FLORHAM PARK, N.J. – It has been a long road to the NFL, and now the New York Jets, for wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins - elevated from the practice squad to the team’s 53-man roster last week. That this is his fourth NFL team in three seasons in the league says nothing about this young man’s fortitude and work ethic born out of a desperate background.
Thompkins story is not terribly different from many young men growing up in the inner cities. Drugs and gang life in Miami’s inner city is rampant and where Thompkins grew up was no different. Before his junior year was completed, he had already been expelled from Northwestern High School twice and was enrolled in an alternative school that was designed to help at-risk teenagers. He returned to Northwestern, a football powerhouse, for his senior season but was arrested his senior year on armed robbery chargers and then expelled a third time. There would be seven arrests before the time he turned 20-years old.
Yes, seven arrests, all before he could legally drink.
The story doesn’t end there, this rollercoaster ride ain’t quite over yet.
He was an immensely talented football player but because of character concerns, he was without a major college offer so Thompkins originally enrolled at a community college Palomar located in San Marcos, CA. From there, Thompkins “took my talents” to El Calmino, another junior college in California in time for the 2008 season. The entire circuit that got him out of Florida and out to the West Coast may have been his saving grace.
“It was one of the best experiences I had, it made me who I am today. And experiencing what I experienced,” Thompkins told Metro. “My first time on an airplane, actually flying. Going on a trip, going on the other side [of the country] made me understand, my purpose. God blessed me in so many ways when I was over there.
“I’m from the inner city where bad things happen. Good things that happen to us are bad everywhere else, but to those of us in the inner city, it’s good. It depends how you see it. The guys we looked up to were considered bad guys but those were our role models at the time in middle school and then high school.”
At El Camino, Thompkins was roommates with Matt Simms, who would go on to be a quarterback at Tennessee and then be an undrafted free agent with the Jets. He was cut by the Jets this offseason and is now with the Atlanta Falcons.
Thompkins was going to follow Simms to Tennessee but before signing day, head coach Lane Kiffin left for USC. This left the young wide receiver on the precipice again but Thompkins ended up giving a commitment to Oklahoma.
But Oklahoma wouldn’t let him in due to his arrest record so he ended up in what was then known as the Big East at Cincinnati. Thompkins there found some stability and flourished but character questions remained.
In two years there, he combined for 88 receptions and 1,087 receiving yards. He was one of the best wide receivers in the nation but character questions, despite a recent clean record, continued to circle around his name.
See, seven arrests were more of a talking point with certain league general managers than the numbers he was putting up on the field. Almost every team and most NFL Draft insiders had him pegged as a mid-round pick based on talent. But a rap sheet as long as his accolades was a major red flag for some teams.
So teams ignored his college stats or the numbers he was putting up in the class room. He had graduated early with a degree in criminal justice with good grades but those arrests and expulsions in high school still carried weight.
“Cincinnati was a good place for me, a good experience there as well. I graduated early there as well,” Thompkins said. “I accomplished the things I wanted to accomplish as well.”
He beams when he talks about his grades – “I got mainly A’s and B’s. To come from the inner-city and do that, I was a guy who wanted to change myself and see if I could do that. And I did that.”
He sits in the Jets locker room now with a corner locker. His area is well organized, with four different types of Gatorades on the top shelf arranged neatly in a row. His cleats are lined up and organized, a far cry from the heaps of laces and studs in the lockers surrounding him.
Ask him about the past and he’s reluctant to talk much – “the past is the past and the future is much more exciting.” He speaks carefully, deeply. On a stool, hunched over with his elbows on his knees and hands folded under his chin, he looks back in the past only so that he can look ahead.
His NFL career has seen four stops including the Jets since entering the league in 2013. No matter, Thompkins says. It’s nothing compared to where he has been and where he is going.
“Steps, I don’t know how else to put it. You dream about playing on Sundays. You go to high school, go to college. My life was different than others. I’m excited about the opportunity now here in front of me right now,” Thompkins said.
“The dream has been there since I was a kid. I grew up watching Randy Moss, grew up watching Peter Warrick. Now I get to live that dream.”