Four-year Valdosta State University starter Brandon Kemp in action during senior 2019 night against rival University of West Florida. CONTRIBUTED
Photo: Contributed
Photo: Contributed

In the midst of a pandemic, an NFL dream is put on hold

The 2020 NFL draft ended without any mention of Brandon Kemp, the offensive tackle who played 31 career games with the Valdosta State University Blazers.

Going in, he knew it was a long shot. Only about 2% of college players make it into that elite club. By round seven on day three, they were down to just two players.

For his part, Kemp had held that dream since he was just 4 years old, but he understood even then that dreams don’t come to us through sheer magic, they come from sweat, determination and hard work.

After years of playing peewee football, playing offensive and defensive line at Columbia High School in Decatur, he enjoyed a pretty impressive career with the Blazers.

But even the best players from Division II schools don’t get the same attention as, say, those from programs like the University of Georgia, Georgia Tech and Alabama, the ones we see on television.

“Coming from a smaller Division II school makes the path to the NFL a bit more challenging,” Kemp said.

It didn’t help either that he had three different coaches in four years and in the fall of 2017 suffered a nasty shoulder injury that required surgery and sidelined him for four games. But he kept working.

RELATED | Players from Georgia colleges, high schools taken in 2020 NFL draft

The Blazers ended the 2018 season 15-0, earning the seventh Gulf South Conference championship in program history and a fourth national championship, defeating Ferris State University 49-47 in the National Championship Game in McKinney, Texas. The match went down in history as one of the highest-scoring championship games ever between two undefeated teams.

“I had a phenomenal year,” Kemp remembered.

The scouts were watching. Number 57 was getting closer to living the dream of thousands.

For years, Brandon Kemp played peewee football. CONTRIBUTED
Photo: Contributed

He would go on to be named First Team All-GSC in 2019 and First Team AP All American. He is credited with helping anchor an offensive line that was fourth nationally in total offense at 522.1 yards per game to lead the conference. Kemp blocked for D2CCA Super Region Two Player of the Year in quarterback Rogan Wells, and the line helped the Blazers to 260.2 yards rushing per game for 11th nationally and first in the GSC.

Even if you’re like me and know absolutely nothing about football, save a few names, you know that’s not hype. It’s impressive.

Kemp graduated in December 2019 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in organizational communications, becoming the second male in his family and the first in his generation to reach that milestone. He’d more than proved himself academically and athletically, but even if you’re good at sports in high school, get a scholarship, and excel in college as Kemp did, there are no guarantees.

The 320-pound giant just kept working, kept believing in the God he first devoted his life to as a kid at Atlanta’s Mount Vernon Baptist Church, kept beseeching the Almighty.

Brandon Kemp graduated in 2019 from Valdosta State University with a degree in organizational communication. CONTRIBUTED
Photo: Contributed

He never went into a game, he said, without first praying with his pastor, the Rev. Rodney K. Turner, his mentor and father figure.

Early this year, he headed to Tampa, Florida, to participate in an eight-week combine/Pro Day preparation training. After that, he was off to Kennesaw State for Pro Day, performing the 40-yard dash, the vertical jump, and bench-pressing 225 pounds for NFL scouts.

RELATED | A quick update on the 2019 NFL draft: Falcons, Bulldogs and more

Kemp’s talent on the gridiron came naturally to him. Although he grew up without his father, he played the sport, as had five uncles. His mom, Priscilla Settles, played basketball back in the day.

Settles, Kemp’s three sisters, and his girlfriend were with him as this year’s draft drew to a close late last month. As they had their fill of chicken wings and sandwiches, other family members including several aunts, who helped raise Kemp, joined in via video.

But it looked like the call they’d all hoped for wouldn’t come.

“We all had our heads down while trying to comfort Brandon,” Settles said.

Kemp apologized. He promised to work harder next year. Settles kept praying, though, telling her son “what’s for you will be for you.”

The words had barely left her lips when Kemp got a text on his phone. He’d been selected to be a free-agent signee.

Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays.
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At 6:45 p.m., his phone rang. Keith Carter, the Tennessee Titans’ offensive line coach, was on the other end.

Congratulations, you’re a pro football player, he told Kemp. We want to sign you.

That’s when the shouting began and the tears started to flow.

Brandon Kemp’s determination and hard work had paid off. His dream had come true.

Kemp joins former Blazers Kenny Moore (2013-16) with the Indianapolis Colts, Stephen Denmark (2015-18) with the Chicago Bears, Iseoluwapo Jegede (2016-18) with the Indianapolis Colts and Joe Fortson (2016-18) with the Kansas City Chiefs as current NFL players.

“It didn’t seem real,” Kemp said of those first few moments after the call.

When we talked on Monday, he was still pinching himself. He felt good, though.

There was just one problem. Like so much of life, COVID-19 has left the NFL having to change its plans. The league is announcing its 2020 regular season schedule Thursday night, but is building in contingencies in case the schedule has to change. While Kemp is already receiving virtual playbooks from the Titans, he doesn’t know when he’ll be in Tennessee.

“Right now, I’m still here in Atlanta,” he said. “Everything is on hold, which means I have to get a summer job.”

Well, some things never change. A man has to eat.

Find Gracie on Facebook (www.facebook.com/graciestaplesajc/) and Twitter (@GStaples_AJC) or email her at gstaples@ajc.com.

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