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WUNC Youth Reporting Institute Production. Youth Reporting mentor Caitlin Leggett hosts weekly instagram lives with the movers and shakers of our community. Her introspective interviews bring the community to the world, and amplify the voices of the marginalized.

Goals to reality: Kendall Hinton small-town guy with NFL dreams

Bronco's Wide Receiver Kendall Hinton
by Gabriel Christus
Bronco's Wide Receiver Kendall Hinton

Kendall Hinton talks life in Durham, pro-football, and overcoming adversity.

Ever since Kendall Hinton could remember, playing professional football in the NFL was always the dream. From Pop Warner youth football, to winning a state championship for Southern Durham High School back in 2013, football was always the center of Hinton's life.

In 2020, Hinton's hope to play in the NFL seemed widely unattainable, until he received a call from his agent. Three words: Broncos Training Camp.

Hinton’s story is right out of the Netflix series Designated Survivor script. On November 28, 2020, the Denver Broncos were gearing up to face the New Orleans Saints. ESPN journalist Adam Schefter reported that all three of the Broncos' starting quarterbacks were ineligible to play following COVID-19 exposure. That's when Hinton's agent called; he was to be promoted from the practice squad.

Changing Channels with Kendall Hinton

Prior to joining the training camp, Hinton went undrafted in the NFL, he figured this would be his big break. After a few weeks, the Broncos hadn't reached out, and Hinton began to accept that football might not be in the cards for him. From there, he began focusing on life outside of football, like turning his attention to a potential career in the medical device field. For a month, he worked with a company that promoted fundraising within the school system and still allowed him a flexible schedule to train. Patience proved to be a virtue for Hinton, in November 2020 he was drafted. He is now under contract with the Denver Broncos as a wide receiver.

Before the pros, Hinton was a small-town kid with big dreams. As a junior at Southern Durham High School he and his teammate, Jordon Brown, led their team to a 3AA State Championships.

Hinton spoke with Caitlin Leggett for an episode of Changing Channels. This interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

If you didn't go to the Southern Durham vs Hillside game, you weren’t poppin’. How would you describe that rivalry?

"Yeah. I think of all my experiences playing sports. That's been my favorite rivalry. For sure. … It's so dope because you know, Durham is so close-knit, everybody knows each other. But when it comes to the Southern [versus] Hillside [High School] game … everybody in Durham has their sides and the whole city shows up. … And you know you get to talk junk for the rest of the year. So the atmosphere out there is crazy for sure."

Hinton then went to Wake Forest University as a 3-star athlete and exercise science major before the pros, which came with a lot of adversity. From injuries to position changes, it was hard for Hinton to balance football, his workload, and the culture shock of being at a predominately white university. As a graduate of Wake Forest, football was the least stable thing for him. After college, Hinton began to look towards his professional career by hoping to get a late-round draft pick in the NFL.

Talk to me about that year you got that call-up.

"The first two weeks, you're like you're just sitting by the phone, waiting for that call. [You're] training and you're staying in shape and anticipating that call and it didn't come and you know, it's like I don't have any money … I gotta figure out life and figure out what to do next. And so it was a fundraising opportunity that had approached me first. What appealed to me was that I could still train and stay in shape and be able to do that as well. And you know, my first week I'm reaching out to school[s], Southern [Durham High school], was the first school I reached out to about this fundraiser. ... And maybe about two weeks into doing that, I get a call, as I'm walking in Lowe's … my agent calls me he's like, 'Hey, now get your winter jacket … you’re headed back to Denver.' It was unreal. And I ain't been home since.”

Going pro came with a lot that he did not expect, with the biggest transition being that the sport he loves so much was no longer just a hobby, it is a business.

Talk to me a little bit about that adjustment, because as an athlete, especially as a collegiate athlete, you have your core star players. When you go pro, everybody was “that guy” on the field. So how was that adjustment? 

"The locker room, that's somewhat of an adjustment, you know. You're gonna go from playing with all peers to playing with guys who got a whole family at home you know, wives and you know, you're in two different places. And on top of that, as you said, everybody has been, 'the man,' since they can remember, so there are many egos in the locker room. We’re still close, but this business is at the end of the day, and that sign was quick, really quick."

One of the more cutthroat parts of the business is being hired and fired, which is something Hinton had yet to experience as football had always been a second home to him.

What were some things you didn’t expect or that they don’t tell you about the pros?

[After the Broncos training camp] I got sent home with no resources, or, you know, no idea what's next, you get this opportunity, you play football your whole life. And you know, a lot of people who aren't college athletes probably don't understand, but you go to school as a student-athlete, but a lot of times your sport kind of comes first. Your coaches and teammates, they got expectations and, you kind of got to put the sport first in terms of time. So that's all you know, you don't get the opportunities for those internships and you [haven't] made those connections ... all those things that people are doing to set themselves up. So once you do get to this position, and you get cut off, you have no idea what's next. And that was like, the craziest thing to me, is when I got cut and had no idea what I was gonna do next. And then like I said, it's a business. So on top of that, like you get cut, and nobody cares. Teammates not reaching out coaches not reaching out, you know, it's a business, and if you’re not getting it done the next man is."

Kendall Hinton
Gabriel Christus/Denver Broncos
Courtesy of Kendall Hinton
#9 Kendall Hinton

However, fulfilling his dream was still everything that he hoped for and more.

You actually just got a chance to play in front of your home crowd in Charlotte (Carolina Panthers). What was that like being home?

"Yeah, it was amazing. … I had an idea of the people that would come out and see me but, to finish up the game, I walk outside and it was at least 25/30 people … for me, it just melted my heart. You know, especially now, I'm on the other side of the country out here in Colorado. So people rarely get the opportunity to come out here and watch me, so it was awesome, especially people I haven't seen in a long time."

Hinton’s persistence and will to never give up on his dreams are an inspiration to many. His final advice to anyone working towards their dreams:

“I hate saying it because it's so cliche but, I just think about my journey, and it was just so many times where I'm like, 'You know, this is probably over. … I need to figure out something else.' Or, 'This is so draining, I don't know if I can do it anymore.' And I think in those moments, deciding that, like, 'Nah, I gotta keep going,' were some of the best decisions I've ever made. So, I think just honestly appreciating adversity, and learning just gratitude in everything that happens. And learn and grow from every situation. Because everything that happens in life … you grow from. I think just looking at it from that way and having the right perspective when adversity hits is a game changer.”

Caitlin Leggett was WUNC's News Administrative Intern & Youth Reporting Mentor.
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