Back when football was a hard-hitting, rough, physical, my-job-is-to-kill-you sort of game, there was a country boy named Kinnon Tatum. He was a rough and tumble, I’m-coming-to-get-you, head-banging kind of player and he loved it. He turned down offers from UNC and Georgia Tech and left the warm comfortable environment of Fayetteville, North Carolina to play football in the lake effect tormented town of South Bend, Indiana for the University of Notre Dame. Playing football at ND was no walk in the park for Tatum, but he learned a great deal from Coach Holtz and his on-the-field experiences, and eventually moved on to play football in the NFL for the Carolina Panthers and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Now enjoying a successful career with Allstate in Chicago, Kinnon has taken a path with several twists and turns since his NFL playing days. Come with me and walk the journey of Kinnon Tatum.
Q: Growing up in Fayetteville, NC, how did you end up playing football at Notre Dame?
A: “Like many other guys I didn’t know anything about Notre Dame. I had never watched an ND game on TV until I was being recruited by them. I didn’t even know where the school was. I thought Notre Dame was in England because it kind of had a ‘holier than thou’ look to it. During the recruiting process when I told people who I was being recruited by, every time I mentioned Notre Dame you could see people’s eyebrows raise. I was just a country boy, and I had no clue that ND was so highly regarded. All I knew was my attending Notre Dame seemed to really, really matter to my coach and my parents. At that point I did my research to see what Notre Dame was all about.”
“During the recruiting process I was being pursued by Georgia Tech, North Carolina, and Notre Dame.
I wanted to get away from home and out from under the grips of my parents. I was ready to get the heck out of dodge and so I ended up choosing Notre Dame.”
“Back when I was being recruited, you didn’t make your recruiting visits until the beginning of December. When I got to Notre Dame I fell in love with the school. It felt different to me than the other schools when I was talking to people on campus — what really captivated me about Notre Dame was the following. When the other schools were talking to me, they made it feel like I was going to come to their respective school and make THEM better, that it was all about me. But at Notre Dame it was different. Coach Holtz sat me down and told me, ‘Here is what we can offer you. If you can come here and fall in line, you might be able to fit in.’ They expected you to come, work hard, and make a commitment to give your all to Notre Dame. Sitting in Coach Holtz’s office, we sealed the deal right then and there. He told me that if I came to Notre Dame and did what he wanted me to do on the field, and got good grades off the field, that I may get the chance to play by my junior year. I thought to myself, ‘this little man is out of his mind. He must be smoking something else in that pipe.’ I loved the challenge though and I was headed to play football at Notre Dame.”
“My host during my visit to Notre Dame was Lee Becton, which was a great fit for me because he also was from North Carolina. Lee (Mr. Smooth Operator) played offense and I played defense but we really jelled together. We were like yin and yang. Everyone that I came in contact with that weekend was so very welcoming. Lee let me know what it was going to be like if I came to ND. He didn’t sugarcoat anything — he wanted me to know what South Bend was all about. South Bend is not a big city, there is no extravagant night life. It’s card games and playing pool but that fit me well — I’m a very low key guy.”
Q: What is your best Notre Dame football memory?
A: “Without a doubt my best Notre Dame football memory is the one that made me immortal — that game over USC (1995). That huge play that was violent, destructive, and absolutely game-changing. That was the moment. USC was coming in and talking up a big game. They were making all kinds of noise about how they were going to come into our house and beat us. Yada yada yada…bring it on. I have slingshots in reserve! (laughs). Yes, they were coming to town and it was a big matchup, but we were ready.”
“That play could not have been any bigger as far as turning points in games go. We were actually down 7-3 at the time, and after that play we went for 35 straight points. It was hands down the turning point in that game. I wish they would have shown me walking off of the field. You think Johnny Cash is cool? The way I walked off of the field, I just knew that play was going to be all over SportsCenter that night and that little red light was going to be blinking on my dorm phone when I got back home. That was my moment.”
“I’m so glad that I played football when I did. My job was to be a ‘trained assassin.’ I was trained to ‘kill’ people in games. Nobody was protected. Today I would probably be ejected from every game. (laughs)”
Q: So Kinnon, tell me about your ‘84 Fleetwood Cadillac? Talking with your fellow head-banger Kory Minor I heard it was the party mobile.
A: “I used to let him borrow it all of the time — I think he still owes me gas money! It was real LA-ish (just like Kory!), with the rims and the white interior. Street rider all the way.”
Q: Tell me about the group Top Authority. I heard from a fellow head-banger that they were the group of choice before taking the field to bring the pain?
A: “Top Authority was the most extreme music a person could listen to, back at the time, without actually doing bodily harm to someone. It really pumped you up. Whatever kind of levels you had, it brought you to your absolute top-level, to the top of your game. You were definitely all fired up and after you listen to them you needed 30 minutes to catch your breath. That was our pregame ritual.”
Q: What was it like playing for Lou Holtz?
A: “Up until and including playing under Coach Holtz at Notre Dame, all of my coaches were basically the same kind of guy. Fundamentals were key. They made you outwork your opponent. They instilled in you to never quit by the way they taught you at practice and when watching film. They always made you feel that you could not lose — I felt like a gladiator each and every week that I played. I never thought that I was going to lose. And I’m not just talking about winning as a team, I’m talking about one-on-one battles, too. A lot of the time you would find yourself going up against one certain player. Never did I think I’d lose the battle.”
Q: What is your favorite Lou Holtz Story?
A: “When we made the trip to Ireland, we were out on the field practicing one day. Coach Holtz always had this thing about demonstrating the correct way to do something when you weren’t doing it correctly. Here was all 125 pounds of him showing you how to be tough. So we’re in Ireland, we’re feeling pretty laid back because we’re playing Navy. We are enjoying our trip. We get to game day and you know Coach Holtz, he’s always on the edge when his teams are too loose. He’s down with the offense getting them ready for the game and Coach Davie is with us, the defense, and he’s feeling pretty relaxed, too. It’s Navy! All we have to do is not get into too much trouble and we’re all good. Meanwhile Coach Holtz is down there yelling at the offense like it’s training camp or something. We’re still warming up and trying not to watch what’s going on with the offense too close. We go back into the locker room for the pregame speech and guys are running around, laughing and snickering, ‘did you see that??’”
“Coach Holtz walks into the training room with a big bandage on his nose. Apparently he was demonstrating to the offense how to put your face into a guy’s chest when you’re making a tackle and when he did it he cut his face from the top of his nose to the bottom. I guess he forgot that he didn’t have a helmet on. (laughing)”
“He was the king of breaking you down and building you back up again.”
“He tried to break me one day but I’m unbreakable. Heading into my sophomore year I was feeling pretty good about myself. I had played a handful of games as a freshman and I was competing with an unproven senior for my position so I figured I was in pretty good shape. That summer Anthony Sweeny, Lyron Cobbins, and I all stayed home to work summer jobs so that we could buy a car and did not go to summer school on campus. We were only three out of 80 people who weren’t on campus for the summer, so you can imagine the crooked looks that we got from that little man (coach Holtz) when we came back to school in the fall.”
“We were at practice one day during fall camp doing a kickoff return and I’m blocking on special teams. During the first kickoff the guy runs right by me and I don’t block him. So we do it again, and I miss him again. I really could not block this guy. So we line it up and run it again and I don’t block him yet again and I’m thinking,‘holy crap what’s going on with me?’ Holtz says to me, ‘I give you a job to do and you’ve got to do it. Well, everyone, go have a good practice. Tatum come see me after practice.’ So I go back to practice completely pissed off and am knocking people out to make up for it.”
“I go to coach Holtz’s office after practice and his secretary Jan asks me, ‘Tatum, what are you doing here?’ and I reply, ‘I dunno, I can’t block.’ I go in to Coach’s office and he’s sitting there smoking his pipe. He says to me,‘I know you were recruited by Georgia Tech, Tennessee, and UNC. I’ve got transfer papers to these schools right here.’ I push the papers right back at him and tell him that I am willing to do whatever he wants me to do. If he wants me to work on my blocking, I’ll work on my blocking. And coach Holtz agreed. He put me on probation and I was under his surveillance. He made a point to make sure that I did not play defense in any games that season. I only got to play on special teams all year. Man did I want to transfer. I played less my sophomore year than I did my freshman year and he did it deliberately. I spoke with coach Davie about it and he wanted to put me in but told me if he did he’d get fired.”
“So what did I do? For the rest of the year I terrorized my own team in practice. I’m sure they were thinking, ‘What is wrong with this angry guy right here?’ I went through that year and then my Mom came up to South Bend for the Stanford game. She only came up for one game a year and he didn’t even play me once that entire game. I went into Coach Davie’s office at 6:00 AM Sunday morning and I was at my wit’s end. ‘Let me tell you, things are going to change or I’m outta here.’He told me to keep doing what I’m doing. My Mom came all of the way here and I didn’t even play once. That really hurt my feelings right there. And I took it out on my teammates in practice.”
“Heading into spring practice it was me and Bert Berry and that upcoming year (my Junior year) was supposed to be my year. It was a nasty spring…you want to talk about head-banging. We were the most head-banging players on the team. We were trying to outdo each other. No one even knew what was going on but they saw the product we were putting out there and our junior and senior years were just awesome.”
Q: What was it like being a student-athlete at Notre Dame? How did being a student-athlete at Notre Dame prepare you for life after college? (Kinnon was a Sociology major.)
A: “It was tough trying to balance everything. The toughest part about it was getting into a routine that worked. Getting into what worked for me. Time management. Instead of waiting until the evening, I needed to go ahead and knock out homework earlier in the day instead of watching the Young and The Restless. It was all about time management for me. I went to college not liking to write and then I got to college and realized that writing was one of my best skills. I had a lot to say, but I didn’t know that I was a talented writer until Dr. Holly Martin saved me. She was an academic advisor for the freshman class back then. Now she’s the Assistant Dean of Freshman Studies. She was all sweet with these glasses — Mary Poppins-like — but she was tough once she got you into that office. She was the female Hulk. She got so upset with you when she thought you were under achieving. She knew how to reach the students and get them to perform at the best. She got you to perform in the classroom like you did on the field.”
Q: How do you remember your NFL draft?
A: “I was drafted in the third round of the NFL draft, the 87th pick. Bertrand Berry was drafted 86th to the Colts. I stayed in South Bend and watched the draft by myself. I kicked my roommate Nate out of the apartment because I didn’t want to be around anyone while I was watched the draft. (Nate was an Air Force ROTC nerd studying civil engineering. Talk about yin and yang.) Back then the draft was terrible and it took so long for each pick. I ordered Papa John’s pizza, took a nap, woke up, saw Renaldo get drafted, saw more guys get drafted in the second round including Marc Edwards. I really didn’t think I was going to get drafted until the second day. I tested really well at the combine. I tested at the safety level for a linebacker position.”
“I’m sitting there watching the draft when I get a call from a friend of mine. I immediately tell him, ‘I can’t talk right now! I’m waiting for my draft phone call!’ I got off the phone and shortly after that I got a call from Jimmy Johnson and the Dolphins saying that they were going to take me at the 89th pick at the end of the third round and I really believed him because I knew he liked small explosive linebackers. I was so excited about the opportunity to get to move to Florida after four years in South Bend, Indiana. I always wanted to live there because it has sunshine 12 months out of the year and I could cookout and go to the beach all year round. It was somewhere around pick 65 or 70 when he called.”
“The phone rang again and this time it was the Carolina Panthers asking me if I wanted to be a Panther. You betcha!! I want to come home. They told me that they were going to take me at the 87th pick and that’s exactly what they did. I’ve never been so overcome with emotion until that very moment. I didn’t expect to go on the first day. It was like all of the hard work, the tough classes, overcoming injuries, everything…it all finally paid off. Getting drafted into the NFL was icing on the cake. My whole plan for my life was that as long as my parents didn’t have to pay for my college education,things were going to be great. That was the best gift I could give back to them. All of that was going through my head as I was getting drafted to the Panthers and so it was completely overwhelming.”
Q: What was it like playing in the NFL?
A: “The highs? You’re going against the best of the best. You never have to second guess your competition because there are no mismatches. They are the top of their craft. All of them. When you’re going against players like Jerome Bettis, Troy Aikman, Barry Sanders…having to cover guys like that in practice you’re thinking to yourself, ‘are you kidding me?’ Talk about being a kid in a candy store.”
“The lows? The job aspect of playing in the NFL and being on a losing team. I lost more in the first two years in the NFL than I had lost in the previous six or seven years of playing football. I wore my emotions on my sleeve back then, and there was no sugar-coating things for me. But I’ve learned now that if I’m really upset, I shouldn’t say anything at all. But back then we’d lose games back-to-back and then we’d go kick it and drown our sorrows. It was not what I was used to at all. From my previous experiences, if things were not going right on the field, you’d be embarrassed to show your face off of the field, in public. But it wasn’t like that. There were a lot of veteran players who told us to not take your work home with you. There is enough stress in this business, and if you take it home with you, you will only make things worse.”
“My greatest highlight? This is a weird highlight, but it’s who I am. We played the Dallas Cowboys on a Sunday night. It was the primetime night game and my dad is from Texas. I have a lot of family in Texas and a big number of them came to the game. We were playing against the likes of Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, Daryl ‘Moose’ Johnston, Michael Irvin; we beat them in primetime on Sunday night. Even though our season was not going right, that was a huge win for us. I ended up tearing the ligament in my thumb that game and had to have my first surgery as a result of the injury. It was on a special teams play on a punt and I got tangled up with another guy. I got up and as I’m running back to the sideline I felt something flapping against my wrist.”
“When I got to the sideline and tried to rest my hand on my hips, my left hand kept sliding off and when I looked to see what was going on it was at that point I realized I had done something bad to my hand. I could take my thumb and push it all the way back to my wrist because the ligament was totally detached from the bone. They did X-rays during the game and told me that I’d have surgery the next day. In the meantime they put a cast on it and they put me back into the game. After we beat Dallas, I partied with my teammates. That whole experience of winning in primetime was awesome. The four days following surgery were not awesome though. I had never felt pain like that before. I felt every pulse in my body. I called my trainer at 4:00 AM and said, ‘there is no way I am waiting until 6:00 AM for pain medication. I’m coming to you right now.’”
“I played for four years in the NFL. Three seasons in Carolina. At the end of my second season with Carolina I had what would turn out to be a career ending injury to my shoulder. I rehabbed for seven months going into the offseason and in my first ‘practice” back during my third season I re-injured my shoulder and sat out the rest of the ’99 season. The next year, in 2000, I joined the Tampa Bay Bucs in March and was there until the last cuts in September. I stayed down there for a few extra months because I loved Florida so much, but it started to wear on me. I realized that my body just could not compete any longer; that my time in the NFL was over. At that point I hung up my cleats.”
Q: Where did life take you after football?
A: “Following the end of my NFL career I chilled out for a while, contemplating what to do next. I took a management trainee position with PN&B Marketing in North Carolina and then after that I opened up my own branch, JK3 Unlimited, in Fayetteville, North Carolina with a partner for a year. Then my partner decided one day to empty the accounts and up and move to Texas, leaving me with a bunch of angry employees. Then I decided to relocate to South Carolina to open up another branch.”
“In 2003, I went into sales with Lincoln-Mercury-Subaru and began selling cars in Fayetteville, North Carolina. I just seem to have a way of talking, and sales seemed like a natural fit for me. But that was a very up-and-down business because it was a commission-based position. Then I thought to myself:‘I have a degree. I’m supposed to have all ‘up’ months.’ I had just had a child in 2002 and needed a position that would support my family. So in 2004 I moved to New Orleans and start working for Allstate in Metairie, Louisiana. You talk about the hookup — that was a great job and a fantastic city. I lived and worked there for Allstate until Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. All I was able to salvage after the hurricane was two of my helmets. I lost all of my photos and jerseys – pretty much everything I had. That was a humbling experience for me.”
“Allstate relocated me to Charlotte, North Carolina post-Katrina, which was great for me because that was where my son was. I was hoping to be much more involved in his life, living in the same town and everything, but unfortunately due to unforeseen circumstances things did not work out that way. Then a friend of mine, Dante Jones, who played for the Steelers, was coaching high school football and asked me to be his linebackers coach in South Charlotte at Providence High School — I absolutely fell in love with the job. I rearranged my Allstate schedule so that I could make practices every day. I coached high school ball for a few years when I got an opportunity to join Charlie Weis’ coaching staff at Notre Dame. In 2008 I was an offensive quality control coach, in 2009 I was a defensive quality control coach, and then Bryant Young joined me. When Weis left Notre Dame, I got the opportunity to coach at Seton Hill and we had three pretty bad years so at the end of the third year it was time for me to move on.”
“At that point I decided it was time to head back into the business world. I had new personal goals and needed some stability in my life which coaching does not often bring. Now I’m in Chicago at Allstate’s main hub and I’m settling down. It’s time to hang up the whistle and the cleats and explore all of the opportunities in front of me in the business sector.”
Q: What advice would you give current student athletes?
A: “Focus on the bottom line and not on the in-between. Focus on the now, the today. The in-between is glorified, the scholarship is glorified; it’s the wow factor. The self-promotion for student-athletes starts so early these days with the internet and social media. Find out what really makes you happy, what really makes you a person, and concentrate on that. Don’t be the loudest person in the room but make people miss you when you are gone. Be as humble as you can. Life has too many twists and turns. Let your work speak for itself at the end of the day. You see people in the NFL play 8, 9, 10 years in the NFL who you never heard of when they were in college. If people focused more on improving their skills and letting their work speak for itself instead of tooting their own horn all the time they’d enjoy their career a whole lot more.”
Would you like to learn more about what Kinnon Tatum is currently doing with Allstate? Are you interested in become serious about your savings and retirement planning? Kinnon has some great information from you, coming from a person who was lost and has clarity and direction now … Not enough former professional athletes experience comfortable retirement and it’s primarily because of knowledge. I invite you to explore the most liquid, tax-free options available today.
I’d like to give a big thank you to Kinnon for stopping by the blog. It was an absolute pleasure to walk through his journey with him. Stay tuned for more great stories in the “Where are they now?” series! If you enjoy this series you can also read more stories in my book, “Echoes From the End Zone: The Men We Became” available at www.themenwebecame.com.
Cheers & Go Irish!