John Wesley Kennedy III is not a comeback story. It’s an unfinished story, with tragedy and triumph. There have been bumps in the road, some tragedy stemming from his own missteps, some beyond his control and some falling somewhere in between. Yet still, the 24-year-old graduate of Benedictine (2017) doesn’t think he qualifies as a “comeback story,” at least not when asked during a December 30, 2022 sit-down interview with Connect Savannah.
After arriving from his job at a commercial moving company in Savannah, Kennedy III sits in a coach’s office at the back of the Benedictine campus. He is here to reflect, sure. But he also looks ahead to his current route, the one leading him back to the game he loves.
A critical component to every comeback story is missing in his, he says.
“I don’t think about it like a comeback really. I just look at it like a setback more than that,” he says. “I never really left. Still here and still working hard because I always wanted to keep playing (football). It’s just that I took a different route.”
The route is different to say the least. One as unique as any for modern college football players.
Kennedy III will play his final season with NCAA eligibility on a full scholarship for the University of West Georgia next season. He announced this during a ceremony on January 2 at Benedictine with friends, family and coaches there to support him. He leaves for Carrollton on Friday, January 6, with classes beginning on Monday, January 9. It’s a rare thing: Next fall, Kennedy III will suit up for the Division II Wolves and play in his first football game in more than 1,000 days.
“I think about that every night,” he says when asked about how often he envisions being back under the lights. “Like I lay there and I’ll just think about scoring like five touchdowns and going off. I can’t wait to be back (in college football). I am always thinking about what kind of season I can have because I can say finally I get to actually have my senior season.”
Kennedy III has been a football player since the age of four. But for more than two years now, he has been stuck in a state of limbo.
He was dismissed from Georgia Southern’s football team on November 22, 2020, the waiting thousand-day clock began ticking. He had been arrested on drug-related charges one night prior while sitting in his Statesboro apartment. His girlfriend at the time, as well as three other GS football players, were also arrested that day.. All four of the players were suspended from the team the next day after a school-issued press release went out. Two of the GS players returned to the team in the games following their brief suspension. They returned to action with little explanation coming from the program. Kennedy III never played another game for the Eagles, and the coaching staff was mum on his status for the remainder of the season.
“As soon as we got back from the game (at Army on November 21),” says Kennedy III of the hours and days following his arrest. “Everything happened with me, and it’s like (Georgia Southern coaches) just parted from me right away. It was nothing except you’re suspended. I got my stuff and came back (to Savannah) right after that.”
For as long as he was producing for them on the field, all was well. And when his suspension came, it felt more like an expulsion.
“I haven’t heard anything from (Georgia Southern) since then,” he says. “I mean I’ve heard from the new coach (Clay Helton) but other than him, I haven’t heard from any of the coaches that were there when I was. I was surprised by that and hurt too. My family was too because it’s like how could they say ‘family’ and ‘brotherhood’ but nobody tried to contact me and nobody tried to help me or help me stay in classes or let me know if I was even still in classes.”
“That’s when I realized it was all business and you just have to play a role, I guess.”
A three-star recruit coming out of Benedictine, Kennedy III chose Georgia Southern over other schools like Southern Mississippi, Tulane, Louisville and Appalachian State. His 40-game career at Southern was objectively good, especially so during the 2018 and 2019 seasons under head coach Chad Lunsford. Kennedy III was an honorable mention All-Sun Belt selection in 2018 (sophomore) and 2019 (junior). His sophomore year proved to be a breakout campaign.
“(2018) was a fun season because we had great player leadership,” he insists. “It was a great team and we made it happen for them.”
The 2018 Eagles finished with a 10-3 record in Lunsford’s first full season at the helm. It was a dramatic, unlikely turnaround from a dismal 2017 season that caused former coach Tyson Summers to be fired before the season ended. Without Kennedy III, GS may not have reached the 10-win mark. The magical season could’ve gone much differently had he not been around. He was that important.
On September 29, 2018, just one day before his 20th birthday, Kennedy scored his first collegiate touchdown on a play that Georgia Southern fans will long remember. With 29 seconds left in a 21-21 tied game against Arkansas State, Kennedy took a reverse-pitch 47 yards down the sideline for a game-winning score.
“I knew I had to turn on the jets and go,” he said later that night.
It wasn’t his first game for Southern, but it was the definitive sign of his arrival as the primary big-play weapon for offensive coordinator Bob DeBesse. It was the beginning of what promised to be an exceptional career for Kennedy as an Eagle. And it was exceptional, even if it was brought to a premature end.
He rushed for 1,874 yards and 20 touchdowns in his career in Statesboro. Kennedy III led GS teams in all-purpose yards in each of his last three seasons (2018, 2019 and 2020).
In 2019, he led the team in rushing with 824 yards and 11 touchdowns on just 119 carries. It was the fewest number of carries for a GS leading rusher since Marlow Warthen carried only 69 times for 658 yards in 1994. He is fourth on the school’s career punt return average list (12.4 yards per return) and seventh all-time in total kick return yards (919).
He was headed for another all-conference senior season in 2020, but the November arrest and subsequent suspension from the team cut it all short.
“When I look back at my time there, it’s neutral the way I feel about it really,” says Kennedy III. “I had a lot of ups and downs. Some of the stuff – the academics (he served a four-game suspension at the start of 2019 season for academics) – I could have controlled that. The stuff with my arrest is … It’s some things I could’ve done differently, but it’s also like being with the wrong people at the wrong place at the wrong time.”
“I won’t say I’m glad it happened, but it is a good thing that it happened because it taught me some lessons.”
When he moved back to Savannah after learning of his suspension, Kennedy III was, by his own admission, lost and unsure of what was coming next. He was technically still “suspended.” But he wasn’t in contact with the GS coaching staff, and he wasn’t even sure of his academic status at the school.
“I just kind of shut down everything,” he recalls. “I didn’t start training again until at least January (of 2022) and it was hard to not get down or mad. It was just a lot. It felt like one minute they were with me and (the) next (minute) they weren't.”
In April 2021 Kennedy III pleaded not guilty to the misdemeanor charges in his pending case. But by the time the next fall rolled around, he was still without a college home and his mental state was suffering because of it. It took its toll in October 2021, when Kennedy III went missing for two days, on foot, somewhere in and around the Garden City area.
His mother, Yulonda Maxwell, took to Facebook to begin pleading for people to help find her son. She, like most mothers, could tell when something was wrong with her son.
“This is very hard for me to post this but my son John Wesley Kennedy III is missing," she posted on her Facebook profile. "He was last seen this morning 10/17/21 at 10 AM. He has not been thinking clearly and he has not been himself."
Maxwell, family members, friends and former coaches took to the streets and woods near Dean Forest Road in Savannah in order to look for Kennedy III. Police were searching, and asking for the public’s health through word of mouth and social media pleas.
"He is not himself. He's not himself mentally," Maxwell told the Savannah Morning News during her son’s absence. "He said he's planning to save the world and sacrifice himself."
Thankfully, Maxwell’s son was found near Dean Forest Rd. with his condition in rough shape. It had been more than 48 hours since he fled on foot, and it was at that point, Kennedy III says he decided to dedicate real time trying to improve his mental health. It isn’t the type of setback he wants to relive on this day.
“It’s hard to explain what I was going through at that time, so I’d rather not get into it,” he says when asked to explain his reasoning at the time. “But I will say that my mindset is different now than it was then. I’m more focused on myself and trying to get myself back to what I know I can be. That, instead of just trying to please everybody. It’s a whole different mindset for me now.”
His case was “resolved” earlier this year and he says that he is serving probation to put it behind him once and for all.
If his off-the-field actions needed improving, he has certainly dedicated himself to doing just that. But, his on-the-field performance was never in question. At Benedictine, he is considered one of the best to ever do it.
For those not impressed with individual stats, Kennedy’s Cadet teams were 53-4 during his four-year career. That’s a BC school record for an individual player over any four-year span. He was a sophomore on the 2014 state championship squad and was nearly unstoppable during the 2016 state title season for head coach Danny Britt’s Cadets. And for those impressed by individual stats, he’s got those too.
Kennedy III was the 2016 Savannah Morning News Player of the Year and a first-team All-State selection. In his career, he amassed 7,552 all-purpose yards with 89 touchdowns and 3,605 rushing yards. That’s the kind of production West Georgia is hoping to get a fraction of this fall.
David Dean is the head coach at UWG, and he was the leading recruiter for Kennedy III at GS while Dean was the offensive coordinator. Dean spoke with CS in a phone call on January 4.
“He is just a great kid and he’s got a great mom,” Dean said of his newest player. “He deserves the chance to play football again and we’re more than happy to give him that opportunity.”
“Wesley Kennedy is a special man and a special football player and he needs to be playing,” said Dean. “Knowing what he has gone through and what he put behind him, I knew he was ready to take a step like this.”
So how will Dean use the services of Kennedy III this fall? His excitement could be heard through the phone.
“Well, I know one thing. We are going to get Wesley the football and let him do what he does best: Make big plays like he always has. He could have a big season for us. We are excited and ready to welcome him.”