Built For Speed

Bayonne’s Kenny Britt set records catching footballs at Rutgers. Now he’ll test his talents (and smile) in the NFL.

The Bayonne apartment building where Britt grew up with his five siblings.
Photo by Colin Archer/Agency New Jersey.

A quiet afternoon at Bayonne High School suddenly is ruffled by the rumble of a bright-red sports car moving at parade speed, sun glinting off its chrome as it eases past a row of school buses. Kenny Britt is behind the wheel, and he is here for a visit. An old friend on the school staff greets him and lets him park next to a yellow curb. Fame has its perks.

A lot has happened to Britt, most of it good, in the three years since he graduated from Bayonne High. He became a record-setting wide receiver at Rutgers, and in April was selected by the Tennessee Titans in the first round of the National Football League draft. He is expected to sign a multiyear contract worth several million dollars.

As Britt strides into the school, his smile widens, and several teachers surround him to say hello. One female faculty member playfully asks Britt to lift his white T-shirt so she can see his chiseled abs, and he does, wowing her. Students heading to their next class pause to sneak a peek, whispering Britt’s name.

Britt is a celebrity, worthy of the wall of newspaper clippings in the office of Bayonne athletic director Michael Pierson. But Pierson—and others who know Britt well—says he still reflects the values of his unpretentious, blue-collar hometown. Britt has the car, a big silver wristwatch, and a ring from Rutgers’s last bowl game, but he is trying—trying—to remain modest.

To be sure, Britt will have money, and plenty of it. But, he says, “I’m not going out there and getting everything I can.”

One of six children, he grew up in a third-floor, three-bedroom apartment in a housing project on Lord Avenue at the southern tip of Bayonne, just across the windswept Kill Van Kull from Staten Island. He shared bunk beds with his older brother, Nicholas. Jack Britt, a teacher at Bayonne High, and Michelle Johnson, a homemaker, kept a close eye on their kids.

“He’d just get into silly trouble, but nothing serious,” Jack Britt says.

Kenny was 9 when he went out for Pop Warner football in Bayonne for the first time. He quit because he hated to practice. When he came back, he was put at fullback, an unglamorous position, where he was asked to block, not carry the ball.

Britt liked playing almost any sport, but he relished the intensity of football, and it soon became apparent that he was good at it. He was big, fast, and tough—a player who was not afraid to get hit in the open field. Despite his exceptional skills and extroverted nature, he was no showboat. He tried to blend in and make his teammates better.

“I’ve always been like this since I was a little kid—whatever I could do for the team,” he says. “I’m passionate about football like that.”

Bayonne High School, an enormous castle-like brick building, backs onto Newark Bay, across the choppy waters from the ports of Newark and Elizabeth. The Bayonne Bees played their home games on Friday nights at a stadium beside the windy bay, hardly conducive to the passing game.

As a result, Britt caught only 28 passes as a junior and 24 as a senior. (By comparison, he caught 87 in his final year at Rutgers.) But he became a better player overall, fearless and more physical. “He was a good kid, very likable, very involved,” Pierson says. “He always looked out for the younger kids, was always an upstanding member of the teams he was on.”

Britt joined the team in 2002 as a freshman; that year the squad won the only state football championship in Bayonne High history. Although the Bees did not win another title while he was there, he loved the camaraderie. He fondly remembers the click-clack of cleats as the Bees trod the asphalt path that led to the field. “We sounded like a little army,” he says.

Britt also ran indoor track at Bayonne High. By his senior year, he was 6 feet 3 inches tall. Unlike other lanky runners, he could handle the tight turns that typify indoor track and ran the 60 meters in 6.3 seconds. He also became a mentor to a freshman athlete named Jesse Williams, who developed into a star sprinter and running back.

“I literally had to throw them off the track,” says coach Richard Treonze. “Kenny’s such a good-hearted kid.”
As a senior, Britt received football-scholarship offers from 24 universities and seriously considered Illinois and Virginia. But he decided to go to Rutgers, in part because it was his dad’s alma mater. What’s more, Britt just liked the way the school felt.

“The people there were just something special,” says Britt, who became a criminal justice major. He sensed he would feel comfortable at Rutgers. “I’m a Jersey kid,” he says. “I wanted to stay close to home.”
Rather than a dormitory or an apartment, Britt spent his Rutgers years at the Somerset Township home of his uncle, the Reverend Alex Britt, minister of the Church of the Living Water in Newark. Alex Britt warned his nephew that he probably would not play right away, let alone start at Rutgers, a team loaded with talent, particularly at wide receiver. Indeed, Britt did not start until the seventh game of his freshman season (2006), and he did not catch a pass until late October, when Rutgers beat Connecticut to push its record to 8-0.

“You knew, just by looking at him, that he was a tremendous athlete,” says Rutgers coach Greg Schiano. “But what I liked was that Kenny would play football, stickball, basketball at the drop of a hat. He would play ball all day if he was allowed.”

After appearing in only one bowl game between 1869 and 2005, Rutgers would play in three during Britt’s three years as a Scarlet Knight. Britt’s performance as a pass receiver attracted the attention of professional scouts—but there was a problem. His lighthearted attitude often was misinterpreted as indifference, even arrogance.

“It got legs that he was temperamental, a diva,” Schiano says. “I tried to make it very clear to people that there’s nothing to it. There was no one who practiced harder. He was the hardest working guy on the football team.”

Of his reputation, Britt says, “When you get to know me, you wouldn’t say anything like that about me. I’m a guy who’s always friendly. I can adapt to people just like that. Somebody’s always got to find a negative about someone—and if they don’t, they’ll put one out there. It was like in high school; I was always not fast enough. …That’s one thing that motivates me—when people say I can’t do it.”

After his third year at Rutgers, Britt met with his family and Schiano and decided to skip his senior year to play professionally. It was clear the pros wanted him. He was rumored as a possible draft choice for the Jets and Giants but in the end was taken by the Titans with the 30th pick. (At deadline, Britt was nursing a hamstring injury as he prepared to report to the Titans’ training camp on July 31.)

“My concern is not so much Kenny changing, it’s the people around him changing,” says Jack Britt. “He’s a generous soul. He doesn’t like turning people down. But right now, I’m very conservative, and I want Kenny to be conservative with his money.”

His parents began looking for a house in the late spring, but they want to stay in Bayonne. “We’re not looking to buy no mansion,” says Jack Britt. Kenny’s 8-year-old brother, Michael, will soon go out for Pop Warner, and his 12-year-old brother, Jack III, has started playing flag football—and, to hear Kenny, he could be another prospect.

“He’s the new and upcoming star,” Britt says, flashing a smile again. “People will forget all about me and concentrate on him.”

Britt opens the car door and sinks into the driver’s seat. It is time to drop by the barbershop and see if any old friends are hanging out. He knows he has a lot to prove to a new audience of football fans, but he thinks that Bayonne has given him the love he needs to conquer his next challenge.
     
David Caldwell is a freelance writer who covered Britt’s college career for the New York Times. He lives in Maplewood.

Click here to leave a comment
Click to enlarge images
Read more Jersey Celebrities, Jersey Living articles.

By submitting comments you grant permission for all or part of those comments to appear in the print edition of New Jersey Monthly.

Required
Required not shown
Required not shown