PHOENIX – For new Arizona Cardinals linebacker Devon Kennard, a homecoming to the Valley wasn’t expected, but it was definitely more than welcome.
Despite being a team captain the past two seasons and recording seven sacks in back-to-back years, the Ahwatukee native and Desert Vista High School product was released by the Detroit Lions on March 17 in a move that he said “came out of nowhere.” Kennard didn’t last long in free agency, though, as he was scooped up by his hometown team just a day later.
According to Kennard, the idea of coming back to Arizona to play for the Cardinals was always one that was in the back of his mind, but never something that he actually expected to happen.
“It’s funny,” Kennard said at his introductory press conference on Monday, which was held via videoconference due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. “I was talking to some of my buddies I grew up here with and played high school ball with, and we’d always have conversations like, ‘How cool would it be if I played for the Cardinals one day?’ and all those things. But it’s one of those things you didn’t think would actually happen, a ‘What are the chances?’ type deal. So when it did, it was kind of like, wow.”
Even before returning home, Kennard’s ties to the Valley ran deep. His father, Derek, was selected by the Cardinals in the second round of the 1984 NFL Draft and was with the organization when it made the move to Arizona from St. Louis in 1988. Kennard himself admits he doesn’t remember too much about his dad’s playing career, as he was born toward the tail end of Derek’s tenure in the league, but he acknowledges that playing for the same team that his dad debuted with is definitely noteworthy.
“The fact that father and son are able to play for the same organization, I don’t know how many times that’s happened, but I’m sure it’s not that common,” Kennard said. “To have that kind of opportunity and for it to be home where my family lives and everything, it’s really cool,”
As for his own brief playing career in Arizona, Kennard was a force to be reckoned with. During his sophomore and junior years at Desert Vista, he recorded a combined 192 total tackles and a whopping 31.5 sacks, which cemented his place as one of the top high school recruits in the entire country. Kennard went on to play at USC, but the impact his alma mater had on his life is not lost on him.
“Desert Vista played a huge part of my life,” Kennard said. “It was a pivotal point, and I felt like it helped progress my career so much…being able to play for that school. It just kind of launched my career, going to USC and beyond.”
Longtime Desert Vista head coach Dan Hinds was around during Kennard’s tenure at the school, and since the news of his former player’s return to the Valley last week he and Kennard have been texting back and forth about their excitement.
“Obviously, I was really excited about it, selfishly, just because now he’s home,” Hinds said. “I’ve been following his career, but it was kind of tough to get that involved in it because he’s been so far away. But now that he’s home, it’s going to be really great to be able to watch him play more and just be able to be around him.
“I think deep down, he always thought it would be cool to play at home, and we always thought it would be great, too,” Hinds said. “We always used to joke around about it, but usually the NFL doesn’t work that way. But it sure worked out great in the way it worked out for him.”
According to Hinds, Kennard was the first player he ever made a team captain as a junior, which speaks to the impact that he made while at Desert Vista. In his view, the qualities that helped make Kennard so successful in high school, both from on-field production and a leadership standpoint, will help endear him to the Cardinals faithful very quickly.
“His work ethic was unbelievable, and I think that’s one of the things that sets him apart,” Hinds said. “He’s one of those guys where he just outworks anybody in his position. They’re (also) getting a guy who’s going to be very supportive of his organization. He’s a really loyal guy, so he’s going to be a guy that’s going to be all about the Cardinals. I think it’s just a thing where he’s a full-package kind of person, and they’re really going to love him.”
Beyond his ability to rush the quarterback or be a leader on the field, Kennard provides a huge boost to the Cardinals organization off the field, too.
Upon his arrival in Detroit, Kennard made it a priority to be heavily involved with youth mentorship and education organizations in the area. Those efforts earned him the Lions’ nomination for the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award in 2019, and he has every intention of continuing them in Arizona when the opportunities present themselves.
“Everything he’s going to do is going to shine a great light on the Cardinals organization and all of the things that he’s involved in,” Hinds said. “You know how it is with P.R. It’s a deal where people spend millions of dollars trying to create a perception of their organization, whereas you’ve got a guy like that going out for free and people are going to go, ‘Whoa, that’s the kind of guy the Cardinals are getting? I think I like the Cardinals.’ I think it’s going to work out really great.”
“Hopefully I inspire some kids in the Valley, because I’m no different than any of them,” Kennard said. “I grew up right in the Ahwatukee area, went to Desert Vista, and worked hard and made my dreams come true. There’s no reason why any kid in the Valley can’t go out and do the same thing. I hope I can motivate kids that way.”