PITTSBORO — It didn’t take long for Northwood to find its guy.
Less than three months after the sudden resignation of Cullen Homolka in October, the Chargers’ search for a new head football coach is officially over.
The school announced last Friday that it’d named Chris Kenan, former district-winning head coach at Neal Magnet Middle School in Durham, to lead the Chargers’ football program in 2022.
“When we started the interview process, we had criteria in our next head coach that went beyond X’s and O’s,” Northwood’s Director of Athletics Cameron Vernon said in a press release last Friday. “Coach Kenan checked off most, if not all, of those boxes.”
Kenan has spent nearly a decade coaching football at both the middle and high school levels, including his three-year stint as head coach at Neal Magnet, where he led the Eagles to three straight Durham Athletic Conference titles.
“As a middle school coach, there’s things you have to do that a high school coach wouldn’t be asked to do,” Kenan told the News + Record on Sunday. “You have a bare minimum staff and you have to make it work … and the seasons are shorter, so you’re asked to do a lot in a little bit of time.
“Building that winning tradition into a program,” he added, “that’s something that I can carry on from Neal to Northwood, teaching the guys how to win again.”
He mentioned that there were other coaching jobs on the table, but he chose the Chargers because he admired “the tradition and rich history of Northwood football … and it was something that my family wanted to be a part of.”
Kenan’s football career was both created and molded in Durham.
He attended Southern Durham High School, where he played guard and tackle before graduating and going on to play center for his hometown Eagles at North Carolina Central University.
His playing career in college lasted just two seasons due to the birth of his daughter. In order to support his family while still in school, he decided to take a job at Northern Vance High School in Henderson in 2009, where he was the J.V. head coach and the varsity’s run game coordinator.
That’s when Coach Kenan was born.
His path led him back to Durham in 2011, when he took a job at Hillside High School as its offensive and defensive line coach, followed by a stint at Riverside High School before being named the head football coach at Neal Magnet, where his three-peat began. (Techncially, the team claimed four straight district titles while he was there, but in 2019, he was more in a “co-head coaching” role instead of being the full-on head coach.)
His success with the Neal Eagles came down to three of his program’s most crucial mainstays: a consistent work ethic, a commitment to being an all-around student-athlete and a desire to represent the community with pride.
“You get in and you get to work immediately and build a program that’s 365 (days a year),” Kenan said. “You want to build a program where your athletes are playing more than one sport and monitoring their academics year-round so the kids don’t have to worry about eligibility. You want to build a program that’s something the community can be proud of. … When the community’s behind a program, it makes everything a lot easier.”
And in Durham, competitive football is a community staple.
Football is one of 11 middle-school sports offered by Durham Public Schools, allowing students to begin playing organized football at a much younger age than they can in Chatham County, which has no school-sanctioned middle school football programs.
In Durham, Kenan said that high school coaches will often attend — sometimes with their full teams — middle school games and get into “recruiting battles” with other coaches for certain players.
“You can kind of see, two or three years out, what teams and what crews you’re going to get (in high school),” Kenan said. “You just start seeing (which school) is going to run Durham for the next couple of years.”
But the absence of middle school football doesn’t make the Chatham football any less competitive than its Triangle counterpart.
“With Northwood, they don’t have middle school football, but it’s still competitive with Seaforth, Chatham (Central) and Jordan-Matthews so close,” Kenan said, “so it’s going to be a lot of work. Good work, but I just don’t know what to expect. … I’m just ready to enjoy the ride.”
In February 2020, Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man, was shot and killed by three white men while jogging in Satilla Shores, a suburban neighborhood in Brunswick, Georgia, not far from his home.
For Kenan and his wife, Tangela, who jog in their neighborhood on a nightly basis — especially during the height of the pandemic — Arbery’s tragic death hit a little too close to home.
“She was just terrified,” said Kenan, who is Black. “She couldn’t believe what had happened and she wanted to raise some awareness and try to do something in the community because she knew that I ran every night and she would hate for me to get cut off and trapped when I was tired.”
Then, after the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer just a few months later, it was time to take action.
“We had a strong community here with the athletes, so we got all of the athletes we know — pop warner, middle school, high school, college — and went to the courthouse,” Kenan explained. “I asked my good friend, Sherriff (Clarence F.) Birkhead, to come out and ask some questions to the athletes to see how we were feeling.”
Kenan said it was important for athletes to lead the way in the discussion because of how often they exercise, which includes running/jogging outdoors, just like Arbery, who was also a high school football player.
This prompted Kenan to found Building Leaders for a Solid Tomorrow (BLAST), an organization that focuses on creating programs throughout communities to help build young leaders and give “proactive training” to students on how to better interact with the police to allow them to feel safer in their own neighborhoods.
BLAST has sinced changed its name to 5K Foundation, but Kenan has helped put on plenty of tutoring sessions for students (both in-person and virtual), back-to-school drives, fitness & wellness events and one of his staples, “Safe Zone Fridays,” hosted at different apartment complexes, where police officers and children gather for an evening without violence.
“They help give the kids something to do during the summer on Friday and Saturday nights, where we know that this crime-infested, drug-infested, gang-infested neighborhood is safe this night,” Kenan said. “It’s guaranteed that kids can come outside that night. … They usually don’t get to come outside and play so freely.”
Kenan has constantly worked to give back to the community he grew up in, something he wants his players to do at Northwood and will be one of the foundational principals of his program.
“We’ll teach you how to win not just in the three phases of the game, but the three phases of life,” Kenan said. “You’ve got to win at home, you’ve got to win at your job and you’ve got to win in the community.
“I want to make sure we have a strong community presence in various facets,” he added. “I want to make sure that Northwood football players are positive pillars in the community, someone that people can go to for assistance.”
Going into the job, Kenan understands that he’ll likely coach some student-athletes with very little football experience.
And it sounds like that excites him.
“I look at it as like getting a blank canvas,” Kenan said. “What’s better than getting a blank canvas that you can paint the picture as pretty as you want it, as light as you want it, as heavy as you want it? So, I embrace that opportunity to give the kids their football experience, which is all Coach Kenan-taught, so I feel a lot of confidence in that.”
He said he wants his team to be physical, fast and versatile, putting major emphasis on the weight room and his players taking part in other sports, such as track and field.
“We want to build student-athletes, not student-football-players,” Kenan said. “Each sport translates to each other and I feel like the more you play, the different movements translate to and enhance other movements.”
He’s inheriting a football program coming off of two straight playoff appearances, including a mostly down year last season, which ended with its head coach, Homolka, resigning before the postseason in the midst of a three-game losing streak.
While his eyes are on the state championship for his first-ever season as a high school head coach, Kenan said he knows a ton of work needs to be put in before he can make that a reality.
And it starts now.
Kenan said the over the next couple of months, the team will begin its spring development season, which will include 7-on-7 ball. Then, it’s onto 10 days of spring football, offseason workouts, training camp and officially gearing up for the start of the season in August.
He said he also has plans to host youth football camps for elementary-aged students this summer as part of a four-week series.
“If we’re not doing well, it won’t be because we’re not trying,” Kenan said. “We’re going to be a hard-hat, blue-collar team, a hardworking team that’s going to give everything they’ve got every Friday night.”
Reporter Victor Hensley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @Frezeal33.
No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here