“Average” is not the adjective that comes to mind when talking about an American who took a religious freedom case all the way to the Supreme Court, but football coach Joe Kennedy says he identified with the word.
“I’ve always looked at myself actually [as] below average,” Kennedy says. “I really had no idea that God was going to take my life in this way, in this path.”
In his new book, “Average Joe: The Coach Joe Kennedy Story,” Kennedy explains how his simple commitment to God to take a knee in silent prayer on the 50-yard line after the high school football games he coached landed him at the center of one of the largest religious freedom cases in recent history, Kennedy v. Bremerton, Wash., School District. It was decided in his favor 6-3 by the Supreme Court on June 27, 2022.
“If you could take a schmuck like me and change the path of the nation as far as religious freedom and the First Amendment goes, imagine what [God] could do with some other people,” the coach says.
Kennedy joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to discuss his new book and to explain why he chose to take a stand for religious freedom and why he left coaching shortly after his Supreme Court victory.
Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript:
Virginia Allen: It is my pleasure to have with us on the show today, Coach Joe Kennedy. Coach, thanks for being here.
Coach Joe Kennedy: It is so awesome to talk to you again. It’s been a long time.
Allen: Here at The Daily Signal, we’ve had the privilege of following your story, really since the start. I think it was back in 2016, we did our first documentary sharing some of your story and have been privileged to see you at the Supreme Court and in Bremerton, Washington, on the football field. And it has been quite the journey that goes all the way back to 2015.
You lost your job coaching high school football at Bremerton High School in Washington state, and that was after you refused to stop taking a knee in silent prayer at the 50-yard line at the end of football games. You’d made a covenant with God when you started coaching that that was what you were going to do. You did it for years. No one had any issues.
And then the school district, they told you that you had to stop. You refused to stop. Ultimately, you lost your job because of that. Your case wound up going all the way to the Supreme Court, and last year, the Supreme Court ruled in your favor, and just last month you returned to the football field to coach your Bremerton Knights and to take a knee in silent prayer after the games. It was the culmination, truly: You being back on the field in September, it was a culmination of an nearly eight-year legal battle.
What did it feel like to be back on the field Sept. 1st and be allowed to take a knee in silent prayer after such a long legal fight?
Kennedy: It was a great relief and leading up to that, it was really … I got to be totally transparent with you. It was scary going into the hornet’s nest. I knew the school wasn’t going to be happy with me, and there was some hurt feelings along the line.
So, I was meeting the new coaches, the new coaching staff, a whole new group of kids. These kids were in grade school when this all first started. So, I was just walking in like a brand new freshman onto a football team. But soon as I stepped onto the field in the fall and started getting to know these kids, it was so awesome.
All the great feelings of being able to be around these young men and helping them become better young men and teaching them how to play the game of football. It was just so awesome. And then being able to walk out there after the football game. Not only was it just a great evening, it was a perfect attendance. It was the perfect game.
We ended up winning, and it was just an awesome experience. And then kind of the justice of the eight-year battle and knowing you did everything right and being able to take a knee and just being thankful after a game, it was just an incredible feeling.
Allen: I asked you after the game what it was that you had prayed, what you had said to the Lord. Do you mind sharing that?
Kennedy: Yeah, I thought I would have a lot more to say after eight years of battle because we lost seven times in a row. So, it was a long, hard thing for me and my family, and I thought I would have a whole lot of words to say to God. And the only thing I really had to say is, and the only thing that could come out and come to mind was “Thank you.” And I think I said it probably 30 times, just over and over again. Just “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
I was just smiling so much on the inside.
Allen: Such a powerful moment. Well, you ultimately made the choice after that first game that you were going to retire from coaching at Bremerton High School. And this came as a surprise to many people after you had fought so long and so hard and your case had gone all the way to the Supreme Court. Why did you decide that it was time to walk away after that first game back on the field?
Kennedy: It’s actually now that I’ve been able to process everything, and my wife and I have discussed this over and over, and kind of put all our feelings and thoughts back into normal society again because it’s been so crazy.
So, after the first game, we just have been focused on just that single moment for eight years. We never once thought about what happens after. I bought a one-way ticket to Bremerton for the whole entire football season, and we had no idea what God had in store, and we were just putting our trust in him. And after the game, we kind of went to bed that night, just giggling, about 2:00 in the morning. We just were giggling at each other that it’s finally over.
We finally finished that race and then we were like, “OK, well, what’s next?” And I went to practice on Monday, and I went to practice on Tuesday.
After Tuesday, my wife and I, we just started discussing, “What do we do now? What are our next steps?” We just got some bad news from my wife’s father-in-law about some test results for his health and that on top of the school not really being happy with me being there and not real friendly.
It just made perfect sense to go out on a win and be able to retire on my own terms versus being under somebody’s thumb. And God kind of just opened that door to us and gave us that clear message that, “Yeah, you fought the good fight, you finished race and you remain faithful, and now you could go and live life again.”
Allen: Well, Coach, like you said, I know that this is a journey that changed your life. It changed your family’s life. It’s inspired millions of people, and you’re sharing the story in a brand new book that you’ve written called “Average Joe: The Coach Joe Kennedy Story.” The book is out on October 24th. It’s available right now for preorder, and I first want to talk about the title of the book.
Most people would say that someone who took a religious freedom case all the way to the Supreme Court is not exactly “average.” Why did you choose that title for the book?
Kennedy: Well, I’ve always looked at myself, actually, below average. I really had no idea that God was going to take my life in this way, in this path, and it was just incredible that the way that He came into my life and changed everything around. It was just incredible that … How do you explain God working in your life and making everything the way that it is? What do you title that? How do you explain all that? So, I’m just average guy; so, it kind of fits.
Allen: Well, Coach, I’ve had the privilege of learning some of your story over the years. You grew up in Bremerton, Washington, just outside Seattle. How did your relationship with the Lord begin?
Kennedy: Well, my whole entire life started out really rough, and I did share that with you. It feels like we’ve known each other forever. As a bad kid and in and out of group homes and foster homes, and it was, really, my wife after I got out of the Marine Corps.
So, we’re talking 38 years of life that I went through really not even believing. I pretty much was an atheist, and I was failing in my marriage, and I really needed to fix it. I wanted to make this work. I already destroyed two other marriages. I wanted this one to be the one that lasts forever.
And the only way I could do that is, I went to church, and I just fell onto my knees and just cried out to God and said, “Hey, if You give me my wife, I’ll give You my life.” And from that moment on, I never looked back, and I’ve held true to that, that if I have my wife and my family and God, we can do anything.
Allen: So, from that place of surrendering your life to the Lord, what then was the journey to deciding, OK, I want to coach, and prayer needs to be a part of my coaching methodology and a part of what I do as a coach?
Kennedy: Well, originally, I never even thought about being a coach. It never even crossed my mind, but God had other plans.
The athletic director for Bremerton happened to see me out on a run one day and just approached me. I was wearing a Bremerton shirt and from that moment on, he was pursuing me. My wife was working at the school, and he kept hitting her up and she said, “You might need to think about this.” Well, we thought long and hard for, I don’t know, over a year, probably a year and a half, about do I really want to do this?
I just got out out of the military, and that was my life. Do I really want to commit to something as big as coaching? And I went to a job interview for it, and on a Friday night, I finally was like, “Oh, man.” Well, they offered me the job right after, so I need to talk about this and pray about this with my wife.
We were sitting there in the middle of the night, and I don’t know if you saw it, but “Facing the Giants.” The movie came on TV in the middle of the night, and it was like an answered prayer, and it was like God just punched me in the chest, and I fell to my knees, and it was a clear calling. I never knew what that meant of “your calling,” but I heard that that was my calling to be able to make a difference in these kids’ lives.
And just like in the movie, I was going to give God the credit after every game, win or lose right there on the battlefield.
Allen: Are you still in touch with any of your players that you coached before this whole legal battle?
Kennedy: Oh, of course. I’ve gone to graduations. I’ve seen them have kids. I’ve been to, actually, a couple funerals. I mean, I’ve been so much involved in their lives. And just two years ago, I flew back up to Washington to perform a ceremony that one of my football players was marrying one of my cheerleaders. So, I was honored to be able to be part of that.
Allen: Well, Coach, you and your wife are living down in Florida now. Floridians, they love their football. Any chance, any team down there might convince you to get back on the field and do a little coaching?
Kennedy: I don’t know where God’s going to take us. Over the years, I was approached by different high schools, private schools, even some colleges saying that they would take me, especially down here in the South, but it was the fighting to get back to the place that we had the problems with and being able to have the principle of showing back up to there. And I never wanted to coach anywhere else besides Bremerton.
So, I don’t know what the future holds. If God calls me back then, yeah, I’ll do it, but hopefully, He’ll give me a little bit of a break.
Allen: The release of your new book “Average Joe,” is probably keeping you pretty busy right now. Again, it’s out officially on October 24th, but it’s available for preorder right now. But there’s also some other exciting news related to a movie telling your story, and the movie is also going to be called “Average Joe.” How involved are you in the production process of this film?
Kennedy: Well, I was fascinated in how just writing a book was, and after that … Well, actually before the book, we had somebody approach us and said, “This would make an outstanding movie” after they heard the story of my life.
So, on and off, we’ve been kind of involved. They wrote a screenplay, and I was like, yeah, sure, this is going to happen. You never think that somebody’s going to make a movie on your life. I mean, that’s ridiculous. And yeah, sure enough, it’s all come to fruition. And today, my wife and I actually drove up here to Louisiana, and we are currently sitting out in the parking lot where it’s going to be on set that they’re starting to film today.
So really interesting to see how God turns everything around in your life and turns it upside down for something great.
Allen: Certainly, you’re right. Not anything you ever think, that there’ll be a movie made about your life, but I’ve been excited just to learn a little bit about that process and some of the ideas that they’ve had behind the movie. And I think so many people have followed your legal case, Coach, but as you referenced, your whole story is powerful, and I think a lot of people will be really surprised to learn through both your book, through the movie, a little bit more about your childhood, the challenges that you faced as a young adult, your military service.
Now, as it relates to the movie, do we have any sense on when that might be coming out?
Kennedy: Well, they started filming today [Oct. 3], and that’s in production for probably about a month of shooting, and then they go into editing, which could take up to a year. So, it won’t be until next year when that comes out. But when it does, I hope you’re going to be sitting there with me, because I’m going to be really nervous about watching it.
Allen: Well, we will be honored to have you on again and talk about the movie and that process, but Coach, when people get your book and when they sit down and read it, what is your hope for what readers walk away with?
Kennedy: I would say for the people that have been the naysayers, and I know that’s such a small percentage, but you know how people, they make their snap judgments, they never do any research. They hear something on the headline news or on Facebook post, and they make a decision on if I was right or wrong. And for them, I want them to read the book and then judge me if I did what was right or wrong.
And then for everybody else, that the vast majority of Americans, this should inspire everybody, that everybody can make a difference. If you could take a schmuck like me and change the path of the nation as far as religious freedom and the First Amendment goes, imagine what He could do with some other people if they just gave it a chance.
And there’s been so many people that have just been so tired of the government and waiting for something to happen here and not knowing how to make a change. Well, this is an easy way to do it if you just stand up and you be brave, because there’s millions of people that will back you up.
So, hopefully, people will be really inspired afterwards, and they’ll feel like I am going to make a difference. I am going to go out into America and make it better.
Allen: The book is “Average Joe: The Coach Joe Kennedy Story.” It is out and available on October 24th available wherever books are sold for preorder right now. Coach Kennedy, thank you for your time today for squeezing us in before you’re on set, on the first day of filming for the movie. We really appreciate your time.
Kennedy: You are so awesome, and I look forward to seeing you again.
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