Tough times don’t last; tough people do. It’s a well-known phrase, but one that aptly summarizes Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders’ defensive end, Richard Kinley II. After suffering multiple injuries, the charismatic lineman found himself in a dark place, but leaning on friends, family, and faith, he lit a fire inside him that now shines a light for the community in Murfreesboro.
Out of Dark Times, Middle Tennessee DE Richard Kinley is a Light in the Community
“It really started being bigger than myself when I kept getting hurt in football,” Kinley begins. The Middle Tennessee defensive end opens up to College Football Network during an exclusive one-to-one interview in the wake of his nomination for the AllState AFCA Good Works team, one of college football’s most prestigious accolades for work beyond the field.
“I was kind of feeling low on myself, and was like, what if football isn’t all that I can give? I can’t play football all my life. I had to look at myself in the mirror and say, “Richard, what are we going to do?” It’s bigger than me. I have a bigger purpose to go out and help others. It really sparked something in me.”
Kinley’s drive to be a light in the Murfreesboro community — and beyond — began in April 2022. A 13-game starter for the Blue Raiders during the 2021 campaign, where he logged 32 tackles, including 3.5 for loss, 1.5 sacks, and 11 hurries, the Middle Tennessee defensive end had offseason surgery in December of that year.
By April, he was representing himself and the program away from the football field. As winter gave way to an unseasonably cold spring, Kinley and his teammates began the 615 Blanket Drive, distributing blankets to the homeless on Broadway in Nashville.
Work with the Special Olympics and the establishment of his own football camps followed, as another injury threatened to take away the sport that had been his entire focus up to that point. Stripped of his identity and the sport that had surrounded him since he was a kid growing up, Kinley was forced to look deep inside himself, emerging positively from a negative time.
“When we dropped the blankets off, it gave me healing, it gave me a purpose,” Kinley explains. “There are people like they’re on the streets with no place to go, they’re cold, and they were so grateful for one blanket. I’m coming home to heat, just to be sad, because I was injured. C’mon, man. Helping others really inspired me to get up. It’s bigger than me.”
“I have a voice that needs to be heard that can help people. Why would I sit in my room and mope just because things weren’t going my way?”
While the 615 Blanket Drive and his introduction to the harsh realities faced by homeless people helped shape his drive and determination to emerge from a dark period in his life, Kinley’s exposure to the simple joys of life at the Special Olympics reinforced that mindset. He has a bigger purpose, that he can be a light in the community rather than be engulfed by the dark.
“I was working the 100m dash,” Kinley explains. “Everybody gets a medal. This girl, she was the last one, starts crying. I was thinking she was mad because she was last, but she was so ecstatic because she was getting a medal. In that moment right there, I was like, “damn Richard, if she can be excited for an eighth-place trophy, why wouldn’t I wake up with a smile?”
“Why wouldn’t I wake up and try to help somebody? Why wouldn’t I wake up and give it my best every single day?”
Friends, Faith, and Family
As the Middle Tennessee defensive end battled demons that included “doubt, negativity, those voices in your head,” the potential end of his football journey gave way to the positivity of community giving. Kinley has been surrounded by influences that helped steer him in the right direction — a healthy mix of friends, faith, and family have provided constant guidance.
Kinley is the second consecutive defensive lineman to be nominated to the AllState AFCA Good Works team. In 2022, Jordan Ferguson made the 22-man team, while also featuring on the Wuerffel Trophy watchlist. A force on the field, his off-field work proved an inspiration to his teammates, both in actions and in words.
“He’s like my big brother,” Kinley says of his relationship with the now-Seattle Seahawk. “He took me in from the beginning. We always knew we wanted to give back to others. When I got hurt, and I was spending time away from football, he was like, “Let’s gameplan something, let’s think of something. He was always in my ear, and I was always in his.”
“Seeing how he was as a role model, seeing how he led the team, it’s always been inspiring to me. Before you can be a great leader, you have to be a great follower, and I’ve always been a big follower of Jordan Ferguson. What he did kind of rubbed off on me.”
Facing the uncertain footballing future that fueled his community work was made more difficult by his lifelong exposure to the sport. Kinley is the second of his name, and his father also made a name for himself at Middle Tennessee in the late 1980s. In addition to being a father, he was a footballing role model and coach, while also working the night shift to support his family.
“That’s how football got introduced to my life,” Kinley reflects on the sacrifices his father made for him. “That was the most time I would spend with my Dad throughout the week. He taught me how to be a way better football player. Off the field, he showed me an example. Working the night shift isn’t fun. He taught me perseverance, hard work, how to take care of family.”
While the Middle Tennessee defensive end describes many of the friends and teammates that have impacted the man he’s become today as brothers and cousins, Kinley saves substantial praise for his actual brother. Cameron Kinley was a standout player at Navy who rose to national prominence as he attempted to craft a career in the NFL with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Although Cameron became nationally known as the man who challenged the archaic regulations around service academy players being allowed to postpone their commitment to the country, to Kinley, he has been so much more.
The phrase “charity begins at home” can often have negative connotations, but for the Middle Tennessee defensive end, his brother’s impact at home was instrumental.
“My brother was my other Dad, if I’m being honest,” Kinley recalls. “He made sure I was up, that my clothes were folded. Before we even set off in the car, he’d make sure my seat belt was buckled. He always showed me an example. He shaped me for who I am, my determination, my hard work, he shaped that.”
Kinley Finds Peace in the Process
When your life has been surrounded by football, and the pursuit of sporting greatness is not only ingrained in you but also within your family as a role model, it’s easy to understand how being faced with the end of that element of your life can cast you into a place so dark that escape can seem impossible.
Kinley is extremely open about how the potential end of his footballing journey “weighed on him,” despite him trying to appear positive to those around him. The Middle Tennessee defensive end felt like he’d “disappointed” the role models in his life, including his father.
For a man who grew up as an introvert, his exposure to those in greater need while helping the homeless, people with special needs, and developing youth at his football camps has changed him. But, there’s been another important influence in his life that helped keep him grounded during times of darkness.
“Fun fact, I stay with no football players,” Kinley begins to describe how his living arrangements at Middle Tennessee helped him understand that football wasn’t the start, beginning, and end of what defines him as a man.
“I stay with my high school friends who came up here with me, and that was probably the best decision I ever made. When I come home, we’re not talking about football, we’re talking about how to get better as a person. How was our day? How can we get better tomorrow? I love the atmosphere I’m in right now.”
Having that separation from football, that influence has helped guide his recovery and inspire the off-field endeavors for which he’s now being nationally recognized. The importance of having an outlet has helped the Middle Tennessee defensive end to find some peace in the process — ironically, given he’s the one disturbing the peace with his music blasting to start the day.
“When I come home, my friend Isaiah is like, “Richard, did you get 1% better today?” and if I say no, he’s real sad. Each and every day that I come home and I knew I got better, I can’t wait to tell him yes. Then we sit down and have those talks, those friend talks, those couch conversations that you can’t really explain, but they bring you peace.”
After returning to the field and logging six tackles, a tackle for loss, and a hurry in 2022, Kinley is fully healthy for the first time in over a year. He’s ready to help Middle Tennessee dominate in 2023 as the Blue Raiders enter a new era of Conference USA action with one goal and one goal only.
“It’s new competition, it’s new blood out there to go hunt,” Kinley allows himself to turn his attention to football. “As a team, we’re building that camaraderie. This is the closest team I’ve been with. I have little brothers, I have big brothers, I have cousins. This is a team. I feel like we’ve been building a team bond that can’t be broke. I can’t wait for people to see it.”
Kinley is expected to be a leader on the field for Middle Tennessee this fall. Out of dark times, he has emerged to be a light on the football field for the Blue Raiders.
For as great as his impact may be during the 2023 college football season, those times of great despair have led him to have an even greater impact in the community.
Equally important, it’s enabled him to find peace in whatever path his life may take.