When Mike Karney talks, teenagers listen.
“Give me your eyes,” Karney began as he spoke on the importance of setting goals and making smart choices to more than three dozen teenagers March 26 at the Springwood Recreation Hall gym on Kent’s East Hill.
The teenagers focused their attention on Karney, a fullback with the New Orleans Saints and a 2000 graduate of Kentwood High School, who came home to share how he went from just another kid in Kent to a professional in the NFL.
“I was never the biggest, the strongest or the fastest,” Karney said. “And I’m still not, but I’m in the NFL. It takes hard work and drive. I’m still trying to be the best I can be.”
Karney, 26, spoke to teenagers at the Lighthouse program at Springwood, a public-housing development, in an effort to give youths a positive outlook in what they can accomplish in their lives. The Lighthouse program is managed by Kent Youth and Family Services.
“I want to give back to the city because this is my home,” the 5-foot-11, 258-pound Karney told the teenagers. “You deserve great things. If somebody tells you that you can’t do something, don’t listen to them. Find your passion and believe you can do it.”
Ibrahim Abdirizak, 15, a Kentlake High School student, liked what he heard from Karney, who is now in his fifth season with the Saints after being drafted out of Arizona State University.
“I thought it was awesome,” said Abdirizak, who also received an autographed football from Karney. “Everything was real with what he said about how to follow your dreams.”
Karney always had a dream to play in the NFL. But he told his audience the dream can be a veterinarian, a doctor, an NBA player or whatever else you want to be. He emphasized the importance of setting short-term goals to help reach the long-term goal.
Allen Shour, 16, a Kentlake student, also liked Karney’s message.
“He was good,” said Shour, who hopes to become a firefighter. “You need to find new ways of surviving and just be yourself.”
Karney recalled how he tired of people telling him he was too slow or too small in his school days. He used that as motivation to become faster and stronger through personal weightlifting workouts after school and on weekends. He would even push a car to build strength.
“People would see me and thought my car had broke down,” Karney said. “But I was pushing it to build leg strength. I’m not asking you guys to go push a car, but that’s what I did.”
One teenager asked Karney if he smoked or drank.
“I do not smoke,” Karney said. “I have a drink as an adult, but I did not drink in junior high or high school. People wanted to party or drink, I went to the gym. If they wanted to party after the game, I went home to rest.”
Sara Wood, a public education specialist with the Kent Police who works with the Springwood youth, had heard Karney spoke last year to students at Covington Elementary School and figured he would be a good speaker to talk about setting goals for the Lighthouse program.
“He’s from Kent and it’s great to have someone come back to town,” Wood said of the football player, who now lives in Arizona in the offseason.
Karney, who plans to offer his first youth football camp June 28 at Kentwood High, didn’t just show up, talk, sign autographs and leave. When a boy asked him after his talk if he wanted to play some basketball, Karney said, “Sure,” and joined the teenagers for several pickup games.