Kenbrell Thompkins is a former wide receiver at the University of Cincinnati and a former junior college All-American with scholarship offers from every top college program in the country. He’s also a former drug dealer, a former juvenile delinquent and a former stereotype of an African American male raised in a single parent home in one of America’s worst neighborhoods, Liberty City in Miami, Fla.
Kenbrell Thompkins is a man of God and a father, who hasn’t been in trouble with the law since 2008. More than anything else, Kenbrell Thompkins is a man righting the wrongs of the adolescent he once was — a man trying, ever so desperately, to clear the final hurdle in an unlikely, uphill journey to the NFL.
TOUGH TIMES IN TOUGHER PLACES
“My mother raised six kids — five boys and one girl,” Thompkins said. “We were raised off of 61st Street and 12th Avenue. If you do the research on that street, it’s the home of the infamous John Doe Gang.”
Led by Corey Smith, now a death-row inmate at the Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center in Dade County, Fla., the John Doe Gang was one of the largest drug syndicates in the country in the 1990s. The JDG operated as a poor man’s mafia, infamously known for executions, holding civilians hostage and bloody turf wars with rival drug runners during Thompkins’ childhood.
With his mother working two jobs in order to support six children and his father not a constant in his life at the time, Thompkins’, and far too many other young men in Liberty City, was brought up in the streets — streets run by men like Corey Smith and the JDG.
“I never really saw my mom that much, so everything I learned was from running the streets and adapting to what was going on around me,” Thompkins said. “Growing up in Miami, Fla. — in the area I grew up in — it was nothing but violence. Violence and drugs. I woke up to it and I went to sleep to it, so I thought that was the right thing to do and I ended up getting adapted to it. It became second nature to me.”
The overall lack of guidance nearly cost Thompkins his life at age 7, when he accidentally shot himself in the arm while playing with a handgun. If the gun discharged at a slightly higher angle, he’d likely have suffered a fatal wound to the chest.
By his teens, Thompkins was consumed by a lifestyle forged from a lack of guidance and the violence he was born into.
“Middle school was when I started hanging with the wrong crowd and doing things that I shouldn’t be doing, as far as selling drugs, smoking marijuana, stealing and picking fights — thinking it was the right thing to do at the time.”
By his 19th birthday, Thompkins was arrested seven times, three of which were drug related. But through all the tumultuous hardships, drugs and arrests, he somehow managed to keep football in his life.
“I always played football growing up,” Thompkins said. “It was the sport that I always loved. It was the sport that my mom always had her kids participate in and I learned early on that I was very good at it.”
Thompkins attended Miami Northwest High School, a national football powerhouse, where he bounced back and forth between playing the sport he loved and being expelled.
After starting as a freshman, Thompkins was academically ineligible to play as a sophomore and was later expelled for violating school policy. He was allowed to re-enroll prior to his junior football season, only to be expelled again later in the year.
Thompkins managed to stay out of trouble for the rest of his junior year, which he spent at an alternative school. He re-enrolled at Northwest for the third time prior to his senior year and finished his high school football career. Not long after the season concluded, Thompkins was expelled for the third time, after being arrested on armed robbery charges.
Shortly afterward, Thompkins — 18 years old — was arrested for the seventh time in a three year span. He served a 28-day jail sentence for possession of cocaine with the intent to sell.
Since leaving jail after his sentence, Thompkins hasn’t been in any trouble with the law — no arrests, no drugs. Not even a parking ticket.
For many of its young men, there are only three ways out of Liberty City. In Miami’s most violent neighborhood, football is often the only positive departure. Handcuffs or a coffin are the other options.
Despite hailing from the same neighborhood that produced the likes of Chad Ochocinco, Melvin Bratton and Antonio Bryant, Thompkins never viewed his athletic ability as a way out of the darkness he’d been surrounded by since his youth.
Shadowed by a rap sheet with seven arrests and an association with drugs, Thompkins was barely recruited coming out of high school. His only scholarship offer was from Morgan State University. Although he signed a letter of intent to play for Morgan while serving a 21-day sentence in juvenile hall for his armed robbery charge, Thompkins never reported to the university, and his NCAA eligibility clock never started.
Everything changed when his younger brother Kendall received a scholarship to play receiver at the University of Miami, a moment Thompkins refers to as one of the most important days of his life.
“When he [Kendall] earned that scholarship to the University of Miami, it did something to me,” Thompkins said. “Growing up he always looked up to me to guide him and steer him the right way and, as much wrong as I’ve done by running the streets and getting into trouble and going to jail, he never did that. He never chose the route I chose; he stayed in school and earned a scholarship.”
Inspired by his brother’s success, Thompkins made the decision to abandon the streets that created the troubled boy he used to be, and dedicated himself to football, the game that made him the man he is today.
After a year out of football, Thompkins decided to leave Liberty City in pursuit of a chance at the junior college level. Because Thompkins was still on two years’ probation, he needed the approval of a judge to leave the state of Florida.
Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Dennis Murphy gave Thompkins the opportunity he needed, the permission to leave all he’d ever known behind — a chance to leave the darkness and find the light.
“It’s always good when you give a kid like Kenbrell, whose seen nothing but violence and drugs in his life, a chance and they come back later on down the road to thank you,” Murphy said. “Helping troubled kids like Kenbrell get their lives back on track and make the most of opportunities is what has kept me doing this job all of these years.”
FINDING THE LIGHT
“That’s when I went to junior college and God made miracles for me,” Thompkins said. “[Junior College] is where I found my way with God and put my faith in the Bible and started reading about it each and every day.”
Thompkins enrolled at Palomar Community College in San Marcos, Calif. in the spring of 2008, before transferring to El Camino Community College in Torrance, Calif. to play football in the fall.
Finally away from the demons that followed him in Liberty City, Thompkins was able to devote himself to football for the first time in his life.
“I made sure I put it [the dream of playing in NFL] first in my life every day,” Thompkins said. “I went to El Camino to make sure I did well in school, to make sure I lived right [and] to make sure I did whatever it takes to prove to the world that my past doesn’t define the man I am today. I went to El Camino on a mission.”
Thompkins quickly burst onto the scene under the tutelage of legendary junior college coach John Featherstone. With 1,032 yards receiving and nine touchdowns in 2008, Thompkins earned All-American honors as a freshman. More importantly, he maintained above a 3.0 GPA and avoided any legal troubles.
The nation’s elite football programs quickly took note of Thompkins’ meteoric rise. Florida was the first major program to offer Thompkins a scholarship. Most of college football’s upper-echelon followed suit. Alabama, Arizona, Arizona State, California, Florida State, Kansas State, LSU, Oklahoma, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas Tech and UCLA all pursued Thompkins by the end of his sophomore season at El Camino.
As a sophomore at El Camino, Thompkins was voted team captain and awarded the No. 1 jersey, which is the highest honor an El Camino player can receive. No.1 is awarded in honor of former tight end Devin Adair to the player that best demonstrated Adair’s qualities: leadership, courage, commitment and an unselfish concern for team ahead of one’s self.
Thompkins lived up to the billing, hauling in more than 1,000 yards receiving for the second year in a row. He left El Camino as the school’s all-time leader in receiving yards.
Thompkins wasted little time in choosing the next stop of his journey. Persuaded by the Volunteers’ impressive performance against No.1 Alabama and enticed by the chance to continue his career alongside his El Camino quarterback and roommate Matt Simms, Thompkins signed a letter of intent to play for the University of Tennessee. Volunteer head coach Lane Kiffin, who had become an adored father figure for Thompkins, was the biggest factor in his commitment.
NEW CHALLENGES ARISE
While back in Liberty City preparing to pack up for Knoxville, Tenn., Thompkins — who graduated early from El Camino — was presented with yet another hurdle.
“I remember I was in my car with my nephew when the Lane Kiffin story came across on ESPN and I was in shock that he was leaving,” he said.
Before Thompkins and Simms ever arrived on campus at Tennessee, Kiffin bolted for the sandy beaches and higher pay rates of the University of Southern California.
With Kiffin gone, Thompkins made the difficult decision to leave Simms and Tennessee. Thompkins was allowed to leave UT, with the stipulation that he could not attend another university in the South Eastern Conference. He would not be released from his letter of intent, which meant he’d likely be forced to sit out one year at whichever university he chose to play for — and there was a possibility he’d lose an entire year of eligibility.
Thompkins then decided on the Oklahoma Sooners, where he was to be given a scholarship once he enrolled and was officially released from Tennessee. That too never materialized, as Oklahoma has a strict policy against admitting students with a lengthy history of legal troubles. Despite nearly two years without a run-in with the police, Thompkins’ past was haunting him once again.
With little time remaining before spring practice, the No.1 rated junior college receiver in America found himself without a home. However, opportunity knocked in the form of a phone call from an NFL family member.
“My cousin, Antonio Brown, who plays for the Pittsburg Steelers, played for Central Michigan under Butch Jones,” Thompkins said. “He asked me how I would feel about attending the University of Cincinnati and playing for his former coach. I decided to call coach Jones, they brought me on a visit and I ended up committing on the spot.”
Like the rest of his journey, Thompkins’ time at UC wouldn’t go as planned.
Thompkins immediately worked his way toward the front of a receiving-corps that included future NFL players Armon Binns and DJ Woods. Unfortunately, he was informed late in the summer that he’d have to wait a year to showcase his talents.
Because Tennessee would not release him from his letter of intent and the national letter of intent appeals committee denied his request to become immediately eligible, Thompkins was informed that he’d have to sit out the 2010 season — just two days prior to UC departing for camp. However, because of the unique circumstances surrounding his de-commitment from Tennessee, he was not stripped of a year of eligibility.
Thompkins viewed the redshirt season as an opportunity and immediately went to work, on and off the field. He earned a 3.9 GPA in his first quarter at UC, spent extra time in the weight room nearly every day and, most importantly, stayed out of trouble. Three full years clear of any legal issues, Thompkins no longer resembled the troubled teen he had been.
“When you look at him and you talk to him, he doesn’t look like what he’s been through,” said Antrione Archer, director of player development at UC. “When I first met him he still had a little rough around the edges, but you could tell he was in the process of really finding his identity and being comfortable with the man that he was becoming.”
Thompkins missed the entire summer of his junior season with a nagging right leg injury, which severely hampered his speed and overall performance in 2011.
On Aug. 17, 2011, less than a month before Thompkins was set to make his debut for UC, his life was changed forever with the birth of his first child, Kenbrell Thompkins II.
“He’s more motivation for me each and every day,” Thompkins said. “When he was born, it really woke me up and I knew it was really time to step up and be a man. God has really blessed me, and fortunately he blessed me with a son, someone I have to look at every day and to give me the reason to live right and do right.”
Thompkins was able to return to action for UC’s first game of 2011, scoring a touchdown in the Bearcats’ 44-14 rout of North Carolina State. Because he missed the entire summer, Thompkins never reached full fitness in 2011. By the time he began to reach full strength, UC starting quarterback Zach Collaros had gone down for the season with a broken ankle. He finished his junior season with 536 yards, two touchdowns and no legal issues.
Thompkins — described by teammates as a leader on and off the field as a senior — was finally able to showcase his talents in week three of the 2012 season. With UC facing perennial power Virginia Tech in a nationally televised game, Thompkins dominated the Hokies’ man-coverage schemes. He hauled in seven catches for 134 yards, including a game-changing 37-yard touchdown. UC defeated Va. Tech 27-24.
Unfortunately for Thompkins, the remainder of UC’s season was plagued by inconsistent quarterback play and, after a mid-season quarterback switch, Cincinnati’s offense became significantly more run-based. Thompkins ended his senior season with 541 yards and two touchdowns. He graduated from UC in December 2012.
“His numbers don’t tell the true story of his talent,” Archer said. “He can play.”
THE FINAL HURDLE
Regardless of Thompkins’ numbers, which were restricted by things outside of his control throughout his UC career, he still possesses the talent of an NFL receiver.
Thompkins was selected to play in the Texas vs. The Nation game and received an invitation to the NFL Combine in Indianapolis.
Thompkins stood out on the first day of practice at the Texas vs. The Nation game, shining in a group of wide receivers described by former University of Miami head coach Howard Schnellenburger as an extremely talented group.
Despite not cracking the top five receiver rankings in any particular drill at the combine, Thompkins impressed scouts with a solid workout and extremely precise rout running skills.
Depending on the source, Thompkins is projected as anywhere from a fifth-round draft pick to an undrafted free agent. Despite more than five years with no legal troubles and no indication of the behaviors of his former life, several NFL scouts remain hesitant about Thompkins because of possible character issues.
Archer, who spent a significant amount of one-on-one time with Thompkins at UC, doesn’t believe an NFL team could find a higher character player in the draft than Thompkins.
“He’s not a character issue at all,” Archer said. “If anything he’s an inspiration. I’m getting goose bumps just talking about it. For him to overcome everything and have this opportunity, he’s not a guy that has issues any team should worry about.”
As far as Thompkins is concerned, overcoming the reputation left behind by the actions of his past is the final objective of the mission he began at El Camino college five years ago.
“To this day, my vision hasn’t changed, but to this day I’m still stereotyped,” Thompkins said. “I haven’t been arrested or in any trouble with the law since 2008, but I’m still stereotyped over my past. It’s something I have no control over, but I’m here today to tell you that the man I once was is no longer standing here. The person I am today is a humble guy, a guy that is willing to learn and a guy that is willing to do whatever it takes to live right and prove the world wrong.”
Thompkins has scheduled workouts with the Miami Dolphins, the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Cincinnati Bengals in the coming weeks.
In his own words, “Kenbrell Thompkins has everything to prove.”