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Joe Kennedy returns to the 50-yard line

Once fired for praying on the field, the football coach returned to his job for the season opener

Bremerton High School assistant football coach Joe Kennedy prays after a game in Bremerton, Wash., on Friday. Meegan M. Reid/Kitsap Sun via AP

Joe Kennedy returns to the 50-yard line
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Inspired by the faith-based football film Facing the Giants, high school assistant football coach Joe Kennedy for seven seasons knelt in prayer on the 50-yard line after his team’s games.

Little did he know that for his God-honoring act, he’d end up slaying some giants of his own.

“I feel like I’ve been fighting and battling the giant for years and years and years,” he told me. “And it’s one giant after another.”

Kennedy returned to his high school alma mater’s sideline in Bremerton, Wash., on Friday when Bremerton High hosted Mount Douglas Secondary School of Victoria, British Columbia, in its season opener. Essentially fired in 2015 for refusing to comply with the Bremerton School District’s order to stop praying publicly on the field after games, Kennedy spent the next seven years fighting court battles to win his job back and ensure that Americans would not have to hide their faith as a condition of remaining employed.

At a postgame press conference, Kennedy stood before a throng of local and national media wearing a blue T-shirt featuring a silhouette of himself kneeling between the yellow printed words “Take a knee” and “Take a stand.” Holding his wife Denise’s hand in a show of gratitude for her love and support, Kennedy nodded in her direction and said, “We have fought the good fight, and we have finished this race, and we kept the faith the whole entire time. And it was absolutely, 100 percent worth it.”

(Update: On Wednesday, Sept. 6, Kennedy announced he was resigning from his assistant coaching position at Bremerton in order to focus on caring for an ailing family member and to advocate for religious liberty from outside the school system.)

Kennedy had repeatedly lost in the court system before ultimately winning his case before the U.S. Supreme Court last year.

“We were 0-5 going into the Super Bowl,” said Kennedy’s lawyer, Hiram Sasser of First Liberty Institute, a nonprofit law firm devoted to defending religious freedom.

After Bremerton defeated Mount Douglas 27-12 and the players and coaches from both teams had headed back to their respective locker rooms following the teams’ postgame handshake, Kennedy walked out to Bremerton’s yellow-and-blue “B” logo at midfield. Just as he had done habitually so many years ago, Kennedy faced the scoreboard behind the field’s north end zone and dropped to one knee, bowing his head as he prayed.

Media members looked on from the stands near the south end of the stadium, filming or clicking cameras as Kennedy’s once-controversial act inspired cheers from a packed covered grandstand. Though the Bremerton School District had beefed up security in anticipation of a possible disturbance from anyone unhappy with Kennedy’s prayer or the Supreme Court’s decision, the game and postgame prayer went by without incident.

“What you saw at the end, him praying by himself, was what we fought for,” Sasser said. “You’ve just gotta ask yourself, ‘Why in the world did we have to fight for seven years to get to that?’

“But for whatever reason, we had to, and it’s great to be able to come full circle and have that Supreme Court win under the belt and now, him being able to exercise his rights the way the Constitution was written.”

Asked what he’d prayed after the game, Kennedy told reporters, “I said ‘Thank you’ probably 30 times. I had no other words. What do you say to the One who got me here to begin with?”

He added: “I’ve never been great at prayers. I was just so thankful for being part of this. It was awesome.”

Though the Supreme Court handed Kennedy his landmark First Amendment victory in 2022, he did not rejoin Bremerton’s coaching staff last fall: The coach needed to iron out the terms of his reinstatement and felt it would be too disruptive to the team for him to join at that point.

As the Knights secured a victory for Bremerton during Kennedy’s first game back, senior running back Oliver Christian scored three touchdowns for the Knights—one on a 60-yard punt return in the third quarter, another on a 70-yard carry in the fourth.

“On that third touchdown, No. 15—Ollie—came up to me and said, ‘Coach, that last one was for you. Welcome back,’” Kennedy said. “And it kind of melted my heart a little bit.”

Kennedy and his wife now live in Florida. He has written a book about his trials, Average Joe, that is due for release in October. A film adaptation of the book is slated to hit theaters next year.

During a one-on-one postgame interview, Kennedy described the long legal battle that brought him back to the field. “I never felt like the school district was my enemy,” he said. He noted that his wife was a vital encouragement to his faith as they waited on court rulings.

“She was constantly a reminder of equipping ourselves with the whole armor of God,” he said. “When she was down, I’d pick her up. And when I was down, she would pick me up.”

Kennedy noted that staying rooted in God helped carry him through: “Each time we went to court, it felt like a new giant was forming. There was always this battle going on. This was hopefully the final one, and hopefully, his head won’t pop up anymore.”

—This story has been updated to reflect Kennedy’s Sept. 6 announcement that he is resigning from his coaching position at Bremerton High School.

Ray Hacke

Ray is a sports correspondent for WORLD who has covered sports professionally for three decades. He is also a licensed attorney who lives in Keizer, Ore., with his wife Pauline and daughter Ava.



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