With 10:46 left in February seventh’s game against Western Michigan, fifth-year guard Mekhi Lairy crossed left and pulled up from 10 feet out. He missed the shot; however, senior forward Jackson Kenyon was there to clean it up to put the RedHawks ahead by double figures.
The whole bench went wild, feeding off the energy that Kenyon’s physicality brought. Unfortunately, his night did not last much longer because Head Coach Travis Steele subbed him out for the rest of the game.
After the game, the team presented Kenyon with the EGB chain in the locker room for his winning efforts. Despite only clocking four minutes on the court, the game felt his presence; he snagged four rebounds along with the basket.
Kenyon’s playtime is limited because he is a walk-on. A walk-on is someone on a collegiate team that does not receive an athletic scholarship.
Although Kenyon did not walk on until his junior year, his ties with the program go back to the beginning of his college life.
After finishing up a good playing career at Deerfield High School, where he was the squad’s third-leading scorer in his final two seasons, Kenyon felt that his playing days were not over. When he visited campus, he talked to the coaching staff about walk-on opportunities.
“I felt like I just finally kinda stopped growing around my freshman year,” Kenyon said. “I wanted to try to develop more.”
Keyon has been playing basketball since he was three years old. His family, including his grandfather, a former Boston Celtics draft pick, believed that he could also take his skillset to the next level.
Not wanting to let himself and his family down, Kenyon became the team’s manager during his first year. At the time, there were two junior walk-ons on the team. Therefore, he had to wait until they graduated for him to be in their place.
A two-year timetable before being allowed to be a walk-on asked Kenyon for a lot of dedication, but the wait did not bother him. When COVID-19 restrictions prevented him from being around the team much of his sophomore year, he spent much time practicing his game at the rec or lifting.
“I knew I couldn’t fall behind even though I wasn't going to be around those guys,” Kenyon said.
When Kenyon’s junior year finally rolled around, his coaches awarded him a walk-on position. Since being given the opportunity, he’s enjoyed every moment of it.
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“I love being on a team,” Kenyon said. “Even though knowing as a walk-on you don’t expect to get good minutes, just being on a team, being in practice, finding a way to contribute like through scout team and things of that nature definitely kept me going.”
One of the most significant roles of a walk-on is to be on the scout team during practice. The scout team is a group of players on a team that simulate the playstyle of future opponents to prepare the starting crew for the next match.
Kenyon has embraced the scout team responsibility because he aspires to be a teammate who pushes his peers to prepare for victory.
“Being a walk-on is being the best teammate you can be,” Kenyon said.
As a senior, Kenyon has taken on the additional job of mentoring the underclassmen.
“I got to make sure that guys are ready [and] act as a mentor for some of them,” Kenyon said. “And tell them what to expect about college basketball [and] help them develop their basketball IQ.”
Kenyon classifies his on-the-court role as someone who comes off the bench to bring energy through rebounds and physical play. He always sticks to his role instead of trying to be a superhero to win more playing time.
“If you are playing hard, playing smart, trying to do what the coaches asked of you to the best of your ability, then you can say you left it out on the line,” Kenyon said.
When Kenyon converted on his put-back attempt against Western Michigan, he never thought about what that moment could mean for him, even with the bench going crazy. Instead, he sprinted back to the other end to prevent the Broncos from scoring quickly.
“At the moment, I’m not really thinking about [the basket],” Kenyon said.
Kenyon is the definition of a selfless basketball player. Instead of thinking about his individual goals to end the season, all that is on his mind is his team winning out to give them the best shot at a MAC tournament bid.
“Focus on ourselves [and] go win these next two games because that’s all we can do,” Kenyon said.
When the RedHawks 2022-23 campaign is over, Kenyon’s attention will shift to his future employment. He will graduate as a supply chain and operations management major and wishes to work close to home in Chicago.
Even though graduation would conclude his basketball journey, Kenyon believes his experience as a walk-on working with a diverse team will benefit him in the workforce.
“Just being part of a team,” said Kenyon. “You learn so much about your teammates. There are guys from so many different backgrounds, whether they’re from a different country or different socioeconomic backgrounds.”
You can catch Kenyon bringing needed energy for the RedHawks this Friday, March 9, when the team travels to Buffalo for the final game of the regular season. Tip-off is at 7 p.m., streaming on ESPN+.