Editor's Note: This feature begins the AFC South blog's summer series: "Early Influence." In the coming weeks, a number of players and some coaches will pay tribute to people who helped them make it to the NFL.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- If there was no Rick Rodriguez, there would be no Kenny Britt -- not the NFL version anyway.
The Tennessee Titans' second-year receiver said without the influential coach who set him on course in high school, his prospects would be dim.
“Without him, I wouldn’t be playing football,” Britt said. “I wasn’t that good at basketball, so I don’t think I’d be playing basketball either. Right now, to tell you the truth, I’d be running the streets with my friends. I honestly believe that.
“I didn’t want to go to college, I didn’t really like school. I was never really good with school. He kept me on a line, he kept me focused.”
Every NFL player probably has some influential figure from a formative time whose teachings still resonate. There are touchstone lessons, sayings or themes that held and helped as a route to the league was plowed and paved.
Rodriguez began teaching Britt lessons before the student even became a Bayonne (N.J.) High School varsity football player.
Rodriguez’s Fighting Bees won a state championship in 2002, when Britt was a freshman not on the team. Rodriguez said he kicked Britt off the team going into the student's sophomore year; Britt said he quit because he couldn’t bear being a substitute. Either way, there was a late-summer meeting that led to a reconciliation that set Britt’s path.
“Going into his sophomore year he wasn’t doing the things that I demanded from my players, so I threw Kenny off the team because he wasn’t paying the price,” Rodriguez said. “I think that woke him up. I said, ‘I won a state championship without you, I can win another one.’”
Said Britt of a meeting at his family’s house: “He told me, ‘Right now you’ll just be playing JV. But if you stay at it, if you work hard, if you stay in the weight room, you’re going to be somebody throughout your life.’ So I believed in it.”
Rodriguez loved Britt’s size, athleticism and endurance. He said Britt could do 10 back flips in a row and could never be punished with gassers or a series of 110-yard sprints.
“That’s like drinking a tall glass of water for Kenny,” he said. “That kid can run all day.”
They both talk excitedly about how Britt, not yet having played a varsity game, wowed coaches when he went to Syracuse’s football camp with Rodriguez and a Bayonne contingent.
Britt thought one precise, textbook post route that cleared the safety really caught Syracuse’s attention. Rodriguez remembers Britt “killing” a cornerback who was an Orangemen recruit. Britt left upstate New York with a scholarship offer and a reality check from Rodriguez -- it was a piece of paper that could be taken away as easily as it was given.
From there, the two bonded, typically eating lunch together at school. Britt wore his coach’s fancy watch to his prom.
Rodriguez’s weight-room demands are one big reason Britt turned into a sculpted, physical receiver, he said. The Titans broke a long streak of not drafting receivers in the first round largely because of Britt’s ability to get off a jam at the line of scrimmage. It's a skill that started to develop because of the emphasis Rodriguez placed on lifting and physicality.
Despite his 29-12 record, Rodriguez was removed as head coach before Britt’s senior year. That season, Britt caught just 10 passes. Ultimately, he accepted a scholarship to Rutgers, and in his freshman year with the Scarlet Knights he caught 10 passes in a win at West Virginia.
Britt and Rodriguez, who teaches social studies at Bayonne High and still hopes to return to coaching, are in regular contact. Rodriguez called recently to congratulate Britt on his son’s christening.
“He definitely knows how I feel about him,” Britt said. “My rookie season he called me up once a week and told me, ‘Be a pro. Regardless of what you do, be a pro. Stay focused. Be in the classroom, make sure you’re studying. Be in the weight room.’ Make sure you be a pro, that’s the first thing he says. Make sure you be a pro, that’s the last thing he says.”’
Rodriguez said he hopes to influence every kid he coaches, but admits it’s gratifying to hear Britt speak fondly of him.
“To see a kid make it in the NFL, get drafted in the first round, I mean come on, that’s a coach’s dream come true,” he said. “I’m proud of all he’s accomplished.”