draft process in the spring of 2019. That led to him signing with Detroit as an undrafted free agent. Three years later, Kennedy is still on the Lions roster.
“Well, that was kind of the reason why I got my tryout here my rookie year,” Kennedy said. “Coach Pressler had a good relationship with coach Pasqualoni because of Dante. If it weren’t for that relationship, I don’t know what would’ve happened. It’s just another one of those things where I’m very thankful it turned out the way it did.”
Kennedy has had a remarkable journey from the Bryant campus to the NFL. His success isn’t a surprise to those who saw him up close in Smithfield.
Why Bryant? Kennedy wanted to play football and lacrosse
Part of the reason why Kennedy ended up at Bryant was because he wanted to play lacrosse and football. It was an easy connection with Pressler, who also played both sports in college.
Kennedy’s football experience nearly ended though. After his freshman season, in 2014, he opted to leave the football program to focus on lacrosse.
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“I had a lot more fun and a lot more success in lacrosse my freshman year,” said Kennedy. “So, it was just a lot more enjoyable so I decided to stick with that.”
That lasted three years. In 2017, Kennedy decided to get back to football — a decision that ended up changing his life.
That spring also marked the first for head coach James Perry. By then, he was the head coach at Bryant for only a few months. He talked with Pressler about Kennedy and went to a Bryant lacrosse game to watch the midfielder play and meet his family. Before leaving for summer break, Kennedy was given a playbook and the coaches didn’t see him again in August.
“I went to a lacrosse game, had a chance to meet his parents and next thing you know he’s coming out to the team,” said Perry. “And by the end of training camp, in spite of not having played football for three years he was very obviously our No. 1 target and the guy we wanted to get the ball to. So yeah, impressive kid.”
It took Kennedy all of four practices that summer to stick out. His athleticism was off the charts. His hands were elite. The coaching staff worked with him on little things, but his performance at practice was so eye-opening that offensive coordinator/receivers coach Vinny Marino knew he’d be Bryant’s best offensive weapon that fall.
“I could tell four days in, he was going to be our best player,” Marino said. “Tom is a very fast learner, very intelligent, accounting major, I believe he had like a 3 or 4 (GPA) in accounting. He’s very smart. He picked up the offense and the thing about Tom, he is extremely hardworking, extremely, extremely coachable, and very, very seldom did he ever make the same mistake twice.”
‘A different level of speed’ for Tom Kennedy
Football coaches at Bryant knew they had something special that first summer.
Kennedy grew up playing football with his friends and family at age 6. He caught countless passes from those close to him and when he rejoined the Bryant football team, he showed off elite hands for someone who hadn’t played in a game in three seasons. He’d make ridiculous one-handed catches in practice. Then when he got the ball in his hands, he showed off a burst of speed that made him stick out among his NEC counterparts.
“We ran a speed sweep with him in a game, so it was probably the second game in the year,” recalled Perry. “We kind of toss to the wideout and put it into motion. He went down the sideline and just had a different level of speed and then body control.”
“I remember the Duquesne game (in 2018). That was a big win for us,” added Marino. “And we threw a screen to him. He took it 50 yards and just ran away from everybody. It was like, ‘holy cow.’
In his first football season in three years, Kennedy caught 57 passes for 888 yards and nine touchdowns. Those 57 catches were the third most in Bryant school history. The 888 receiving yards were the fourth most.
The ‘legend of Tom Kennedy’ only grew in his final two years on campus. After finishing his senior season in lacrosse, the Boston Cannons drafted him with the 26th overall pick in the MLL Draft. That summer, Kennedy played professional lacrosse for the Cannons before joining the football team in August.
“So going into his second season with us, he literally played for Bryant (lacrosse) was Bryant’s best player, Pressler loved him, I think he won every award there is,” said Perry. “And then he played that summer professionally and then came out to football not having any rest. Just came out in August and played for us. Amazing.”
In his last football season, Kennedy missed four games. He graduated tied for eighth in receptions and receiving yards in program history — despite playing one full season. Kennedy says the work ethic he had in Bryant has helped him in the NFL.
“If you want to have success, you’re obviously going to have to work for it. If you want to get better at something, you have to invest time and resources in it,” said Kennedy. “I’m lucky enough that in high school, college and now, I have great people around me that are willing to help me become a better player and person. At the end of the day, as an individual, you have to want it for yourself, too. I have a great support system, but I always wanted to maximize the potential I had.”
Tom Kennedy remembers his roots
Kennedy doesn’t forget where he came from. He’s still in touch with his coaches from Bryant. They’ve followed his journey in the NFL over the last three seasons.
Kennedy is currently the only Bryant alumni in the NFL. He made his NFL debut in 2019, appearing in one game. Last season, Kennedy spent most of the season on the Lions active roster. The receiver caught six passes for 54 yards to go with four kickoff returns for 89 yards. Kennedy’s shining moment came in Week 18 when the Lions ran a trick play and the end result was the receiver throwing a 75-yard touchdown pass to Lions receiver (a Holy Cross alumni) Kalif Raymond.
That made Kennedy the first Rhode Island college player to throw a touchdown in NFL history.
“He can do it all, man,” said Perry. “Put a stick in his hand. Let him throw. Let him run.”
This past summer, Kennedy led the Lions in receiving in the preseason. He started this season on Detroit’s practice squad, but was called up last week and caught three passes for a career-high 54 yards. On Wednesday, he was signed to the Lions’ 53-man roster and will take on the Patriots this weekend. He’ll return to New England grateful for his time at Bryant.
“It’s awesome,” Kennedy. “I had a great support staff when I was at Bryant – lacrosse coaches, football coaches, the strength staff. I grew a lot as a person and as an athlete when I was there. A lot of it was a credit to the people around me.”
The fact that a former Bryant lacrosse standout turned Bryant star receiver is in the NFL is truly remarkable. It’s not a surprise though – especially to his former coaches.
“He’ll continue because he’s very driven up and he’s an amazing locker room guy. He’s got all this ability, but you also just love being around him,” added Perry. “So I’m proud of him and I’m always pulling for him and my kids are always pulling for him too.”
“We live through the NFL, through Tom Kennedy,” said Pressler. “He is a freak athletically. His work ethic is off the charts, off the charts like this guy is insane on every different level, both personally and athletically, and the people that know him, this is no surprise. This is no surprise, knowing Tom Kennedy.”