By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Dom Starsia still remembers the conversation. He was at a lacrosse camp in New England when another coach came up to him and said, “There’s a kid here who wants to talk to you about UVa.”
So began Starsia’s relationship with an athlete who would become one of the greatest football players in Virginia history.
“I go down to the practice field, and somebody points him out to me, and he comes across the field, kind of blots out the sun,” Starsia said.
“The truth as far as I remember it — maybe I’m embellishing this a little bit — is that Patrick sticks out his hand and says, ‘Coach, my name is Patrick Kerney, and I’m very interested in the University of Virginia.’ And I said, ‘Patrick, I have no idea who you are, but we’re very interested in talking to you about the University of Virginia.’ “
Kerney, a graduate of the prestigious Taft School, ended up enrolling at UVa in 1995 on a partial lacrosse scholarship, with Starsia’s permission to try out for the football team.
“I actually have a lot of guys that ask me about that,” said Starsia, Virginia’s Hall of Fame men’s lacrosse coach (and a former football player at Brown).
“I always say yes, and I’m hoping that they come out for football and last a couple of days and get scared off by football.”
Not Kerney. He left UVa in 1999 as a first-round draft choice of the Atlanta Falcons. And on Saturday, at halftime of Virginia’s game with Maryland at Scott Stadium, he’ll become the 16th former Cavalier to have his jersey retired.
“It’s pretty cool,” Kerney said by phone from New York City, where he’s a first-year student at Columbia Business School.
“Just to look back now 15 years and think about that kid who was 18 years old and walking on. My sincere goal was to be a special-teamer and reserve defensive end by my redshirt junior year.”
The 6-6 Kerney was too talented to redshirt, even if he weighed less than 240 pounds when he arrived in Charlottesville.
“He wasn’t ready for prime time, but he had all the necessary tools,” recalled Bob Petchel, who was George Welsh’s defensive ends coach during Kerney’s time at Virginia.
“We used to call him Running Man,” said Anthony Poindexter, who played with Kerney at UVa. “He could just run for days, and you could see early that the dude worked hard, he had a great desire to play, and and you could tell he was going to be a good player.
“You knew early on that this dude wasn’t just an ordinary walk-on. This guy was a serious football player.”
And so Kerney, three months out of high school, found himself playing in UVa’s 1995 opener at Michigan, before a crowd of 101,444.
At Taft, a boarding school in Watertown, Conn., the average crowd for a football game “was probably about 48 people,” Kerney said with a laugh.
By the time he completed his eligibility at UVa, Kerney had recorded 24 sacks, which then ranked third on the school’s all-time list. He was an All-American in 1998 and finished second — to Poindexter — in voting for ACC defensive player of the year that season.
“I still tell people that Anthony Poindexter was the best defender I ever played with, and that includes anyone in the NFL,” Kerney said.
That NFL career lasted 11 seasons. Kerney, a two-time Pro Bowl selection, spent the first eight in Atlanta. He then played three seasons with the Seattle Seahawks before retiring last spring.
“I think if you ask any football player, you’d play for the rest of your life if you could, and I’d agree with that,” Kerney said. “But I had some hip problems surface, and I had two labrum repairs in back-to-back years, and the second time I had a microfracture surgery, and I was told going into last season that once that microfracture wore out, I’d need a shoulder replacement. Then after the hip trouble surfaced and I got an MRI there, I was told my hips would one day need to be replaced too.”
Kerney, a native of Trenton, N.J., had earned a bachelor’s degree in history from UVa. But the business world intrigued him, and as he entered the twilight of his NFL career, with trainers and doctors telling him joints would need to be replaced, he started seriously thinking about life after football.
“You start looking at the life span of someone in my position,” Kerney said, “and you start preparing a few years in advance, because you’ve got to accept the fact that you’re mortal and you’re going to age and the game’s going to take its toll on you.”
So he participated in NFL-sponsored seminars at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business in 2008 and at Harvard in ’09, and “started studying for the GMAT,” Kerney said, “knowing that I definitely wanted to head in this direction.”
He and his wife, the former Lisa Gangel, were married in June, and they live on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. She’s a broadcaster for the MLB Network. He’s in a two-year MBA program at Columbia that demands a significant commitment from its students.
He won’t make it to Charlottesville until Friday night, in fact, because he has “some review sessions that I have to attend,” Kerney, 33, said with a laugh.
During his NFL career, Kerney was famous for the demanding training regimens and diets he followed. He still runs and lifts weights regularly at Columbia and says his health is good.
“I just have to keep working out and stay active,” Kerney said. “As far as the beatings and the surgeries, that’s what you sign up for [as an NFL player].
“It’s funny, the rugby team tried to recruit me, saying that would be a great way for me to stay active. I had to tell them, ‘Look, if I could be playing rugby, I’d still be playing football.’ I try to stay away from stuff where people are taking aim at me.”
During his NFL career, Kerney said, his bye weekends rarely coincided with UVa home games, so he hasn’t made it back to Charlottesville much since he graduated.
He remembers with particular fondness Virginia’s 30-13 rout of North Carolina late in his senior season. That was Ronald Curry’s first game at Scott Stadium as a Tar Heel, and, to the crowd’s delight, Kerney and the rest of the Wahoos’ defense tormented the freshman quarterback from Hampton.
“It was this weekend 12 years ago, just a beautiful, crisp fall evening, and we got the win over a good North Carolina team, and I was able to put on a good performance personally,” Kerney said. “The stars just aligned, and it was pretty surreal.”
He spent two years in Starsia’s program before becoming a full-time football player. Virginia and other major-college football programs may have failed to pursue Kerney when he was at Taft — partly because he was injured his senior season — but Welsh and his assistants immediately realized that the lacrosse team had lent them an extraordinary prospect.
“There was an early point, right in that first training camp as a freshman, when [Petchel] pulled me aside and said, ‘Look, we’ve made a mistake. We should have recruited you. You’ll be on scholarship next year. If you put a lot into it, there’s a good chance you’ll be an NFL prospect,’ ” Kerney recalled.
“I was a little bit skeptical, thinking this may just be a good carrot-and-stick act. But then by my junior year I was starting and making some plays and causing turnovers and getting sacks. All of the sudden I realized, ‘Wow, this is reality, and I have a legitimate shot at the NFL.’ “
Petchel remembers two times during his coaching career at UVa when Welsh screamed at him on the field. Both involved defensive ends who were so dominant in practice, so relentless, so tireless, that the offense could not accomplish what it needed to.
The first was Chris Slade. The second? Patrick Kerney.
“He had it all,” Petchel said. “He’s exactly what you want.”
Starsia agrees. In his office at the McCue Center hangs a gift from Kerney — a Pro Bowl jersey.
“I tell people all the time that I get a lot of football players in lacrosse players’ bodies,” Starsia said. “That’s what I have on my team. He was a lacrosse kid in a football player’s body. I wasn’t sure he was tough enough, but he had an unbelievable work ethic. He just willed himself into being the football player that he became.
“It’s been great to get to know Patrick and his family, and it’s been a real joy to watch his career and to think we had a little something to do with it.”