It is those moments like the one in Nashville, when his father was waiting afterward to congratulate him for his game-changing pick-six in the Vikings’ season-opening win over the Tennessee Titans, that the reality of their unlikely reunion hits Eric Kendricks like, well, a middle linebacker.
For much of his childhood, his father was out of his life, lost in the haze of drug addiction. Marvin Kendricks, having given in to his demons, had left Eric with few answers and a world of pain and Eric’s mother, Yvonne Thagon, with the burden of raising three children by herself.
“But through it all, me and my family, we stayed positive,” Eric said.
Now the young boy who was dragged along when his father went to get high is 24, a UCLA graduate and, as one of the most promising young linebackers in the NFL, a key cog in a third-ranked Vikings defense that must stand tall for a team that may need to win out to make the playoffs.
And with Marvin having found God and sobriety, and Eric having found the ability to forgive him for many mistakes, Marvin is along for the ride.
“That’s the beauty of my struggle,” Eric said. “Just seeing how far me and my family have come, the progress we’ve made, anything is possible.”
Marvin Kendricks needed a moment to regain his composure.
Despite, he says, being clean for 15 years now, the emotions remain raw and the shame still suffocating as he talks about what drove him to crack cocaine and the bout with addiction that cost him years with his kids. So the tears flowed throughout a 30-minute phone call with a stranger.
After they married, Marvin — a former UCLA running back who had stints in the Canadian Football and the World Football leagues but couldn’t break into the NFL — and Yvonne moved from her hometown of Portland, Ore., to Fresno, Calif., to raise a family.
Marvin struggled with the transition out of football and sought thrills similar to rushing into the end zone. But the death of the grandmother who raised him was what led him down the darkest part of his path.
“When I lost her, I lost my motivation, so to speak. I lost my mentor. It hurts to talk about it today. It was difficult,” Marvin said between sobs. “I looked for anything that would make me feel better than how I did.”
His drug of choice was crack cocaine. And his troubling addiction was one of the main reasons why Yvonne split with him when Eric was 3.
“I wasn’t good to their mom. I was a drug addict and she was trying to raise them,” he said. “They went through hell. It was not easy for them.”
That hell included Marvin taking his young boys with him when he went to get crack, something Eric understandably did not want to discuss.
“I have early memories of my father. I don’t want to say it’s positive,” Eric said, his voice trembling with emotion. “But it made me who I am.”
Searching for understanding of why his father chose drugs over his family, young Eric lashed out, getting into “a lot” of fights in elementary school. It wouldn’t be until he was in high school, after reconnecting with Marvin, that he would find answers — and eventually forgiveness.
Yvonne raised her three kids alone in a secluded neighborhood in central Fresno. The declining neighborhood wasn’t the best, Eric said. But it was safe enough for him to play at the park across the street almost every day, climbing trees, shooting hoops and honing skateboarding tricks.
Well, that is, when Eric and Mychal, who is a starting outside linebacker for the Philadelphia Eagles, weren’t pummeling each other.
“I feel like there was a point where we fought every day,” Eric said with a laugh. “It was always love. It was tough love. But it was always love.”
Yvonne was initially hesitant to let her rambunctious boys play organized tackle football, so their first foray into team sports was soccer. Later on, that helped Kendricks moonlight as a kicker and punter at Herbert Hoover High School, where he was a standout linebacker, quarterback and runner.
Eric was two years behind Mychal in school. And since Yvonne couldn’t be in two places at the same time, that meant Eric often played on Mychal’s teams. Eric feels that trying to keep up with his brother and other older kids helped sharpen the competitive edge that got him to the NFL.
Yvonne kept food on the table by working as a pharmacy technician in Fresno — she still does that today — and took on additional shifts to come up with the cash needed for the boys and their younger sister, Danielle, to play sports.
“I just did what I had to do to raise my three children without relying on him or trying to put him back in the picture,” Yvonne said. “I know what I had to do to take care of my kids, and I couldn’t rely on somebody else knowing they weren’t going to be there for me. So I just did it myself.”
This year, Eric and Mychal thanked her for her sacrifices by buying her a new house on the outskirts of Fresno. She moved in three months ago.
“She buckled down. She’s the hardest worker I know,” Eric said. “She stayed strong through it and always made sure we didn’t go without.”
Years later, Kendricks realizes that his childhood could have been much worse, which is why this year he decided to get involved with Sheridan Story, a local charity that strives to stomp out childhood hunger.
They teamed up for his “Sacks for Kids” campaign, asking fans to pledge a donation for every time the Vikings got a sack. In last Thursday’s loss to the Dallas Cowboys, Kendricks wore black cleats with a #Sacks4Kids social media hashtag in bold gold to raise more awareness for the cause.
“I struggled with things in life and received help from people in different ways,” he said. “But one thing I never struggled with was hunger.”
Kendricks, after totaling four sacks as a rookie, has yet to take down a quarterback this season. Thankfully, he picked a team-oriented target. So far, the Vikings have racked up 31 sacks, fourth in the NFL.
Kendricks, an every-down defender in Mike Zimmer’s aggressive scheme, has made an impact in other ways. He is second on the team in tackles, and his eight pass breakups, also second, have helped him become Pro Football Focus’ seventh-ranked NFL linebacker in pass coverage.
This was the kind of progress Zimmer had been hoping to see from Kendricks, a second-round draft pick in 2015, in his second season.
Back in training camp, the coach joked that as a rookie the hyperactive linebacker at times looked as though he had chugged a pot of coffee. Four months later, Zimmer senses that Kendricks is now comfortable.
“He’s played good,” he said. “When he’s in there he makes a lot of plays.”
Kendricks doesn’t actually drink coffee because “I would be crazy.” Even without it, he drives his mother nuts with his constant leg twitching. But a little undersized at 6 feet, he says he can’t calm down too much on the field, where his Polamalu-ean poof of hair is spotted on most plays.
“That’s what makes me who I am at the end of the day,” he said.
That Marvin was there in Tennessee to see Eric make one of the biggest plays of his young career, a second-half interception return for a score, would have seemed unfathomable when Eric entered high school.
It started when Marvin, with Yvonne’s blessing, began driving Eric and Danielle home from school. Eric was reluctant to let his father back in his life. But over time and over many dinners, Marvin regained his trust.
“The turning point was him finally admitting guilt and coming clean,” Eric said. “That was a big part of it. It was a big part of me growing up into a man. We’re very honest people, and that was the only way it was able to be successful. It was honesty. You know, people make mistakes.”
And learning more about his father’s rough childhood in the south side of Chicago was a turning point in their complicated relationship, giving Eric a greater understanding of the hardships that had shaped his father.
Marvin’s mother was 14 when he was born, he joined a street gang as a teenager and was lucky to survive a gruesome stabbing that left wounds where the blade entered in his back and sliced through the other side.
“[This experience] just showed me that you might not be able to forget, but you can always forgive,” Eric said. “And people can change.”
Marvin is retired now after working 25 years as a guidance counselor at Fresno City College and said several times that he is sober.
Marvin credits his pastor, Daniel Zabalza, who tragically died in a car accident last month, and his new wife, Joanne, for helping him turn his life around and stay clean — or, as he put it, for making him “see the light.”
“I’m just truly blessed that God got to me and I did the right thing with them,” said Marvin, who has four other kids from other relationships.
Eric is still close with them, saying, “They are my brothers and sisters.”
Marvin and Yvonne have a cordial relationship, and they sometimes dine together when the family gathers for special occasions.
Eric can chuckle now when trying to explain a current family dynamic that would make for a decent sitcom. After a painful, confusing childhood, the emerging linebacker said there “was nothing more positive in my life” than when Marvin beat his addiction and came back into the picture.
“Things were tough, but I wouldn’t take any of it back,” Kendricks said. “My family has stuck together through it all, and we came out on top.”