Eric Kendricks remembers tearing through the wrapping paper a decade and a half ago and getting exactly what he wanted for Christmas that year.
“My first skateboard was a cheap, $25 skateboard. That was my Christmas gift,” he said. “Me and my brother [Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Mychal Kendricks] both got one. We started tearing it up. That was when Tony Hawk and all that skateboarding stuff was real big. And I wanted to be a skateboarder.”
Throughout grade school and into high school, Kendricks was just as likely to be playing the latest “Tony Hawk Pro Skater” video game as he was the annual addition of “Madden.” He wore D.C. or Vans skateboard shoes and dressed the part for a while. And, of course, he also always sported new scrapes, bumps and bruises.
Kendricks and his friends would wheel around his neighborhood in Fresno, Calif., and look for tall concrete staircases and other obstacles to shred on, performing kick-flips and other aerial tricks before hopefully nailing the landing.
“I think it definitely helped me with my balance,” Kendricks said earlier this week. “I know for a fact it did. There’s times when you land on a skateboard awkwardly and if you don’t have balance it’s going to slip out underneath you.”
He added: “There’s tons of positions in football when you’re in a compromised position and you don’t have balance. Sometimes you can get run over or you miss a tackle. Skateboarding has helped me get to that center [of gravity] faster.”
That rare balance has helped Kendricks, whom the Vikings drafted in the second round this past spring, play his frenetic style of football despite being undersized for an NFL middle linebacker at 6-0, 232 pounds. Bouncing off blockers and weaving his way through traffic with a Polamaluan poof of hair flowing from the back of his purple helmet, the rookie leads the Vikings with 76 tackles.
As expected, there have been some ups and downs with Kendricks taking on an every-down role after the October trade of linebacker Gerald Hodges. But with all those tackles and four sacks as a blitzer, he has shown a knack for making plays, something he did at UCLA when he twice led the Pac-12 in tackles.
“He’s a slippery guy,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “He’s got good vision and he sees things well, and that helps guys be quick. Unfortunately, sometimes … he sees things so fast that he wants to get there fast and then he will get out of [position]. Those things still all come with experience, and I have no doubt that in the future he will continue to get better with those things.”
Kendricks said it was always his dream to play professional football, but as an adolescent he also loved the thrills that came with being on the board.
“Skateboarding was a lot of fun for me,” said Kendricks, who will turn 24 in February. “I knew I wasn’t going to go pro, but I had a blast doing it.”
He couldn’t remember whether he received his first skateboard when he was in the first or second grade. Because there weren’t many skate parks in Fresno, he stuck with street skateboarding. He said that at his peak he had eight or nine tricks in his repertoire, including the kick-flip, the shove-it and something called a primo.
Kendricks continued to partake in the extreme sport in his downtime until his sophomore year in high school, when he took a particularly nasty spill.
“Injuries? That’s actually why I quit. My friend was filming me. I was trying to do tricks off these stairs and I rolled my ankle and snapped my skateboard at the same time,” he said. “So my skateboard was snapped and my ankle was swollen. I had football practice and I was like, ‘Something has to give.’ And I gave it up.”
Outside linebacker Anthony Barr, his former teammate and roommate at UCLA, remembers Kendricks skating around campus on a longboard, a bigger, safer skateboard mostly used as a method of transportation. He still can’t believe that Kendricks had the courage to attempt the aerial tricks he did as a kid.
“I remember I was 9 or 10 and my little friends had a party at a skate park,” said Barr, also a California native. “I was looking at the halfpipe and they were all dropping in and killing it. I stood there the whole day and I didn’t try once.”
But after being told that Kendricks credits skateboarding for helping him stay on his feet on the football field, Barr briefly reconsidered the extreme sport.
“He doesn’t fall. On plays where other players would probably fall, he stays on his feet. It’s pretty impressive,” Barr said. “Maybe it does play into him being able to stay on his feet. I don’t know. But if it works, maybe I should give it a try.”
Kendricks, who gave up snowboarding in college also to avoid an injury that could jeopardize his football career, chuckled as he said that the thought of “jumping off things and trying to do the things I used to do” terrifies him now.
And yet this guy makes his living taking on 220-pound running backs head-on.
While the former boarder has not been perfect, he has showed enough promise to give the Vikings confidence that he can be another building block on Zimmer’s defense.
“I feel like I’m definitely getting more comfortable, but I’m still a rookie. I’m still learning things every day,” Kendricks said. “It’s been a great experience so far.”