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© St. Petersburg Times, published August 30, 2001

TAMPA -- The trouble started after last season's first game, when Plant's Devin Kennedy rushed 23 times for 268 yards and three touchdowns.

TAMPA -- The trouble started after last season's first game, when Plant's Devin Kennedy rushed 23 times for 268 yards and three touchdowns.

Kennedy had what he called "a full-body ache."

"There was a lot of pain," he said. "But I really didn't think anything of it.

"I thought it was normal football bruises."

Then came the mother of all headaches.

For three days, he rested as pressure built in his skull. He couldn't move his neck.

"It will go away," he told himself. "Take some more Tylenol, and then I'll be able to go to practice. At some point, it has to go away."

It did not.

He fought through school and practice on Monday. But in the early morning hours on Tuesday, he awoke with a fever, his skull ready to burst. And then, after fumbling to turn on a light, he discovered he couldn't see. The inflammation of brain tissue was cutting off his sight.

"My eyes hurt so bad," he said, "I didn't even want to open them."

Off to the emergency room he went, where doctors believed a kick in the liver during the game might have caused the symptoms and sent him home with more Tylenol.

The fever rose. The headache persisted.

Kennedy's mother, Casandra Owens, called the family doctor, who after hearing Kennedy's symptoms, said, "Go straight to St. Joseph's emergency room."

The emergency room doctor conducted a quick exam and correctly diagnosed meningitis, which had killed people around that time in Florida.

"I remember looking at my mom, and I had all that pain. And they were talking about meningitis, and I knew how serious meningitis was," Kennedy said. "I remember saying, 'Mom, I'm going to die.'

"I meant it. For a while there, I really thought I might die. I just wanted to live."

To confirm the diagnosis, Kennedy underwent a spinal tap, where a thick needle was stuck in his spine and fluid was withdrawn.

A nurse -- "who looked like a bouncer," Kennedy said -- held him down for what he described "as pure agony."

"It felt like somebody stabbed a knife in my back and was moving the knife in and out real slow," he said.

"Man, it hurts to think

about it."

The next four days, he recovered in the hospital from what was later diagnosed as viral meningitis. He said his worst night, "the saddest and most frustrating night," was Friday, when he watched the news and learned Blake Plant 26-20.

Two weeks later, Plant coach Darlee Nelson played Kennedy against Jefferson but used him sparingly, hoping to give his star a chance to gain endurance.

"Right after he got out of the hospital, he wanted to get out on the football field," Nelson said. "He had no fear about anything.

"We had to hold him back. But it was hard. I mean he couldn't stand not playing."

But complain? Never.

Complaining is not in Kennedy.

When asked to work out for a few hours each morning in the summer before going to work at Brandon Square mall, that's what he did.

When he needs to study a little more to keep his grades up, he does it.

When he gets sick, he toughs it out.

Meningitis? That took a little longer to get through.

But less than a month after he had the spinal tap, Kennedy put on his gold-and-black jersey and rushed 17 times for 308 yards and five touchdowns in a 57-24 victory over Sickles.

It was a night a running back might have once in a career, where the holes seem bigger and the legs seem to move faster.

It was a night probably no running back has ever had just three weeks after thinking he might die in a hospital from meningitis.

"It showed me I was back," Kennedy said. "That was the best feeling in the world."

Kennedy finished the season fourth in the county with 1,109 rushing yards -- and he did it in less than eight full games.

He also was the only back to rush for more than 100 yards against Hillsborough. (Kennedy had 103.) Even Gaither's Lydell Ross, the county's single-season and all-time rushing leader didn't do that. (Ross had 91 against the Terriers.)

"What more can you say about Devin Kennedy?" Nelson said. "You just have to say he's a special young man.

"Very special in so many ways."

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