BREMERTON, Wash.—Joe Kennedy, a high school football coach in Bremerton, Wash., served in the Marines for 20 years, including in operations Desert Storm and Desert Shield in Iraq.
But the “hardest thing” he’s ever been through, he said, was being suspended from coaching football and being forced to watch his players compete from the sidelines.
“It’d be easier if you stabbed or shot at me in combat,” Kennedy told The Daily Signal. “I just felt like I was letting them down.”
For almost eight years, Kennedy, an assistant coach for the Bremerton High School varsity football team, had given thanks after games by saying a short prayer on the 50-yard line. He says he was inspired by the movie “Facing the Giants,” released in 2006.
Before long, some of his players joined in, and over the years, the opposing teams did, too.
“To me, they were magical,” Cody Whaley, a senior at Bremerton High School told The Daily Signal. “It was like, this is what a team is about, at the end of the game, to come together.”
“He didn’t do anything religious-related,” Connor Mahoney, a former Bremerton team captain, added. “It was just calming us down if we lost. He always had the right thing to say.”
In a statement, the Bremerton School District stated there is “no evidence that students have been directly coerced to pray with Kennedy.” In fact, Kennedy said, some students regularly observed from the sidelines.
“Actually, a couple of those guys that don’t come out there, they’re the ones that are my team captains, because they have the guts to stand up for what they believe is right.”
But on Oct. 28, 2015, one day before the last game of the season, school officials said praying at the 50-yard line “poses as a genuine risk that the District will be liable for violating the federal and state constitutional rights of students or others.”
They suspended Kennedy from participating “in any capacity” in the Bremerton High School football program, forcing him to sit out the last game of the season.
For Senior Night, the last game of the season, Kennedy had planned to stand to represent Cody in lieu of his parents, who were not able to attend.
“He does it every year,” Connor said. “He tells us in the locker room days in advance, ‘If you don’t have somebody there for you, let me know.’ Most parents give them gifts when they walk out, balloons and stuff, so he’ll get something for the kids and walk out with them and act as their parent.”
But because Kennedy had defied school orders and decided to continue praying at the 50-yard line, he had to watch from the sidelines as another coach honored Cody for Senior Night.
“He’s been through a lot over the past four years,” Kennedy said of Cody. “And that kid asked me if I would stand in his parent’s place. That’s a huge honor—it’s ridiculous how attached you get to this kids, and not to be part of it, it’s really rough.”
Knowing that he came to you and that he’s asked you to be part of it and you can’t… you feel like you let him down.
“It was just a really big game,” Cody said. “I thought I’d never be able to see him again.”
In response to his suspension, Kennedy’s legal team at the Liberty Institute filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a federal agency that handles cases of discrimination in the workplace.
“To put it simply, the school district is discriminating against him—against Coach Kennedy—on a basis of his religion and the fact that he’s a Christian,” Mike Berry, a senior attorney at Liberty Institute, told The Daily Signal. “It’s religious discrimination.”
Berry is unsure when they’ll receive a response back from the commission but said he is “hopeful” the agency will take up his case.
If he wins, Kennedy said he would “love” to have his job back—not so much for the “Xs and Os” of football, but to be there for his players.
But for now, Kennedy is out of a coaching job, as the school wrote in his final evaluation letter, “Do not rehire.”
“This whole program is about giving these kids a shot to see what they’re made of,” Kennedy said, “and being able to teach us, coaches, what is important about coaching. It’s not the Xs and Os, and winning football games; it’s watching these guys overcoming the things that they go through in life. And emerging as a stronger person because of it.”