'This is home': Following rookie season with Pittsburgh Steelers, Kendrick Green returns to Peoria
Earlier this month Peoria native Kendrick Green wrapped up an impressive rookie season with the Pittsburgh Steelers, as he helped take the team to the NFL playoffs.
Now that the season’s over, Green is already back in his hometown.
In the last week he’s had dinner at Alexander’s Steakhouse. He got a tattoo touch-up from his longtime artist in East Peoria. And on Wednesday, he spoke with students at the Children's Home Association of Illinois’ Kiefer School about what it’s like playing in the NFL.
Green met with dozens of students ranging in ages from 6-21. Kiefer students hail from all over the Tri-County and receive specialized learning from the Children’s Home Association.
For a couple of hours Green answered questions like, “What do you miss most about Peoria?” and “Who’s your favorite football player?” (The answers are Rumberger’s Wings and Tom Brady, respectively.) Students were excited to learn Green, who is 6-foot-2-inches tall and roughly 310 pounds, can bench press 425 pounds.
Noticing Green’s light purple Balenciagas – a brand of designer sneakers that retail for $1,500 – a student excitedly asked, “How much … I mean – what’s your shoe size?”
Green laughed. He said he wasn’t sure – he didn’t pay for them, and wouldn't spend that kind of money on shoes.
“I got these for free,” he said.
Green grew up just a couple miles away from the Kiefer School in East Bluff – “right around the corner from Emo’s,” he said. He attended Hines Primary School, Von Steuben and Charles A. Lindberg middle schools and Peoria High School.
From the age of 7, Green said he dreamt of playing in the NFL.
“Every day,” he said. “I think that's why it's crazy … I'm kind of living out my dream. It’s a blessing.”
In middle school, Green and his best friend Devin Whitelow – who is now a fifth-year senior playing basketball at Winona State University – lifted weights together at Landmark off of University Street.
His “rigorous” athletic training began at Peoria High School.
“Leaps and bounds” bigger than his peers, Green joined Peoria High’s varsity team as a freshman, playing both offensive and defensive lineman.
“I used to wake up early in the morning, go workout, you know, and still be at class by 7:30 when that bell rings,” he said. “Then you’ll have practice. And then after practice, I’d go get another lift in. I used to do that repeatedly, every year.”
Green was Peoria High’s only Class of 2017 football player to sign a Division One scholarship. (Three students in the class below him signed scholarships the following year.)
“Everybody on the team wanted to do it … it’s just not in everybody’s cards, not what God has planned for everyone,” he said. “It’s definitely surreal. I think back then, I kind of took it for granted. But now I kind of realize like, dang, like, I was lucky.”
An Illinoisan fighting for change
At University of Illinois, Green played offensive lineman and studied sociology. His third and fourth seasons, however, unfolded during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Big Ten’s pandemic shutdown coincided with a nationwide wave of protests following the police murders of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Breonna Taylor in Louisville, and others.
At this time, Green organized a peace march on the University of Illinois campus.
Hundreds gathered for a 30-minute walking route, which ended outside the city’s police department headquarters. The march was covered by Sports Illustrated and filmed by the Illinois athletics department.
U Of I Athletes Lead Black Lives Matter March Through Champaign
Renewed calls for racial justice led NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to publicly state, “We were wrong,” in condemning players’ protests.
(The league’s statement made no reference to former San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick, whose career ended after he began kneeling during the national anthem before games in 2016.)
NFL On Kneeling Players' Protests: 'We Were Wrong,' Commissioner Says
Green said the Pittsburgh Steelers are currently the only team in the NFL with a Black head coach, Mike Tomlin.
“He’s obviously a Black man in America. He understands how guys feel. He’s been there,” Green said. “I’ve always been an advocate for racial justice. … The Steelers, they’re 100% there for their players. I love playing for such a great organization.”
Green also said he enjoys playing for the Steelers because of the team’s dedicated fan base. Everyone in Pittsburgh loves the team, but they’re not alone. He recalled playing a game in Los Angeles where the “entire stadium was black and gold.”
“It’s a beautiful city,” he said of his new home. “You know, I love Pittsburgh. It’s a great time and a bunch of support.”
‘This is home’
In his off-season, Green will be in Peoria visiting family and eating his favorite River City staples, including Rumberger’s, Avanti’s and La Gondola. He’s also spending a lot of time in Chicago, where his newborn daughter lives with her mother.
No matter how “famous” he gets, Green vows to continue coming back home to the 309.
“I appreciate all the love and support I get from Peoria,” he said. “This is home. I love it here.”
Green said he is planning to run youth football camps in Peoria this year, and will be announcing details soon. In the meantime, he encouraged Kiefer students to “work super hard” – no matter what their interests are.
“I’m glad I did it, because it got me to where I am today,” he said. “Whatever you do, work hard. … It could be art, it could be school, it could be anything you like doing.”
Matt George, CEO of the Children’s Home of Association of Illinois, told WCBU that Green texted him shortly after the playoffs ended, asking if he could speak to “as many students as possible.”
The two have a close connection; George’s wife was Green’s second grade teacher at Hines Primary School.
“When you see these kids in second grade, you don’t think, ‘That guy’s gonna play for the steelers someday,’ right?” George said. “As he was going through high school, and then went to U of I, you just knew he was on a different track than most people.”
It’s nice seeing a hometown celebrity give back in a meaningful way, George added.
“Today, he came to Children’s Home, and he was supposed to be here for 45 minutes. He gave us two hours,” he said. “And that is very, very nice of him.”
Green told students that on his toughest days, he thinks of his supporters in Peoria.
“I think of all the people who poured into me my whole life,” he said. “Y’all got teachers here who get up every day and come and work super hard for you guys, so you guys can learn and grow and develop. … I think of all those people. I can’t let them down. They didn’t quit on me. So I feel like me quitting now, that’d be like quitting on them.”