Professionally, 2017 has been the most challenging point of Kenny Stafford’s career. At the same time, this year has also been the most fulfilling. After 26 years, Stafford has finally met his father.
By Chris O’Leary
IT’S A PLAY THAT KENNY STAFFORD HAS RUN THROUGH HUNDREDS OF TIMES OVER HIS FIVE YEARS IN THE CFL.
Under a hot August sun in a Week 9 matchup, the Edmonton Eskimos’ wide receiver took off from the Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ 40-yard line and raced to the end zone, battling then-Bombers defensive back Roc Carmichael for a tough, highlight-reel touchdown reception.
The touchdown itself — his first of the season in his first game this year — might get lost in his personal highlight reel, but that moment was one of the best of his 27 years. He hung onto that Mike Reilly pass in the end zone and took it to the Esks’ sideline. Then he pointed up into the stands and started waving for someone to come down to the front row.
“The first game that I go to, which is a game on the road, and I love road games. As an ex-athlete you love nothing more than the road games,” Gene Smith says. He’s on the phone from his home in L.A. and through the entire hour we speak, it sounds like he’s talking and smiling at the same time.
“To have him catch his touchdown in the first game that I came to…then he calls me down from the stands. This is my first rodeo, so I don’t know what I’m supposed to do, right? I sprint down to the end of the stands and my wife’s running behind me and he throws me the football.
“You can ask him about it. He says it was like I was on the field and I was playing. Just (celebrating) profanity laced,” he says, laughing. “It was one of those moments I’ll never forget. I’m not a jersey wearing kind of guy. I’d much rather a nice shirt and a nice jacket, but to wear his jersey is just…it’s really incredible.”
Professionally, this is the most challenging point of Stafford’s career. He’d signed a two-year deal with the Bombers as a free-agent over the winter and was released at the end of training camp. He landed on the Eskimos practice roster ahead of Week 1, played well in five games and was bumped back to the practice roster when Derel Walker re-joined the Esks. But this year has also been the most fulfilling of his personal life and he’s found a calming balance in that.
Early this year, Stafford sent Gene Smith a direct message on Instagram and told him that he was pretty sure that Smith was his father. It was a relatively short note, simple and to the point:
“He got back to me within an hour,” Stafford says. That same happiness comes through the phone when you talk with him, too.
“Nice to meet you Kenny Stafford, I would love to talk to you. He gave me his phone number. From there, we had an hour and a half-long conversation.”
. . .
It was early May in 1990 and Joyce Carter was planning for her future. She was 51 and about to complete her bachelor of science with a teacher’s certificate at the University of Miami, Ohio. A single mother that raised seven kids, including sons Cris, the NFL hall of famer and TV analyst, and Butch, a former NBA player and coach of the Toronto Raptors, she had sold the big house the family lived in. Like many other students about to go into the world, she was living in a one-bedroom apartment, thinking about what might come next.
Then her phone rang.
“I had just sat down at my desk thanking the Lord for allowing me to jump this hurdle of student-teaching when I got a phone call,” she says. “The gentleman said for a lack of not knowing who it was, ‘Your daughter is in a crack house.’ I said, ‘Does she have the baby with her?’
“Kenneth was two weeks old.”
Joyce called the police, who told her to wait for them to go to the house, warning her it could have armed guards. They arrived to see Joyce on the front porch, communicating through the closed door of the house with the people inside.
“I told her, ‘You can stay. I just want the baby.’ I said, ‘I’m going to do whatever is best for him. All he did was be born, he doesn’t deserve this.’
Joyce Carter on adopting Kenny while he was just a baby
“I could hear people on the inside saying, ‘It’s Ms. Carter.’ I just yelled out, ‘If my daughter is there tell her I want the baby’.”
Twenty-seven years later, her voice still cracks telling the story.
“She came out with Kenneth. I told her, ‘You can stay. I just want the baby.’ I said, ‘I’m going to do whatever is best for him. All he did was be born, he doesn’t deserve this.’
“With that I took him out of her arms. By that time the police chief drove up and kind of scared everyone. So I took Kenneth out of her arms and I took him and I went to my place.”
She cleaned up the two-week old baby, looked at him, looked at her one-bedroom apartment and knew what she had to do. She quickly adopted him. Raising her seven children was difficult, she said, but Kenny would be a whole new set of challenges at a later stage in her life. She detailed it fully in her memoir, The Game Plan. In it, she calls her adopted grandson her plus-one.
“She’s an amazing woman,” Stafford says. “She (raised her kids) without a college education. She ended up going back to school and getting her master’s.
“When my mom had me and wasn’t able to take care of me, she took on the responsibility of me. I was kind of her project. She was educated, she had a job and she was able to provide for me like she wasn’t able to do for her first seven kids.
“She’s the reason why I’m here today. I’m the man I am today because of her. She instilled a lot of great attributes to me. My drive, why I’m never willing to give up, my believing in myself.”
It certainly wasn’t easy. As Kenny grew into a toddler and got closer to grade school, Joyce noticed some behavioural problems that seemed like a red flag to her.
“I went through the process of finding the right doctors, finding the right diagnosis, and then I went back to school to get a master’s so that I would understand Kenneth,” Joyce says. “My master’s in special education was so I would understand whatever he’s going through so I can help him understand it.”
She tells a story of how Kenny was looking through photo albums later in his life and asked why there were so many pictures of her looking at him, or pictures of him sleeping.
She laughed and told him she was just trying to figure him out.
“I spent years of educating myself to Kenneth, trying to make Kenneth understand about himself and then our situation,” she says. “He’s been raised, he knows it’s not his fault, it was never his fault that he ended up with me.”
You can tell a kid that their entire life, but it’s not a switch that can be flicked. He knew that his situation was different from other kids. He called Joyce Mom as he grew up, but his birth mother would reappear occasionally. Joyce calls them moments of chaos. That his father was only a name that was possibly only said in whispers in those years didn’t help either.
“He was a difficult child. It took him years to understand the entire dynamic,” she says.
“Any kid would suffer some effects of that. He had me, who I’m trying to convince him, not verbally, but physically, by establishing a stable environment and stability in his life.”
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It was a long and thankless stretch. When Kenny was eight and acting out more, Joyce remembered crossing paths with a woman who headed up the Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Central Ohio.
“The worst era of Ken’s childhood was the fifth grade, where he just became…uber difficult. Even though his uncle Butch and his uncle Cris and his uncle John were involved in his life, they weren’t there on a day-to-day basis,” Joyce says.
“They were able to take him in the summer or at the time I think Butch was coaching in Toronto. We would go to games, but it wasn’t enough. I needed relief locally.”
That’s when Daryle Cobb came into the picture. Now a 25-year figure in the Franklin County Children Services, he met all of the criteria that Joyce was looking for.
“The thing that I saw in Daryle was he was solid as a rock and he was genuine,” he says.
He was single, had no children and was a successful professional. Most important, right off the bat, he wanted to show Kenny that he was committed.
“He was shy,” Cobb says. “I tell a story about Ken coming to the room, standing about four-foot-two carrying a teddy bear, very shy.
“I was excited because he was my first Little and I had some ideas of what I wanted to see happen with our relationship. I knew from the beginning and he’ll tell you, I told him that I was going to be with him until one of us died.”
The eight-year-old Stafford didn’t fully grasp that and just stared back at this new person in his life. But as the years went by, Stafford saw what Cobb meant. He had someone to take him to his football games when his grandmother wasn’t feeling up for it and he had someone to take him to McDonalds after those games, or to a park on a Saturday afternoon. He had someone to take him on his recruiting visits when it came time to decide where he wanted to go to college. When he needed someone to lean on, Cobb was there, for the big things and the little things.
“Actions are louder than words. Just by his actions, he showed me that he cared,” Stafford says.
“It helped me out tremendously. I had a male influence, a male role model, someone that actually lives right and does good things for good people. He taught me how to become a man. Any little questions growing up that if I would have asked my dad I was able to ask him. He was right there and he was always a phone call away. It made it easy.”
“The one thing that I learned was that once you give a young person your word you follow through,” Cobb says. “You say you’re going to be there at 7:30, you be there at 7:28, because that’s one of the things that you have to develop, is trust. That was the foundation of our relationship. Whenever I told him I’d be there, he said he was there. I was always there and if we said we were going to do something, we did it.”
The circle was small — Stafford, his grandmother, his Big Brother Daryle and the support of his uncles and extended family when they could give it — and that’s how it stayed for a long time. Kenny eventually overcame his trust issues and dealt with the challenges that life threw at him in his earliest days. One night when he was about 15, Joyce remembers, they were working together on a reading assignment. The Grapes of Wrath. When they weren’t reading the book, they were watching intervals of the movie.
“He jumped up and said, ‘Mom, I’ve got to go study. I’ve got a test tomorrow,” she says.
“Inside I was joyous. Outside I think I was suspicious. But it was like the light at the end of the tunnel, it was paying off. He began to be more open about his feelings. We grew closer. We began to enjoy each other more and my life got a little easier.”
. . .
Stafford appreciates it all. Everything that his grandmother did and the depths of her efforts with him. He remained close with Daryle Cobb; the mentor-mentee program ends when the child turns 19, but Daryle felt he still had work to do with Kenny. He stayed with it through Kenny’s four years at Toledo before he started to mentor any more kids. He and Kenny still talk regularly. And he stayed just as close with his uncles and the rest of his family, growing closer with his cousin, Duron Carter as they both landed in the CFL.
But as good as things were for Stafford, he still wondered about his dad and the little snippets of information he was gradually accumulating about him.
“I wanted to reach out to him when he knew I didn’t need anything, when I felt like I was financially stable and my career was on the right track. I didn’t want to make him feel like I needed something from him, like I wanted something from him.”
Kenny Stafford on the approach to reaching out to his dad
“As a child and as a man you really don’t know yourself until you know both parents,” Stafford says. “Why you do certain things, why you look this way, why you think this way. I really was missing a side of me.”
He made contact with his birth mother and she gave him his name. He found out that Gene had played basketball at Georgetown, captaining the Hoyas’ national championship team in 1984. From there, it didn’t take long for the Instagram account to turn up and for the direct message to be sent.
“I wanted to reach out to him when he knew I didn’t need anything, when I felt like I was financially stable and my career was on the right track. I didn’t want to make him feel like I needed something from him, like I wanted something from him,” he says.
“I wanted to reach out to him just to let him know that he does have a son that’s doing well. I have a college degree, I’m playing professional sports, just someone that he can be proud of. That’s why I reached out to him.”
While Joyce focused on giving Kenny the best life she could, she kept the idea of his father in the back of her mind. She says when Kenny was about six years old, she went through an agency and got a name and an address. She sent a letter and it didn’t get a response.
“Twenty-six years I prayed for the Lord to bring Ken’s father to my face,” she says.
When Kenny sent that message, the wheels were set in motion.
. . .
Gene Smith was laying in bed that morning with his soon-to-be wife. It was a sleepy Sunday in their L.A. home. The silence was broken by Gene’s phone.
“You know what the young kids say: It goes down in the DM,” he says, laughing. “It was so matter of fact, so deadpan and yet the subject matter was so insanely personal.
“He just said, ‘Hello, my name is Kenny Stafford, I’m a professional football player in the CFL, college graduated, no kids, and I think you may be my dad. I’m reaching out, if you’re interested. I’d love to get in touch with you. Here’s my number.”
There are very few moments in someone’s life where a phone call, or a message instantly changes everything. That day, that message and the phone call that would come that evening would be one of them for Gene and for Kenny.
“I’m reading this and I’m laying down with my wife and I look over at her and I don’t say anything. I’m trying to process it, right? I got up and I actually went out to the living room and just hung out for a second. It just took me a minute and I’m not sure if I spoke to her right away but I responded.
“My response was, ‘Yes, of course, call. Here’s my number, call me whenever.’
“I didn’t hear from him until that evening. We talked two hours non-stop and it was incredible.”
The phone rang and Stafford finally heard the voice he’d thought about his whole life.
“Whatever emotions I possibly could have had, they were pretty much eliminated by the initial communication,” Gene says. “I think I said to him as we were hanging up, ‘Whether you’re my kid or not, I hope we stay in touch. I hope we continue to communicate’
“That’s how much I liked talking to him initially. This is just from the jump. It was overwhelming, just reading it. The way he delivered the message was just on point.”
Kenny was going to California in March for a friend’s wedding. Gene suggested he come to L.A and meet him and his fiancee at the time.
He was supposed to stay there four days but it turned into two weeks. They got a paternity test quickly and were able to celebrate the results that their similar features and instantly deep connection told them was already the case. Since he was there, Gene and his fiance, Hachy, decided to speed things along with their wedding. A friend officiated and Kenny was present.
“A lot of things happened in that first trip, for our first time meeting,” Stafford says. “There were a lot of firsts for everything.”
While the past is easy to dig into, both are trying to make those firsts a priority. First meetings, first haircuts together, first Father’s Day, first time seeing Kenny play in Canada, they’ve all been big.
“The tough days we have, the tough conversations that we have are the best days and the best conversations. There’s no excuse making in this, there’s no guilt in this,” Gene says. “Sure, you’d like to answer all of the questions, but sometimes the answer is just, ‘Son, I just don’t know. I don’t know why it went down that way.’ But I do know this: We’re here now, we have this chance, this opportunity now that we can’t deny. I mean, it’s good to know as much as you can, but we’ve got to live.”
It’s in the living that Kenny sees some of the lifelong blanks he’s had being filled in.
“The way we look, my stature, my teeth… everything I am, I am my dad’s son, as the saying goes. I definitely resemble him, just how we think, how we act. I definitely see where I get it from,” Stafford says.
“I have a picture where he is leaving the apartment and I’m behind him taking the picture and it’s just him turning around and he looks back,” Gene says. “And it’s almost like…I felt like we’ve been around the corner waiting for him, like I’ve always been behind him. It’s almost felt like he’s always been with me. There hasn’t been a feeling that I missed something. It’s just been a feeling of finally, we caught up to each other.”
So many kids from single-parent families go through similar searches, maybe make contact and it doesn’t go this well. For lots of people it swings hard in the opposite direction. Gene seems astonished in a way that this whole thing has been best case scenario. He compares it to a cheesy BET movie, or something you’d see on the Hallmark channel or on Lifetime.
“I’ve been told before, particularly during competition that I’m not the most empathetic guy,” Gene says. “I will step on you to get to that loose ball. I’ve got buddies when they hear this story they’re like, ‘Wow, man, I see it in your face. This is a tremendous thing.’ No matter what happens, professionally or personally, I can’t have a bad day.”
“You couldn’t make this up. That’s what we always say,” Stafford adds.
“Of course he went to school and graduated, he did all those things. But now it’s different for Kenneth. He’s a completed human being, a whole human being. He sees things different.”
Joyce Carter on Kenny’s reunion with his dad
After waiting all of Kenny’s life to see his father’s face, it finally made its way to Joyce to this spring. She hugged him when she saw him, mostly because she sees what this has done for the boy she raised. She knows he’s a part of his journey too.
“It’s almost eerie how this fits. It’s comfortable,” she says.
“It’s extremely gratifying. I’m so glad that I did it the way I did. Today I’m exhausted, but it’s a good exhausting, you know what I mean?
“The other seven are doing well and Kenneth is doing well. Of course he went to school and graduated, he did all those things. But now it’s different for Kenneth. He’s a completed human being, a whole human being. He sees things different. He’s at a place in his life where he realizes, damn. Grandma was there all along. Now he’s reaching back to let me know.”
She says her and Gene have a good relationship. They talk twice a week and she’s invited him to Thanksgiving and Christmas this year.
“Did he get The Joyce Talk? Yes, he got the Joyce Talk,” she laughs. “But no, I was never angry.”
There are more positive details to still iron out. Kenny learned that Gene has a son — a half-brother to Kenny — in Oakland. He played college football, too. Kenny’s hoping to meet him after the season ends.
There was a photo snapped in Gene’s apartment from Kenny’s first visit in March. In the photo there’s a pile of laundry neatly folded on an ottoman in the living room. Seated on the couch but slumped over on its arm is Kenny, arms folded and sound asleep. All these years later, finally, his dad is the one behind the camera taking the picture, amazed and trying to figure out his sleeping child.