Running Back’s Nightmare Began Last Thanksgiving
November 22, 2019
Most of us were preparing for a day with family and eating turkey with all the fixings when Kesean Strong's nightmare began.
Early last Thanksgiving Strong was in a meeting as running backs coach Robert Bankins went over final preparations for Old Dominion University's upcoming football game at Rice.
Then his cell phone blew up in his pocket. One call came after another, but he just let the phone buzz in part because he dreaded what he might learn.
"My phone never rings that early so I knew something was wrong," he said.
He was standing, alone in the meeting room, when he finally opened a text from his brother.
"Dad died in a car wreck last night," it read.
"I just stood in the middle in the floor for a solid 30 minutes," he said. "I just couldn't move."
Nearly a year later, his voice still fills with emotion as he tells the story.
"The shock wore off, and then I just cried for a solid three days," he said. "I didn't eat. I didn't sleep. I was just locked up in my room."
A friend drove from Oxon Hill, Md., to take him home and make sure he was OK. A week later, he returned to ODU for finals.
"I didn't even study," he said. "I wasn't in the state of mind to put any effort into school."
For days he mulled quitting football and school and heading home. He was so wrapped up in grief that he didn't think he could function.
But instead, Strong lived up to his last name, returned to ODU and persevered.
On Nov. 30, he will play his final football game for the Monarchs when they host Charlotte. A few weeks later he will receive bachelor's degrees in finance and business analytics.
While Strong hasn't had the football career he'd hoped for, his time at ODU is in every way a success story. The Washington, D.C., native is the first in his family to earn a college degree.
"Where I come from, there aren't a lot of people doing this," he said. "When you look back, you feel fortunate that you're one of those people who could actually do it. It gives you a sense of hope for everyone else."
His road to healing began with counseling, which athletes are sometimes reticent to embrace. He hadn't done grief counseling earlier in the year, when his uncle, Anthony Irvin, whom he was close to, passed away.
Bankins said he was happy to hear Strong say he was open to counseling.
"As much as you talk about this being a family, situations like this expose whether you're a true family," Bankins said. "We put our arms around him and provided him with all of the resources he needed to recover."
Strong said he realized during finals that he needed help.
"I struggled so much on my finals that I realized, yeah, something bad happened but I've to cope because life isn't going to stop because you're grieving," he said. "Stuff's going to keep going coming at you.
"But you've got to make time for yourself. You can't neglect it."
Strong had already been through a lot.
"Where I came from there was not a lot of positive stuff going on," he said. "When you say come from D.C., people think about the monuments the Capitol and all of the tourist stuff.
"But two blocks over, it's a whole different world. There's stuff they don't show you on TV. It's just not ideal for anyone, especially for a child to grow up in. There's a lot of illegal activity, a lot of bad stuff going on."
Even before he was a teenager, he was a father figure to his six younger siblings as his single mother, Temika Manley, worked hard to keep things together.
He called her "one of the strongest people I've ever known."
"I watched my Mom cry over unpaid bills. The lights weren't on sometimes when I came home. I watched my mom not eat while she fed us. She made sure we didn't go without. She's the epitome of sacrifice and love."
His dad, James Strong, was active in his life.
"He was probably one of the most positive, joyful people you'd ever meet," Strong said. "He was one of those people who wouldn't allow you to be negative.
"He went above and beyond to do what he could for his children."
Early on, Strong realized that football could be his ticket to a better life. He was a 3-star recruit as a junior in high school with offers from Maryland, Temple, Indiana and Marshall. Others surely would have offered had he not broken his arm as a senior.
Nearly every name school backed off recruiting Strong except ODU assistant Michael Zyskowski.
"I knew he was a good kid," said Zyskowski, now an assistant with UConn. "We got him because coach Wilder assured his mother that academics would come first."
Strong's career has been hamstrung by injuries and position changes. When ODU had Ray Lawry at running back, he was moved to wide receiver. He's been at running back this season and leads the Monarchs in receptions and is second in rushing.
But he was part of ODU's Bahamas Bowl championship team in 2016 and said "that's still going to be a big deal, even 20 years from now, that I was a member of our first team to win a bowl game."
But the thing he will cherish most is the support he received following his father's death.
"There wasn't a single coach here, a member of the staff, who didn't text or call to offer me support," he said. "My teammates were all behind me.
"That meant a lot to me. It will always mean a lot."