Carson-Newman senior safety Issac Kinley knew this would be a week for reflection.
His final regular-season game is today at 1 p.m. against Mars Hill – an Eagles’ win in Burke-Tarr Stadium would clinch a playoff berth – and his week of preparation included giving a speech to teammates and coaches summarizing his career in the tradition-rich program of legendary coach Ken Sparks.
He also knew that his son, Camden, could arrive any moment. His girlfriend, former South Greene and Carson-Newman basketball player Rechelle Dye, is 37 weeks pregnant.
But Kinley wasn’t prepared to say so long to his cousin, 37-year-old Derrick Archer, whose shocking death came Monday. Kinley said he apparently died in his sleep, some two months after his daughter was born.
So now Kinley is dedicating what could be his final game to his cousin, and will undoubtedly take on Mars Hill ball-carriers with the same zest that Archer would use to swing a softball bat or heft a barbell.
“I’ve worked out with him,” Kinley said. “He had his own gym. He was a gym rat.”
A warm trace of a chuckle comes from the stoic Kinley after mentioning Archer’s weightlifting passion, as if the vision of his muscular cousin bench-pressing had flashed through his mind.
But the heavy burden Archer’s surviving loved ones now face quickly returns.
“He just had a baby born a couple of months ago,” Kinley said, the image of his soon-to-arrive son suddenly seeming more precious and precarious.
“You have more of a purpose,” Kinley said while describing fatherhood.
A finance major, Kinley wants to work in accounting after college. He’s been an asset for the Eagles defense since the day he arrived from Science Hill.
Kinley made two interceptions and recovered two fumbles as a freshman, and returned one of the fumbles for a touchdown. One of his two interceptions his sophomore season came near the goal line, preserving a win against Mars Hill. He was second on the team with 57 tackles last season, and this year he’s tied for the team lead in pass breakups.
Kinley, an All-Big Eight performer while playing quarterback and defensive back at Science Hill, quickly changes the subject from individual highlights to favorite team victories. The best one might’ve been a 49-48 win at Tusculum in 2010, a victory that wasn’t complete until Gareth Rowland’s 53-yard field goal was no good after hitting the left upright on the game’s final play.
“He had plenty of leg but he just hit the upright and it bounced out,” Kinley said. “It (the 49-48 game) was ridiculous. The whole team just rushed the field and started celebrating.”
Not that the Eagles aren’t accustomed to winning under Sparks, who won his 306th game with a 66-36 triumph at Tusculum on Saturday.
The 68-year-old Sparks has won five national titles, but never seemed like more of a champion than he has while battling prostate cancer this season. Kinley says he’d already learned a lot from Sparks before seeing his courage in distress.
“At first he didn’t really wanna say anything, because he didn’t want us to get down or feel bad for him,” Kinley said. “But after he had his treatment he came out and told us that he does have cancer and he’s in the process of fighting it. I mean, other than that, he really hasn’t said much about it.
“He really just wanted us to continue doing what we’ve gotta do for the team. He really didn’t make it more about him, but just kept saying, ‘Think of the team’ and how our goal is to get to the playoffs. … He came out there every day with the same attitude and everything, just kept us going and pushing us on and on.”
Sparks wears his religion on his sleeves, but does so with love and compassion, not judgment and condemnation. He walks the walk, many will tell you.
“If he says it he means it,” Kinley said. “What I’ve learned the past four years playing up here is – you know, some coaches at some other schools, they don’t really know all the players. He actually goes out of his way and tries to know everybody – know something about everybody – on the team.
“I mean, I know he’s a winning coach, but he also cares about his players. I would say that’s probably the biggest thing – that he cares more for his players than his self.”
Of course, the tough-loving Sparks makes his mark inside and out. The Eagles, known for their physical ground game, don’t take any shortcuts to physicality in this pass-happy era of spread offenses and finesse attacks.
“Some other schools, they’ll probably go full pads once a week or something, and then go with shells,” Kinley said. “But here we’re going two, three, four days a week with full pads and full contact. I mean, it’s a strain on your body. Every day we usually have about 20 guys in the training room. But it pays off for us on Saturdays.”
Kinley spent a recent Friday watching Science Hill’s latest loss to Dobyns-Bennett, a 37-34 last-second heartbreaker that reminded Kinley of D-B’s 10-6 defeat of Science Hill at Memorial Stadium during Kinley’s senior season. Derrick Steele broke up Kinley’s pass to Armando Canepa in the end zone with 1:41 left to seal the Indians’ 15th straight victory.
“I ain’t really seen the film in a couple of years,” Kinley said, “but there’s not a day goes by that I don’t think about it.”
Kinley offered Science Hill quarterback Reed Hayes and flanker/future quarterback Malik McGue words of encouragement before the D-B game.
“I went down ... trying to give them some last-minute advice since I was in the same spot a few years ago,” Kinley said.
Science Hill’s leading rusher in 2007, Solomon Duanah, is Kinley’s teammate at Carson-Newman. Duanah began his career at Nebraska-Omaha, and transferred in 2010. A running back that also runs track, the fleet Duanah has 36 carries for 235 yards and two TDs this season.
“I think Solomon’s gotten even faster since high school,” Kinley said.
Life also seems to race past.
“Time does fly,” Kinley said. “It seems like yesterday I’s playing for Science Hill.”
But football and school are winding down at an ideal time for the arrival of Kinley’s son.
“Hopefully, we’ll go far in the playoffs,” he said. “But the season is (nearing the end) and I’ll have more time for the baby.”
Unfortunately, for Kinley and his extended family, this week has been a painful reminder of what a blessing that is.