A Labor of Love
Oct. 31, 2001
by Trent Packer
Virginia head lacrosse coach Dom Starsia used to tell a story involving one of his former players and current Atlanta Falcons NFL star Patrick Kerney. Starsia joked that when Kerney — who initially came to Virginia on a lacrosse scholarship and joined the football team as a walk-on — played lacrosse, the coach would send the 6-5, 255-pound Kerney off the bus first at away games, in an effort to intimidate opponents. While Starsia admits that the story is more fable than fact, there is no doubt that opposing teams who happened to catch a glimpse of Kerney with his shirt off would have been taken aback. As a sophomore in 1997 — Kerney’s final season with the lacrosse team before he quit to focus on football — Kerney was an awe-inspiring presence on a lacrosse field.
“When Patrick was a sophomore, we went down to Duke to practice,” Starsia recalls. “[Duke head coach Mike] Pressler came by to make sure we were okay. I told him ‘you have got to see this’ and took him to the practice field where Patrick was practicing without a shirt. Pressler’s jaw dropped. [Patrick] was quite a sight on a lacrosse field.”
Kerney’s burgeoning football career eventually forced him to give up lacrosse. He outgrew the game, finding that the running required by lacrosse caused him to lose too much weight — a by-product that was simply unacceptable for an NFL prospect. As Starsia puts it, “he literally got too big for us.”
Now, as a 6-5, 272-pound defensive lineman in the NFL, Kerney can’t afford to drop any weight at all for fear of losing ground to mammoth offensive lineman who tip the scales at 320 pounds and above. Where in college he could get away with playing some lacrosse, Kerney is forced to satisfy his cravings for the game through other channels. Instead of playing, he is serving as an assistant coach at two Atlanta-area high schools, passing his love of the game on to some of its younger aficionados.
“Lacrosse is an amazing sport,” Kerney says. “I absolutely love it. I can’t play because I would drop too much weight, [so] I worked with the high schools and it is a lot of fun.”Last season Kerney helped lead Chattahoochee High School to the state semifinals, and Pace Academy High School to the state finals. Lacrosse does not have the widespread appeal in Atlanta that it has in central Virginia, so Kerney is not only helping his high school prot?g?s learn the game, he is contributing to the game’s growth as well. He found the experience particularly fulfilling and a welcome diversion from the rigors of life in the NFL.
“Down here it’s a growing sport,” Kerney says. “[The Falcons] only work out four hours a day in the offseason, so there’s a lot of time to kill. There are only so many movies you can see, [and] lacrosse is a good way to get outside.”
Despite Kerney’s local celebrity, the kids at Chattahoochee and Pace Academy have taken well to their new coach. According to Kerney, once the players get over their initial infatuation with having an NFL player as a coach, he is able to connect with them through his knowledge of lacrosse.
“They are excited to see me,” Kerney says, “but when they realize I have a clue, they really respect [what I say] that much more.”
Where size eventually became a prohibitive factor in Kerney’s playing career and led him into coaching, being able to maintain both size and speed have become of paramount concern in his NFL career.
“All of a sudden, everyone is bigger, stronger, faster and a better technician,” Kerney says. “You have to stay on top of it by getting in the weight room, running and listening to your coaches.”
Last season Kerney was frustrated at times with his pass rush. He felt he was letting too many quarterbacks escape the pocket when he could have tackled them for sacks. Consequently, he spent last season working on his strength and his technique, which has paid immediate dividends for the third-year pro.
“My expectations [for myself] rise a little bit each year,” Kerney says. “Last year I was not happy with my pass rushing, so I concentrated on improving that in the offseason. I saw that way too many sacks got away from me last year. I worked hard with my defensive line coach.
“I’m sitting at 3.5 sacks right now, which is one more than I had all of last season. There are ways to address everything, whether it be in the weight room or on the field.”Kerney’s hard work on- and off- the field have become a trademark of his football career. During his time at Virginia, Kerney asserts he was intently focused on becoming a better football player. And while that commitment may have cost him his lacrosse career, it certainly gave the former Virginia football walk-on a chance to realize his college and professional football dreams.
Nevertheless, Kerney remains true to lacrosse, the sport that initially earned him a scholarship to the University of Virginia. He stays in touch with Starsia, follows current Virginia teams, and keeps track of his lacrosse teammates and their professional lacrosse careers.
“It is just a pleasure to have Patrick around the program,” Starsia says. “I always thought of him as a lacrosse player playing football. He has always been a lacrosse player at heart. He was there when we won the national championship [in 1999].
“I felt like the lacrosse program got to share in his football career.”