On the wall of a university of Washington hangout called Shultzy's Sausage, there is a time line of gluttony. Pieter (the Eater) Ostendorf was a big deal back in 1989. His seven sausages on a roll, washed down with nine milks, was a heroic binge for its day. This was well beyond the minimum five sausages required for a citation at Shultzy's. But man's consumption of grilled pork, as the wall explains, is not so much a matter of appetite as it is of competition. Eight sausages, chips and sodas were enjoyed very soon after. Then nine alone, then nine with assorted side dishes and drinks. And then 10, and then 10 in combination. And then....
LINCOLN (BIG DADDY) KENNEDY, IN 60 MINUTES ON 5-1-91, 11 SAUSAGES ON ROLLS, 32 OZ WATER/16 OZ LEMONADE. FIRST TIME IN. NEW CHAMPION.
Someone, someday, may eclipse this tremendous feat. The history of cooked meat tells us that. But it will take a big man, perhaps a man as big as Kennedy, to do it. And Kennedy is 6'7", 325 pounds. It will take a special man. It will take a man with no preexisting heart condition, a man who has never seen sausage being made, a man who somehow forgets himself at the counter and absentmindedly eats six sausages in 10 minutes and discovers he can't cover the tab ("I'm in for, what, 24 bucks?") and must now shoot for the record and—his only hope—the free meal. Perhaps it will take a man just like Kennedy (only more so).
If that is the case, then the record stands because there is nobody just like Lincoln Kennedy. "People like Line?" asks Keith Gilbertson, Kennedy's line coach at Washington until he took the head job at Cal this year. "You mean on this planet?" There is nobody so huge, nobody so fast, nobody so genial, nobody so curious about the world around him. There is nobody who is on everyone's preseason All-America team and yet can go days without talking or thinking college football (but not one minute without talking or thinking). Kennedy is in that small category of people who have had a nervous breakdown at 13, a national championship season at 20 and absolute maturity somewhere in between. Anybody like him? Anybody who shows visitors around campus and stops before a glass case to show, not a trophy from last year's championship, but a puppet he made for a drama class? Who carries a playbook around that has in it...a play?
September 20, 1992
"I know," he says, "I confuse people."
Kennedy, overshadowed the past couple of years by Husky stars like defensive tackle Steve Hint man and wideout Mario Bailey, will be receiving more attention this season than most offensive tackles usually get. He is the best player on what was most recently the country's best team. Watching him hurl his bulk around, there wouldn't seem to be anything confusing about him. It's all physics: mass, velocity and force. What's confusing about that?
He certainly didn't seem all that complicated when he went to Washington as a freshman from San Diego. When he showed up on campus weighing 344 pounds, he was, shall we say, roundly hailed. Not only was he more dead presidents in any one place this side of Mount Rushmore, he was the largest man ever to wear a Husky uniform. Somewhat endomorphic—nobody would call him fat, exactly—his distinction was entirely physical. If he was going to terrorize anybody, it would be restaurateurs.
But Kennedy's coaches saw a little something else. They ignored his first 40-yard dash, in which Kennedy ran more like Dukakis (he stumbled badly at the start). Kennedy had always had trouble accommodating his feet; one year he was held out of his high school's first four varsity games because the school could not provide size-17 cleats. Gilbertson, at least, recognized the potential of this so-called defensive tackle and lusted after him. "If you're thinking of moving any of these guys to offense," he told coach Don James, "I'd like to have that one."
James obliged, and by his sophomore season Kennedy was down to 325, was splitting time at tackle and guard, and was voted second-team Pac-10. In his junior year, during the Huskies' undefeated season, Kennedy continued to amaze. He was named the Pac-10's top offensive lineman and was picked on several All-America teams.
Kennedy was so intimidating last season that opposing coaches often conceded the position by matching their weakest player against him, a "laydown." Says Gilbertson, who must now contend with him as an opponent, "People aren't going to line up against him and get anything done. They'd put a guy out there in front of him. It was, if he's gonna block somebody, it might as well be you.'"
But if Kennedy is finally appreciated, he remains little understood. His coaches have a vague idea that Kennedy enjoys a life outside football, that he has "people skills'" as well as football skills. "There is something about him," says Steve Morton, his new line coach, "that tells you he'll be successful with people. I mean, I'm new here, but I'm still the coach. Yet Lincoln comes up to me, throws his arm around my shoulders and says. 'Don't worry, Coach. Just follow me.' "
Still, wouldn't his coaches be surprised if, during a lull in the X's and O's, Kennedy reached his huge hand into his pocket and withdrew a neatly typewritten poem? What if this happy-go-lucky 325-pounder, the team's co-captain, began reciting: "I have no true identity, therefore I have no world of my own, and therefore I have no life...." Would they be confused?
What is disturbing is not that Kennedy writes gloomy verse (the foregoing was written after a professor delivered what Kennedy took to be a racial slight) but that he dabbles in poetry at all. Where did he find time outside the weight room to write that, anyway (never mind the full-length stage play he's working on)? What might disturb his coaches the most is that Kennedy barely considers himself a football player. Not that he is indifferent to the game; whether he is challenged by a Shakespearean monologue or a safety blitz, he responds totally. No, with Kennedy, football is exactly like a Shultzy's sausage: He has no particular hunger for it, but if he works at it hard enough, the bill will be taken care of.
"In high school," he says, "I came to realize that football could give me an education at a top university. And I'm using this university for everything it can give me. I realize that I've got a chance to play professionally, which is the fastest, easiest way to make a lot of money that I know of." In order to do what? "To pay people back, start a theater group, teach kids."
Are you confused?
There is a famous piece of film from Kennedy's sophomore season at Washington, when he played a few downs at offensive guard. Kennedy pulls out (his feet are much better organized than they used to be), runs downfield and decimates a significant portion of the defense. Seeing that, it is difficult to imagine that he is not a born football player. But he never played until a coach talked him into trying out for the varsity during his sophomore year of high school. Until then his involvement with football was limited to the half-time show. He played trumpet in the band.
When Kennedy was finally lured onto the held, and outfitted with proper footwear, his mother, Hope Johnson, was stunned. "We had never discussed football," she says. "He was always in drama, choir and band, never in sports. He had grown so tall and was so uncoordinated, always falling over his feet, that sports seemed a huge risk. I wasn't going to let my baby on a football field." So when Kennedy asked his mom to come to the game to watch him, she assumed he had a trumpet solo during the halftime show.
Isn't this how all top draft choices begin their careers?
The sad fact is that Kennedy pursued his various activities—football, drama, choir—because things were not going well at home between his parents. "I just wanted to keep out of the house," he says. Drama club, and later the city-sponsored Teen Connection, which staged antidrug programs in San Diego, gave him a chance to join some kind of family, "to be a part of things," to disappear into the ensemble.
Kennedy claims to remember, in dramatic detail, the fight that drove his parents apart. He was two. "My door was open, and I could hear their shouting, see their shadows moving about the room." His mother's divorce from her husband, Tamerlane Kennedy (which is Lincoln's real name), was, as far as Lincoln was concerned, strictly a temporary thing. He lived with his grandmother in Pennsylvania until his mother remarried and brought him back to San Diego. At the age of seven he met this stubborn obstacle to his plans for a reunified family—his stepfather, Robert Johnson.
The rebellion was not spectacular, but it was unremitting. Kennedy refused to honor his stepfather in any way, and as his mother continued to back this interloper, he cut off all ties with his family. He stayed out with friends, ran with a gang for a while. He clung to any outside interest that was available. He plunged into drama and traveled the city in a production of Dancers, Dreamers and Spitball Shooters. He sang in the choir, practiced his trumpet. "Anything that got me out of my little reality," he says.
But this did not resolve the tension. Kennedy still assumed that his father and mother would eventually get back together. "I felt no one was right for my mother except my father. I always thought they'd get back together, and if I had to be the mediator, so be it. In the meantime, I was an outsider in this family."
The theater work was good therapy for him. "It was the only way I could venture outside myself, experience my emotions without showing them as my own," he says. "If I was doing a monologue about my woman dying, it was easy to cry. All I had to do was think, My father never took me fishing." But neither theater groups nor all the counselors his mother dragged him to were going to save this family. Finally, when Lincoln was 13, his mother committed him to a 30-day stay at a hospital for troubled teens. Something important happened in that hospital.
"I went haywire," is how Kennedy remembers it. "I was ripping things apart, trying to beat on everything. I just blew up. A couple of days later, after I'd finally cooled down, the doctors told me I had let everything out; it just flowed, all the hurt, all the guilt. Until that day, I hadn't understood why I was hurting so much, how I hadn't felt a part of anything. Then I realized I already had a family. Finally, it was time to continue my life."
Kennedy went home, realizing at last that his parents would never get together, and achieved a grudging peace with the parents at hand. Years later, after the Huskies' Freedom Bowl win over Florida in '89, he made his stepfather a gift of the watch that the players were given. His mother recalls Lincoln's stay in the hospital as "the longest 30 days of my life, but when he was in college, he wrote me a letter. He thanked me."
Truly, Kennedy has a lot to be thankful for. The college experience has not been wasted on him. He did consider entering the NFL draft following his junior season, but not for long. "I look around at what football has given me," he says. "I can have this education, at a top university, and all I have to do is play football?"
Make no mistake. Kennedy, the drama major, will not join a dinner theater upon graduation. There is astonishing money in his NFL future, and Kennedy is not of a mind to dismiss that kind of career. But, at the moment, he believes that his drama degree will be more important to his life. "Football's something you do for a while," he says. "You look at the great warlords of the game. Dick Butkus can hardly walk!"
He likes the idea of someday starting his own theater group. All the drama courses he has taken at Washington point him in that direction. Because of football, which has interfered with rehearsals, he has not enjoyed a large number of roles. But if he had wanted to be a star, he would be playing some position besides offensive tackle.
These days Kennedy is happy just to be part of a family. And maybe, at that, he's ready to be the big brother. As far as football goes, he has already achieved his highest goal—becoming co-captain of the Huskies. As he ranges across his beloved campus, he collars teammates to remind them of the running program at three that afternoon. It makes him increasingly cheerful, each little brother he runs into. But he believes his leadership abilities can be put to bigger use than that.
"What I want to do is get my master's degree in education," he says, "and use the drama I'm learning to teach kids. I will somehow—whatever it takes—work with children, put on plays about growing up, how difficult it is. I will learn to do that."
Football, college and pro, will allow him to do whatever he really wants. Isn't that amazing? And isn't it also amazing, when you think about it, that life is like that assembly line of sausages at Shultzy's. The old sandwich as metaphor: Anything you might want is available for the asking; it's free, actually, as long as you've got the appetite for it.