RACINE — Back when he played football at Badger High School in Lake Geneva, Wilbert Kennedy had no idea how long his football career would last.
He went on to play college ball at UW-Stout, and when his four years there were nearing an end, he received an offer to play semi-pro ball for the Racine Raiders. When he suited up for his first practice for the Raiders, he still could not imagine how long his football career would last.
“It wasn’t like I was planning on playing as long as I did,” Kennedy said. “I figured it was a way to continue to play the sport I loved, get better at it, and see if there’s any other opportunities that would come of it.”
As it turned out, the lifelong resident of Lake Ivanhoe in eastern Walworth County ended up playing for the Raiders for 21 years. He has coached with the team for another nine years, giving himself three extra decades with the sport he loves.
Kennedy played as a defensive lineman for the Raiders from 1989 until 2009, serving as a consistent force for the team that won four national championships during that time frame.
The camaraderie of the players, coaches and fans in Racine kept Kennedy coming back year after year, but he knew he had to hang up the cleats once he felt himself hampered by his body.
“When I realized I was done was when the injuries had caught up with me,” he said. “I still had fun playing, but I had bad shoulders, and it was getting to the point it was hard for me to do certain things. and I knew the time had come.”
Even though he had suffered his share of injuries, Kennedy says he was in better shape than some former football players, with his hips and knees still in good condition.
From player to coach
As soon as he retired, though, he knew he had to find a way to scratch the competitive itch. When the Raiders’ head coach at the time, Jordan Kopac, reached out to Kennedy with an offer to be the team’s defensive line coach, Kennedy jumped at the opportunity.
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“One of the reasons it took me so long to retire is that, the way you were treated there, it truly is like family,” Kennedy said. “The whole organization was so good to me for all these years, it was hard walking away, because I felt like I didn’t want to let them down or leave them out there. Once I was coaching, it was like I was able to give back for what they gave me for all those years.”
Kopac retired shortly after Kennedy’s coaching career began, and when the Raiders’ next head coach, Gino Perfetto, retired after the 2013 season, Kennedy worried about what a change in coaching could mean to the well-run program.
“We have quite the tradition in Racine, and a way of doing things. There are so many semi-pro teams now, and the organizations — they’re not run right. Or they run themselves into the ground or give themselves bad names from mismanagement and so forth. I didn’t want that to happen to us,” Kennedy said.
While he did not intend to become a head coach until after he retired from his career as a member of the Bloomfield Police Department, also in eastern Walworth County, Kennedy knew 2013 was the right time for him to take the reins anyway.
In his first season at the helm of the Raiders in 2014, the team went undefeated and won the program’s ninth national championship. The Raiders’ pursuit of another national championship will continue Saturday when they host the Wisconsin Hitmen in a 7 p.m. Mid-States Football League Richhart Conference championship game at Horlick Field.
Juggling his schedule
Kennedy says the hardest part of the head coach job is being able to manage the team’s roster, with himself being about an hour away from Racine and some of his players coming from as far away as Appleton and Chicago. Being able to make sure the team is on the same page when everyone is coming from far away — and the team has only one three-hour practice per week — can be quite the challenge.
However, juggling his responsibilities to the Raiders and the Bloomfield Police Department is easier now than it was when he was a player. While he may have more on his plate, his added years of Police Department seniority gives him more days off, which he uses for Raiders game days.
If any surprise engagements come up on top of the game schedule, Kennedy says that the other officers are more than happy to swap shifts to make everything work out.
“Everybody at the police station works really well with each other,” Kennedy said. “We’re all friends down there, so everybody helps out each other. It’s a great place to work.”
With 30 years under his belt, Kennedy has already lasted longer in football than he could have ever dreamed. But still in love with the game and helped by his police force coworkers, Kennedy has a career as the Raiders coach that is still going strong.
“One of the reasons it took me so long to retire is that, the way you were treated there, it truly is like family. The whole organization was so good to me for all these years, it was hard walking away, because I felt like I didn’t want to let them down or leave them out there. Once I was coaching, it was like I was able to give back for what they gave me for all those years.” Wilbert Kennedy, Racine raiders head coach
“One of the reasons it took me so long to retire is that, the way you were treated there, it truly is like family. The whole organization was so good to me for all these years, it was hard walking away, because I felt like I didn’t want to let them down or leave them out there. Once I was coaching, it was like I was able to give back for what they gave me for all those years.”
Wilbert Kennedy, Racine raiders head coach