- Kieran Darcy, ESPNNewYork.com
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Says who? Well, just ask the man himself.
"You ask me who the best defensive tackle is in the NFL, I'll tell you Jimmy Kennedy," Kennedy said Wednesday. "Whether y'all believe it or whether I believe it in my head, that's all it takes."
Kennedy elaborated, using a film reference. "It's like the movie 'Shallow Hal,'" Kennedy said. "If I believe the chick is hot, and she's hot for me, then it is what it is."
That line garnered more than a few chuckles from the reporters gathered around Kennedy before practice Wednesday. But the Giants' reason for signing Kennedy is much more serious -- a need for increased depth at defensive tackle, particularly after losing second-round pick Marvin Austin for the season to a torn pectoral muscle.
And for Kennedy -- a Yonkers, N.Y., native -- it's a chance to resurrect his career in his own backyard.
"I grew up a Giants fan, so when I was signing here, the first thing I thought about was when I was younger with my pops, watching Jeff Hostetler in the Super Bowl," Kennedy said. "So it's definitely a great experience, and I'm just looking to take advantage of my opportunity."
Kennedy, 31, began his career at Roosevelt High School in Yonkers, where he played for legendary coach Tony DeMatteo. Kennedy was 6-foot-5 and 300 pounds in the ninth grade -- yet he didn't play football. DeMatteo had to talk him into trying out for the team, something the coach had never done before.
"I badgered him so much I'm surprised he didn't take a swing at me," said DeMatteo (now the coach at Somers High School in Somers, N.Y.) on Wednesday. "But he fell in love with the game."
It turned out Kennedy was a natural on the football field, blossoming into an all-star and leading his team to a state championship. Where he struggled was in the classroom -- and it didn't help that his family situation back home wasn't very stable.
Despite the fact that he was going to be a partial academic qualifier -- meaning he would have to sit out his freshman season -- Kennedy was recruited by Penn State. DeMatteo was very concerned about Kennedy receiving enough academic support, so Joe Paterno himself flew to New York to meet with Kennedy and DeMatteo, and offered up his wife's services as a tutor.
Kennedy went on to thrive both on and off the field in State College, graduating in four years and earning back one more year of football eligibility after graduation. He thought about skipping that final year and moving on to the NFL, but scouts were pegging him as a middle-round pick at best, and he thought he could do better.
So did his high school coach, with whom he had remained close. "The people I talked to said Jimmy needed to get in better shape," DeMatteo said. "So I told him that if he decided to go back to school, I would train him."
Kennedy did elect to go back to Penn State for one more year. But before that, he moved in with DeMatteo for two months. The two of them woke up at 4:30 every morning to work out, and Kennedy dropped 50 pounds, from 360 to 310. He finished his senior season as the Big Ten defensive lineman of the year and a third-team All-American with the Nittany Lions, and was selected with the No. 12 overall pick in the 2003 draft by the St. Louis Rams.
By most NFL followers' standards, Kennedy has been a bust at the professional level. The Giants will be the fifth team Kennedy has played for, entering his ninth NFL season. After four seasons in St. Louis, Kennedy was traded to Denver in 2007, where he was subsequently released. He spent the 2007 season with the Bears, split 2008 between the Jaguars and Vikings, and also played for the Vikes the past two seasons before being released by the team last month.
Kennedy took issue with the "bust" label Wednesday. "The thing that bugs me out about the NFL to some point is, no matter what happens, if you're a first-round pick, you get a label," Kennedy said. "Just look at the stuff that [Tim] Tebow's going through right now. Instantly you get a label, and you're labeled a bust after a year or two, whatever the case may be.
"I think I had some solid seasons when I was with St. Louis," Kennedy added. "But my expectations were always higher. I came out of college as a run-stopper. So when I was in St. Louis, to finish with a 60-tackle season, I thought I had a great season in the NFL. But my role was different; I had to get sacks. It took a while in St. Louis to define who I was."
Two years ago in Minnesota, he appeared in 13 games and had three sacks for a team that went to the NFC Championship Game. Last season he struggled with a knee injury, playing in just nine games, with only eight tackles.
"I tried to tough it out and fight through most of the pain last year," Kennedy said. "I made my boys proud, but I didn't put anything great on film. Nothing to help me, nothing I'm proud of.
"When I signed here, they asked me what film can we watch from last season that you'll be happy about, and I said nothing. I said, you watch the year before, I was all over the place. So last season, not impressed -- I don't think I did anything to justify my contract, and I understand why Minnesota let me go. I'm fine with that."
Kennedy was on the practice field with the Giants for the first time on Wednesday afternoon, after receiving his playbook Wednesday morning. He said he feels great physically. And coach Tom Coughlin expressed optimism about Kennedy after he signed. "He is a veteran player that two years ago played very well," Coughlin said. "Last year, according to what he told us, he was really injured and didn't play that well, and he feels good and healthy now. He is a veteran player who we think can help us."
Kennedy's high school coach had even greater expectations -- then, and now. "I expected him with his size and ability to be one of the all-time greats," DeMatteo said. "Why that hasn't happened? I really don't know. But I know there's something very special inside him that no one has been able to find yet."
Is DeMatteo biased? Of course. After all, the two are so close, he served as the best man at Kennedy's wedding -- taking a 15-hour train ride to South Carolina to be there after a snowstorm canceled his flight.
But Kennedy himself is also brimming with optimism.
"I'm a realist. S---, my career ain't gone the way I wanted it to go," Kennedy said. "[But] look it, I just played with guys like [former Pro Bowlers] Kevin Williams and Pat Williams [in Minnesota], and I also know that I can carry the torch just like them. I practiced with those guys every day.
"Why should I look down on myself? If I believe I'm the best defensive tackle [in the NFL], I'm gonna work my ass off until I prove it."
Yonkers native Jimmy Kennedy wants to prove he's the best tackle in the NFL.