Since I was a kid, I’ve dreamt of flying. I would have dreams that were so vivid that I could feel the zero-G sensation as I flew in my sleep. As a boy, I would climb onto the roof of my house and jump off with a towel stuffed in the back of my shirt, yelling, “Superrrrrmaaaannnnn!” Thankfully, I never broke any bones, because the secret would have been out, and my parents would have killed me once they learned of my dangerous hobby! No matter how much I tried to hide it, though, all the early warning signs were there that I was an aviation addict.
I grew up in the country and would climb the tallest trees I could find. I’d ride the biggest, baddest roller coasters with (of course) no hands! I won a contest for a free helicopter ride when I was 7 years old, and after Dad took me to my first Blue Angels air show, things really got bad. I think being an ’80s baby is to blame for the I-wanna-fly seeds planted in my brain. I mean, what do you expect from a child who has stuff like “Hook,” “The Jetsons,” “The Rocketeer,” “Top Gun” and “Back to the Future” to watch? Did anyone else ask Santa Claus for a flying Delorean? I’m still waiting on mine!
Now on to what finally got me to jump: my uncle, Vince Kendrick. To Florida Gators football fans, he was a living legend. The year 1972 was the first year that the University of Florida allowed black athletes to play football. He became the team's first black captain in 1973. After his college years, he was drafted to the Atlanta Falcons as one of the first blacks to play in the National Football League. The Falcons eventually traded him to the newly created Tampa Bay Buccaneers, where he scored the team’s first-ever touchdown. After his NFL career ended by injury, he returned to the University of Florida as a running backs coach, making history once more as one of the first black assistant coaches at a major college program in the historically racially segregated south.
Despite all his accomplishments, he did not enjoy being in the spotlight. However, right before he passed away last year, he asked me to do something that shocked me. He asked me to send a letter about him to shows like “Oprah” and “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” so that people would remember him. But if nobody else does, I will always remember how much he inspired me.
In our family, I am the seventh person so far to attend UF as a student and the fourth student athlete. I studied mechanical and aerospace engineering (huge surprise there!) and joined the football team just in time to become a member of Head Coach Urban Meyer’s first national championship team at UF. Today, there are countless minorities who use their athletic gifts as vehicles to get college educations funded. A select few are paid millions of dollars to play the sports they love. Thanks to people like my uncle who were at the forefront of change, skin color is no longer the barrier to entry for college or athletics that it was such a short time ago.
I looked for a way to honor my uncle’s memory and the barriers he broke that would speak way louder than words … and I found it! Thanks to Skydive Palatka, I made some history myself by becoming UF's first black national champion football player to become a licensed skydiver! We celebrated with a memorial jump in my uncle’s UF jersey. Fingers crossed, maybe eventually I’ll get to do a stadium jump into the Swamp (Ben Hill Griffin Stadium at UF). I procrastinated, but I couldn’t shake the dream of flight. And I promise, livin’ it beats dreamin’ about it! Go Gators, and blue skies!