When Kendall Fuller is drafted at the end of April, he'll be the fourth of his brothers to join the NFL ranks. Pete Thamel takes a look at one of America's most fascinating and low-key football families.
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This story appears in the April 11, 2016, issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
This summer at Woodlawn High, in a middle-class suburb of Baltimore, four brothers will line up at the 50-yard line of a football field and dash to one goal line. There will be no reality-show crew documenting one of America's most fascinating football families, only a few friends and relatives, armed with smart-phone cameras in case of (another) disputed finish.
The fifth annual race among the Fullers—Vincent II, Corey, Kyle and Kendall—is significant mostly because it will feature three brothers with NFL pedigrees and a fourth about to get one. When Kendall is drafted at the end of April (he's projected as a second-round pick), the Fullers will become just the second set of four brothers to reach the NFL in the Super Bowl era. Their low-profile sprint will perfectly encapsulate the low-key manner in which they reached this lofty status, and how hard they pushed one another to get here.
Vincent II, who last played in 2011 after seven seasons as a safety with the Titans and the Lions, will get teased for requiring 30 additional minutes to warm up. Corey, a fourth-year receiver for Detroit, and Kyle, a third-year cornerback for the Bears, will be the favorites. The former claims to have won three of the past four, but the results are shrouded in controversy—even these NFL vets aren't above calling a backyard “do-over.” In fact, it seems certain that at some point after the race, each of the four runners will claim victory.
The Fuller brothers were all raised in the same modest stone-and-aluminum-siding house around the corner from Woodlawn High (a school that figured prominently in the true crime podcast Serial; Vincent II was one year behind Adnan Syed), they all attended Virginia Tech, and they all have spotless reputations. They've chased history by chasing one another in made-up backyard games, and this fall they'll join the Browners—Ross, Jim, Joey and Keith, who played in the 1970s and '80s—as the second modern foursome of NFL brothers. If Kansas State fullback Glenn Gronkowski, a projected late-round pick, lands with an NFL team, the Gronkowskis (with Dan, Chris and Rob) will join that small fraternity—though growing up Fuller was much different from growing up Gronk.
Vincent II, now 33 and enrolled in his second year at Fordham Law, sets the understated tone. He led by example, rarely dating during his college and NFL days (to avoid distractions) and ditching his leased Range Rover to buy a Chevy Silverado (lowering payments from $800 to $300). On his advice, two of the younger Fullers majored in finance because of its real-world applications. “I want each of [my brothers] to be better than the next,” he says. “If one of them doesn't achieve higher, then I would feel like I didn't do something right in passing along my knowledge.”
For the Fuller brothers, the race is rigged for the last to finish first.
In a neighborhood of one-story homes, each a first down apart, two gray plastic chairs adorn the Fullers' front porch. An alarm system sounds whenever a door opens, and two American cars—an Explorer and a Mustang—sit outside. What's so extraordinary about the Fuller household is how ordinary it appears, unchanged (save for the overflowing trophy cases) by the scholarship offers, the draft parties, the $12 million and change collected over the years by three professional football players.
Vincent and Nina Dorsey-Fuller get asked all the time: What's the secret to raising four boys who reached the NFL? Is it Vincent's genes from his days as a high school basketball star in Brooklyn? Nina's karate background? Or perhaps the mystery marinade on her grilled chicken Caesar salad? The recent empty nesters speak instead about maintaining a normal environment. Theirs was like so many American families'—not rich, not poor. Vincent worked as a high school teacher and an accountant, and he owned a shoe store before becoming the publisher of the Woodlawn Villager newspaper. Nina has spent 16 years working in IT for UPS.
Around the time the couple relocated from Baltimore to Woodlawn in 1992, Vincent II, a son from Vincent's first marriage, moved in full-time. And until Vincent II departed for college in 2000, Kyle, Corey and Kendall all shared a single bedroom. It's no surprise then that the brothers' fondest memories are of endless afternoons spent outside, playing invented games like “three fly,” in which one brother threw a football up for grabs and the others fought to catch it. On snow days they shoveled off patches of grass at Woodlawn High's field and did footwork drills. After a blizzard hit the Mid-Atlantic earlier this year, Corey shot out a group text: “If we were home as kids, we would've been outside having a blast.” Everyone agreed.
Early on, the boys' father nurtured their natural competitiveness, never forgetting how he was cut from the basketball team at Morgan State because he wasn't in good enough shape. He urged them to compete nationally in track and “instilled a mind-set where you didn't want to be the best in your neighborhood,” Corey says, “but the best in the country.”
Later, as Vincent II starred at Tech and in 2005 became the Titans' fourth-round pick, the Fullers kept their household remarkably unremarkable. “I never wanted Corey, Kyle and Kendall to get too comfortable,” Vincent II says. “And staying status quo—in the same household, the same neighborhood—helped achieve that.”
Vincent II has always been the serious brother. He never required a curfew. He uses plastic utensils at restaurants to avoid germs. He graduated from Tech with two degrees: marketing management and business information technology. “He always told us,” says Kyle, “do what you have to do in college so that you can have more fun later.” The 2011 NFL lockout cemented Vincent II's desire to go to law school; it bothered him that he didn't understand the intricacies of negotiations that would so significantly impact his career. He was cut by the Patriots that December and has since interned with the legal departments of CBS Sports and Louis Vuitton, as well as at a boutique firm in Washington, D.C.
Corey, 25, was the resilient brother, considered a bit of a slacker by the Fullers' standards. When he came home with a bad grade in high school, “[Vincent II] hit me so hard,” square in the chest, he recalls, “that it woke me up.” Corey's college path took him first to Kansas, on a partial track scholarship, but he missed football and decided to walk on at Tech, earning a scholarship after his redshirt 2010 season. He became a receiver—the only Fuller to play offense—because, he jokes, you have to be “a different person” to play defense. His path worked; he caught 43 passes and six TDs as a senior, and the Lions plucked him in the sixth round in '13.
Kyle, 24, is the conduit brother. He absorbed Vincent II's on-field lessons and took note of Corey's stop-and-go route. Kyle learned enough about Tech's defense from Vincent II that he started seven games as a true freshman; he starred for the next three years at corner and earned a green-room invite to the 2014 draft, where the Bears picked him No. 14. These days he faces Corey twice a year, with Vincent and Nina wearing custom shirts that blend the two teams' jerseys.
And Kendall, 21, is the composite brother. His siblings tease him about being spoiled—Vincent II and his parents combined to buy him a 2007 Ford Edge for his junior year of high school—and he has in general benefited from his brothers' largess. (“He's going to take a pay cut when he goes to the NFL,” Corey jokes.) But, really, Kendall is defined by the traits he gleaned from them: Vincent II's demeanor, Corey's toughness, Kyle's competitiveness. In the end, he's positioned to be the best of them because of them.
If there's an unofficial record for unofficial visits to a college, Kendall Fuller may hold it. He began traveling the 295 miles from Woodlawn to Blacksburg in kindergarten, and he stopped so many times at Mr. J's Bagels and Deli, at the halfway point, that he developed a go-to breakfast order: bacon, egg and cheese on a plain bagel. As a grade-schooler he would arrive and search the field for his brother; by high school he could identify the Hokies' defensive backs who'd be getting reamed at Monday's film session.
Thirteen years later Kendall emerged as a five-star recruit at Our Lady of Good Counsel (in Olney, Md.) and received dozens of scholarship offers, owing largely to a lifetime of learning by osmosis. Vincent II, for example, had played four sports in high school; Kendall saw how much time his brothers dedicated to their crafts and chose to only play football and run track. “We didn't have to say anything,” Kendall says, “because we always knew the next [brother] was watching. Their way of telling me what to do was just doing it.”
With a higher profile came bigger suitors, such that Nina was able to ask Clemson coach Dabo Swinney: “What can you do for my son that [Tech coach] Frank Beamer can't?” Kendall says he eventually called a Tigers assistant to commit but he got a bad feeling and hung up as he was dialing. Two weeks later he chose to follow his brothers to Blacksburg. Endless hours of defensive-back tutorials commenced by phone. Kyle would call and review AAA—a Tech term for “alignment, assignment and adjustment”—against different formations. He taught Kendall the ins and outs of the Hokies' press coverage, including “square, square, punch,” where a defensive back squares in front of a receiver, takes several choppy steps straight back and, when a receiver picks a side, punches with the opposite hand. “By the time Kendall came,” says Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster, “he was already refined.”
Kendall went from ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year to All-ACC as a sophomore, but a torn right meniscus limited him last season to just three games. (He ended up having microfracture surgery, too, when Dr. James Andrews went in to fix the meniscus.) Without the injury Foster predicts that Kendall could have been drafted higher than Kyle. With it, he's become a divisive prospect: a first-round talent shrouded by injury questions.
Either way, he's the only Fuller brother advanced enough to have declared early for the NFL. (Will he finish his degree? “He better,” says Nina.) And fittingly, his departure coincided with the last season for Beamer, who in his 29 years at Blacksburg coached 25 sets of brothers. “The only time I ever remember having a Fuller in my office,” says Beamer, “was to tell them how proud I was of them.”
Over the past several months, as he has labored to lower his time in the 40, Kendall has come to realize that he has also been preparing for this summer's Fuller family race. And he's already predicting that he can accomplish what he's spent 21 years working toward: He can catch up to his brothers.