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He Had to Sit Tight

Kellen Winslow Jr. got a late start in football, but he's making up for it at No. 2 Miami

November 08, 2002|Robyn Norwood | Times Staff Writer

MIAMI — He was born with everything he'd need to become a great football player.

The wriggling baby had genes that foretold size, speed and great hands.

He even had the name.

But Kellen Winslow Jr. wasn't allowed to play football until he was in high school.

His Hall of Fame father said so.

"Every time the season would come around, from 9 or 10 years old, I'd get real angry, cry all the time," said Kellen Jr., a sophomore tight end who leads defending national champion Miami in receptions after replacing Jeremy Shockey, the New York Giants' first-round draft pick.

The boy tried to find a way around his father's rules. Once, he carried his hockey pads out to a football field and tried to sneak onto a youth league team with a borrowed helmet.

Flag football or games in the park were all right. But Kellen Sr. was firm on the subject of tackle football.

"He would just tell me no, really," Kellen Jr. said. "He would just say, 'Not yet.' That's about it. Not really why. He just said, 'You'll understand one day.' "

One day.

If Kellen Jr. only had a dollar for every time his father told him that.

"Oh, he didn't understand," Kellen Sr. said. "It was 'Why this? Why that?' Kids are about the moment. I've always told him, 'You think short term, I think longer term.' "

They laugh about it now, and about most of the other times a father's convictions stood in the way of a son's yearnings.

They aired a disagreement on television the day Kellen Jr., then a senior at Scripps Ranch High in San Diego, was supposed to announce which college he would sign with on Fox Sports Net, where Kellen Sr. is a college football studio analyst.

Instead of ending the suspense, father and son ended up still debating the merits of Washington and Michigan State after they got to the studio, neither one ready to budge.

With no announcement, the impasse ended days afterward when Kellen Jr. signed with Miami instead and went on to win a national championship as a freshman reserve.

A season later, Kellen is a starter for the unbeaten and second-ranked Hurricanes, who face Tennessee on Saturday as Miami tries to prove it hasn't lost its edge in a bid for a second consecutive title.

Meanwhile, Washington is 4-5, and Michigan State fired Coach Bobby Williams on Monday after a 49-3 loss to Michigan left the Spartans at 3-6.

Kellen Jr. thanks his lucky stars he ended up at Miami.

"[My father] just said, 'Put your trust in me and you'll understand later,' " Kellen Jr. said. "Like Pop Warner, I guess."

The roots of his father's convictions were in his upbringing.

Kellen Sr. didn't start his own football career until he was a senior at East St. Louis High in Illinois.

Hardly handicapped by lack of experience, Winslow went to Missouri, became a first-round draft pick in 1979 and went on to star at tight end for the San Diego Chargers for nine seasons, twice leading all NFL players in receptions.

He still recalls the burnout he saw around him in the NFL.

"I remember one guy I played with on the Chargers. He was in his second year with the Chargers, and he had been playing football 12 years total," Kellen Sr. said. "I was near the end of my career, and I had only been playing 12 years.

"I come at it from a different perspective as far what you can and cannot do and what you should or should not do. I've always tried to raise him to have more going on than just sports."

Still, "Kell," as his father often calls him, was allowed to play many other sports.

"He could play flag football, but not organized tackle football where most kids are wearing equipment that's too big and trying to do things they shouldn't," Kellen Sr. said. "And I'm down on yelling by coaches too."

Nor did he want his son lifting weights too early, jeopardizing his body's development, or absorbing hits from a young age.

"He just wanted me to grow more, physically," Kellen Jr. said. "He didn't want me to get hurt early. He'd say, 'You're going to have a lot of football ahead of you.' "

It certainly looks that way.

Kellen Jr. has the skills of a receiver in a tight end's body -- a 6-foot-5, 233-pound build that's still maturing.

His 32 catches lead the Hurricanes, and his average of 50.6 yards a game is second only to receiver Andre Johnson.

"It's unbelievable some of the things he does," quarterback Ken Dorsey said.

"The thing with Kellen when he first came was he could make any catch, and he could run like a receiver. But the route-running and blocking and the intricacies of college football were something he had to learn and still is learning. I think by the end of the year he's going to be extremely polished."

That he ended up at Miami is a story in itself.

Though he originally favored the Hurricanes, Kellen Jr. wanted to go to Washington after Butch Davis left Miami to coach the Cleveland Browns.

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