Each fall, young boys all over the country take to the gridiron to make their flag football debuts, hoping and dreaming of becoming the next NFL star. For one 7-year old in Dallas, Texas, however, the dream is simply to play like his dad.
For the past several years, Kai Wheaton, son of legendary former Duck, Kenny Wheaton, has spent hours watching his dad’s football highlights. It’s one highlight though, “The Pick”, that he plays over and over several times a week. Like many die-hard Duck fans, Little Kai has even memorized those now infamous words called out by Oregon Play-by-Play Announcer, Jerry Allen.
“Huard gonna go back to throw the ball, sets up, looks, throws toward the corner of the end zone and it’s…intercepted! It’s intercepted! Kenny Wheaton has the ball! Down to the 35, the 40…Kenny Wheaton’s gonna score! Kenny Wheaton’s gonna score! Touchdown! Touchdown! Kenny Wheaton, On the interception…The Most Improbable finish to the football game!!!”
So when Kai began playing flag football last fall, it was only fitting he’d play the very same position his dad played at Oregon. It was about midway through the season when Kai’s first big play moment happened. As the teams lined up around the 10 yard line, Kai intercepted a pass thrown by the opposing team’s quarterback, running it back 90-yards for a touchdown. Being the involved dad he is, Kenny was right there watching from that 10 yard line, proudly cheering Kai on as he found his way to the end zone. “I was a proud Pop!” Kenny recalls.“He was so excited, he ran all the way back to me, while the game was still going.” This year, Kai has returned to the football field and often likes to remind Kenny that his “Pick 6” was better than the one being celebrated this weekend at Autzen. Of course, Kenny agrees.
Life After “The Pick”
These days, Kenny’s life is focused on his family and trying to give back any way he can to his family and to others. As a dad, Kenny makes sure to support his kids’ sporting activities whether it be his daughter Kyndall’s cheerleading competitions or Kai’s football games- though he admits Kai’s desire to play football makes him nervous. Despite all that football has provided in his life, Kenny is a living example of the toll the sport of football can take on a player’s body and mind. That being said, he would never stifle Kai’s dream to be a football star and he chooses to focus on teaching him proper technique and safety.
When Kenny isn’t with his family, he can be found training kids of all ages on local football fields. For some, he is the only solid, male role model in their lives, prompting regular calls by single mothers hoping Kenny can get through to their struggling sons. His hope is that he can somehow influence these young boys in a positive way by not only teaching them the X’s and O’s but by teaching them to be a good person on and off the field.
“I tell them you have to be a good person and not be envious. You have to work hard. Someone is always going to be taller or stronger or whatever, but they cannot outwork you,” he says.
The Wheaton Family Legacy
Kenny credits his parents for instilling such positive values and a solid work ethic in him. Growing up, the Wheaton family didn’t have a lot but Kenny noticed at a young age that his parents would always be sharing what they did have. His mother would often remind him and his brothers there were always going to be people less fortunate and it was important to help them in any way they could. That loving and giving attitude quickly made the Wheaton home, one of the only two-parent households located in a rough Phoenix neighborhood, the rock of the neighborhood. Kenny recalls his mother sending neighborhood kids home to retrieve school books so they could sit at the Wheaton dinner table and finish their homework. It was through those small but very important gestures, that Kenny learned just how important it was to stand up for others and give what he could.
Continuing that Wheaton legacy, Kenny founded The Kenny Wheaton Foundation to give back to the Oregon community that has supported him so much. Kenny simply wanted to provide opportunities for youth who might otherwise not have the means. Through fundraising and generous donations, Kenny and his foundation are able to provide school supplies, clothing, and scholarships to play organized sports to underprivileged youth. For many each December, the foundation also provides a Christmas party complete with presents, treats, and of course Santa Claus.
It was through the Kenny Wheaton Foundation that I personally met Kenny as we teamed up to put on a female-oriented football 101 clinics to support the foundation’s cause. I’m fortunate to now call Kenny my friend and to be the recipient of his uplifting character. There have been times when I have become discouraged professionally and Kenny has often been there to provide encouragement saying,“ Cole, there’s always going to be someone better, stronger, or whatever. But do they have the passion?” Just like his parents, Kenny offers simple gestures but makes a tremendous impact on the lives he comes into contact with, mine included.
Celebrating “The Pick” 20 Years Later
Tomorrow, that 20 year-old improbable play that changed the face of Oregon Football, will be honored at Autzen Stadium as the Ducks take on the Washington Huskies. As he looks back, Kenny remembers “The Pick” moment vividly, along with many other big plays made during his tenure at Oregon. He does admit that for a while it was a struggle to feel he was only recognized for that one play. As a young competitive athlete, Kenny wanted to be seen as a complete player who had many accomplishments.
“It took me a while to come to grips with it and I have come to realize that it’s just good to be remembered and the true Duck fans, they knew it wasn’t the only play.”
Now, Wheaton says he is really thankful to be celebrated so many years later, especially considering all the great players that came before and after him.
“It’s a great feeling, I can’t put it into words and I don’t take it for granted. Even now, in Texas, I wake up everyday wanting to first represent my family well and then the University of Oregon.”
When asked what he’d like people to know about him, Wheaton says he simply wants people to know he “Went on the field and gave it his all.” Even more so however, he wants to be remembered as someone who is humble and who strives to always give back to others, continuing that Wheaton family legacy.
Tomorrow, the next generation of the Wheaton family football players, Kai Wheaton, will get to watch his daddy make “The Pick” on that big Jumbo Tron, just as he has a few times before. As always, Autzen will erupt in excitement but this time, those cheers will be even louder. There’s no doubt Duck fans love Kenny Wheaton and that beloved “Pick”, but something tells me little Kai Wheaton who is already following in his daddy’s footsteps, loves it even more.
If you’d like to honor Kenny Wheaton and “The Pick” on this 20th anniversary, Please visit www.kennywheatonfoundation.org to support the cause. Every donation makes a big difference in the life of underprivileged youth.