TAMPA — He is beyond qualified to defend a nation. You would think somebody would trust him to protect the goal line.
“I’ve gotten to fly planes, sail the seas,” said former Navy defensive back Cameron Kinley.
He has been president of his class at the U.S. Naval Academy since his junior year. He was the team captain who held the Midshipmen together when the coronavirus pandemic interrupted their season for a month in 2020.
But when the NFL draft ended last week, Kinley’s name had not been called. For about 10 minutes, the square-jawed Kinley had run out of stiff upper lips.
“I had a lot of family and friends around me, so there was just a little disappointment,” Kinley said during a break between final exams. “I felt like I let some people down. Having my little brother there. I tried to set the example for him. He plays college football. So I had just a little disappointment come over me after I found out my name wasn’t called in the draft.
“So I took a little walk down the street with my cousin. We were just kind of talking it out. I let a few tears out, and I got a call from my agent saying that Tampa Bay wanted to bring me in. The emotions flipped real quick. It turned into tears of joy and of celebration. It was definitely a moment to remember.”
Actually, two teams had called wanting to sign the 6-foot-2, 204-pound Kinley. You could’ve found both playing in Super Bowl 55 in February in Tampa.
The first to call when the draft ended was the Kansas City Chiefs. But the Bucs had the upper hand because linebackers coach Mike Caldwell had played college football with Kinley’s father, Richard, at Middle Tennessee State. Kinley’s older brother, Jonathan Brown, played one season for Bruce Arians with the Arizona Cardinals.
“I felt I had a connection down there heading down to Tampa,” Kinley said.
Kinley will arrive in Tampa with the rest of his rookie class on Wednesday night. They will undergo physicals Thursday and have minicamp practices Friday and Saturday.
If there was a depth chart for the 2021 Bucs, with their 22 returning starters, Kinley’s name would appear near the bottom. But if you know anything about Kinley, you know it may not be there for long.
Coming out of Lausanne Collegiate School in Memphis, Kinley was a three-sport star who earned varsity letters in basketball, football and track. His dream was to attend Vanderbilt. He also took visits to the U.S. Air Force Academy, Princeton and Yale.
But his blood pumps Navy blue.
“My grandad is a retired Chief in the Navy. Navy was my first offer, and ever since then, he was putting a little bug in my ear,” Kinley said. “I didn’t know too much about the military. I wasn’t very interested. My dream school has been Vanderbilt, but when that didn’t go as planned, I was like, let me buckle down and look at what I have. A lot of my teachers at my high school were telling me to look into this opportunity.
“When it came down to it, Navy was the total package. First and foremost, I knew I was going to be able to develop as a man, which was going to make me a better husband, father and leader in the future. I was going to place myself in an uncomfortable situation, which is going to cause me to grow. Also, the academics here are top-notch. A degree from here will open doors for me.”
Actually, Kinley was the one who has spent the last four years trying to open doors for everyone else.
Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo has encountered a few good men who played at Annapolis and went onto NFL careers: Patriots long snapper Joe Cardona, Dolphins wide receiver Malcolm Perry and Keenan Reynolds, a former option quarterback who played slot receiver for the Baltimore Ravens and Seattle Seahawks.
“As far as Cameron Kinley, he’s everything that’s great about our country,” Niumatalolo said. “He epitomizes what our program is all about. He’s one of the best captains we’ve had on the field. He’s been a good defensive back for us, because of his length and speed and physicality. He played a lot of corner for us and can play a lot of different positions. He’s just a player that did everything for us.
“It was tough last year. Take out the football, it was a tough year. I thought he did as good a job as a captain as anyone we’ve ever had. He did a great job inspiring our guys.”
Before he returned to Navy for summer workouts, Kinley had a brush with death. He was involved in a serious car accident in June. “It had just started to sprinkle, I was coming around a bend on a highway. I hydroplaned, started spinning, then I hit an 18-wheeler that came off the side of the road,” Kinley said. “I was lucky to walk away from that with no injuries and still be alive. For sure, God was watching over me.”
The pandemic was particularly hard on Navy players. They were basically restricted to their dorms after a coronavirus outbreak on campus.
“It’s difficult, for sure, especially being one of the team captains, just trying to keep the team focused,” Kinley said. “It was weird. You’d got through a whole week of practice, and then on Thursday you would get a text from the team saying that the game is going to be canceled on Saturday. So a lot of guys would be disappointed, as you know. But we always have to keep the end goal in mind. Control what you can control.”
Since high school, Kinley always had been involved in student government. After seeing the murder of George Floyd over the summer, he helped create a council for racial equality at Navy and was part of a Midshipmen diversity team. “We started holding different panels, getting people involved,” Kinley said. “Getting people educated about what goes on around our country. ... We made a lot of efforts in the Yard. We just had our first diversity conference a couple weekends ago, which is good. And we had some fruitful discussions. But it’s just the beginning, it’s just the start.”
Politics is in Kinley’s future. But first, he owes the Navy five years of service. He won’t be immediately commissioned as an officer when he graduates May 28 in order to pursue his NFL career. But eventually he will be a leader in the Navy’s information warfare department.
All that will have to wait. Due to COVID-19, Navy couldn’t host a pro day, so Kinley convinced coaches from the rival Memphis program to let him participate in their workouts. He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.52 seconds and had a 33-inch vertical jump.
Like the other Bucs cornerbacks, he is long and strong and athletic.
When his NFL career ends, he has long-term plans to run for President of the United States.
At the graduation and commissioning ceremony, he will give a speech. Vice President Kamala Harris will be there.
“We come here to lead,” Niumatalolo said, “and he was the leader amongst the best leaders in the country.”
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