Judge Dennis Murphy keeps an autographed photo of Kenbrell Thompkins on his desk. The football glamour shot shows Thompkins in his El Camino College uniform. He appears a proud team captain for the Torrance, Calif., school, a confident JUCO All-American who finished his sophomore season with 1,020 receiving yards.
Thompkins looks nothing like the troubled teenager who appeared before the Florida Circuit Court judge on drug charges three years earlier.
On Feb. 28, 2007, Miami police pulled over the 18-year-old Thompkins for reckless driving. As the arrest report details, he “removed from his right rear pocket a clear ziplock bag and dropped it on the ground.” Inside the bag, officers found 18 multicolored packets containing “suspected powder cocaine” and “suspected rock cocaine.” In a separate knotted bag, there were “forty-four pieces of suspected rock cocaine.” Thompkins faced jail time for cocaine possession with intent to sell.
Back then, long before he joined the Patriots as an undrafted free agent, trouble with the law was the biggest constant in Thompkins’s life. Between the ages of 15 and 18, he was arrested seven times.
Thompkins received two years probation for the cocaine-related charges. As part of his probation terms, he spent time in a military-style boot-camp program that involved a brief jail stay. Not long after sentencing, Murphy approved special probation conditions that allowed Thompkins to travel outside Florida and play for El Camino.
Thompkins gave Murphy the autographed photo as a thank-you gift.
“The coke sale case could have been the nail in the coffin, but it turned out to be the kick in the pants that he needed,” said Murphy. “I’m a firm believer in giving youth a chance to try and turn it around.”
When the 6-foot-1-inch, 193-pound Thompkins dropped off the autographed photo more than three years ago, he told Murphy about his triumphs at El Camino and his hopes for the future at the University of Cincinnati. He confessed to the judge, “I’d like to make a go at football.” By the time Thompkins started Patriots training camp this year, he had plenty of practice making the most of unexpected opportunities.
Now, he is starting at wide receiver, catching passes from Tom Brady, and continuing an improbable turnaround.
“It’s humbling,” said Thompkins. “It’s my dream and I’m living in the moment. I’m trying not to look in my rearview mirror. I never doubted myself and the whole sport of football. I don’t only love football, but I feel like I need football in my life. That’s how I approach it.”
So far, Thompkins, 25, is a success story, proving that second — and third and fourth — chances work. Since leaving Miami in pursuit of a football career, he has stayed out of trouble and kept his record clean. But there are no guarantees; plenty of professional athletes who appear to have turned their lives around fall back into bad habits when big contracts come.
“I can only hope that it won’t go to his head,” said Murphy, “that he won’t do something stupid. I don’t know what, if any, contact he kept with the homeboys. Hopefully, he kept it to a minimum or, at least, in proper perspective.
“I can’t say, ‘Watch out, Kenbrell.’ Kids either grow up and get it or they don’t. I think he gets it.”
Tough place to grow up
Weighing whether Thompkins deserved another chance in 2007, Murphy reviewed his prior offenses. Murphy saw a kid who lived with his mother and younger brother Kendal in Liberty City, 5½ square miles in northwest Miami that make up one of the most crime-ridden neighborhoods in the country. He saw a rap sheet that ranged from misdemeanors like trespassing to felonies like armed robbery. And he saw a golden opportunity waiting in California.
“For kids like him who come from the inner city, quite often the best thing for them is to get out of Dodge,” said Murphy.
Thompkins grew up in Liberty City when the John Doe Gang ruled the area and built a powder and crack cocaine empire through murderous means. Drugs, violent crime, and poverty surrounded Thompkins throughout his childhood and teenage years.
“Liberty City is an area where anything can happen,” said Thompkins. “It’s all in the way that you embrace it. It’s great in a way and it’s brutal in a way. It’s great because my family is there. It’s brutal because you can be in the wrong part of Miami in Liberty City.”
Thompkins embraced its proud football tradition and its dangerous streets.
In high school, he played for Florida powerhouse Miami Northwestern. He was a natural leader on a team loaded with future big-time college players and NFL prospects. He made an impact with his speed, toughness, and ultra-competitive play, calling out teammates for poor practice habits.
“He could have been a top-flight defensive back as well as a top-flight receiver,” said his high school coach, Roland Smith.
His former high school English teacher and defensive coach Luther Dollar added, “As far as football is concerned, Kenbrell could arguably be one of the most talented kids to ever come out of Miami Northwestern.”
But Thompkins struggled to stay in school, out of trouble, and eligible for football. His coaches worried that Thompkins would squander his athletic talent and remain trapped in Liberty City, hustling for reasons that had nothing to do with football.
“There was a point when Kenbrell was out of reach because the other side was calling him a whole lot more,” said Dollar. “If No. 5 wasn’t on the field for the game, people would know that Kenbrell did something.”
The wide receiver’s lengthy arrest record represented a familiar story in Liberty City. He was a teenage boy who hung with a rough crowd, who found himself shouldering adult responsibilities in a single-parent home.
“He had to be the man of the house at an early age,” said high school teammate and Patriots practice squad player Marcus Forston.
By Thompkins’s senior year, multiple arrests and expulsions from Miami Northwestern threatened more than a promising football career.
“When he was at school, at practice, he was fine,” said Smith. “I tried to tire him out at practice and tried to make sure he couldn’t hang out with his friends in the neighborhood that were up to no good.
“I told him he had to pick his friends wisely, but he knew these guys for so long that he thought he had some loyalty to them.”
Without the daily structure football provided, Thompkins fell into more serious trouble. During a two-month stretch in early 2007, he was arrested four times. The increasingly troubled teenager scared away most college recruiters. He eventually committed to Morgan State University, though he never enrolled in the Baltimore school because of academic eligibility issues.
With a college football future seemingly out of reach, his family proved more influential than his neighborhood friends.
“One day we talked about our futures,” said his cousin and Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown. “I’d gone to prep school and got my life together. His little brother Kendal had just got a scholarship to the University of Miami. It helped seeing others who he loved have success around him. He understood what he was capable of. All those things played a factor and motivated him.”
From there, Judge Murphy and El Camino College offered a fresh start. Thompkins’s success at El Camino earned interest from major football programs across the country. Florida, LSU, Alabama, Arizona, Kansas State, and Tennessee all reportedly made offers.
Thompkins signed with Tennessee, then reentered the recruiting process when coach Lane Kiffin departed for Southern Cal. Despite interest from UCLA, Cal, and Oklahoma, Thompkins again faced an uncertain college football future because of his Liberty City past.
Connecting on campus
Brown doesn’t remember how many times he phoned former University of Cincinnati coach Butch Jones. But the main message never changed.
“I’m willing to put my reputation on the line for my cousin Kenbrell,” Brown told Jones. “I need you to help him out. He just needs an opportunity. He won’t let you down.”
As far as Jones was concerned, Brown made an ideal character reference.
“Antonio is like a son to me,” said Jones, who coached Brown at Central Michigan. “Those words coming from Antonio were very, very loud and resonated with me. We brought Kenbrell in on a visit. I saw a young man who was very driven and very determined.
“I probably didn’t know 100 percent of his past, but growing up in a household of law enforcement my entire life, I take great pride in reading human behavior. Every question I asked, he was up-front. He didn’t hide his past.
“I think his past still drives him to this day. He’ll never forget where he came from and that will always be a source of motivation.”
When Thompkins arrived on campus in spring of 2010, Jones instituted a zero-tolerance policy for the JUCO star. Jones, whose father worked as a police chief and whose uncle was with the Michigan State Police, expected Thompkins to be on time, go to class, and generally “live the right way.”
Thompkins did all that and more, quickly impressing Jones with his explosiveness, intelligence, physical play, and toughness. The new wide receiver easily retained all the information the Cincinnati coaching staff threw his way, took great pride in his route running, and studied film of NFL wideouts.
“Butch Jones held me accountable,” said Thompkins. “He said that opportunities are short-lived, and that stuck with me. I made sure that I took advantage of every opportunity that I did have.”
When Tennessee refused to release Thompkins from his letter-of-intent, the wide receiver learned just how short-lived opportunities can be. Ruled ineligible for a year, he played on the scout team for Cincinnati. He focused on his studies and said he earned a 3.9 GPA his first semester. In December 2012, he graduated with a degree in criminal justice, overlooking the irony of his major.
“I didn’t know too much about criminal justice,” said Thompkins. “As I took the courses over the years, I found it very interesting.”
To fulfill his degree requirements, Thompkins found himself on the side of law enforcement, riding with campus police for a total of 112 hours and earning the respect of the officers he joined. It was a long way from the Liberty City days when police once charged him with resisting arrest.
“He was very likable,” said University of Cincinnati police officer Lance Long, who coordinates the student ride-along program. “He didn’t take any shortcuts.”
The same could be said about his time with the Bearcats.
Granted an extra year of NCAA eligibility, Thompkins played two years for Cincinnati, though injuries and inconsistent quarterbacking led to less-than-impressive numbers. In 2011, the junior caught 44 passes for 536 yards and two touchdowns. He had 34 receptions for 541 yards and another pair of touchdowns the next year.
With those stats, a mediocre NFL combine performance, and his troubled past, Thompkins went undrafted.
“I told Kenbrell, ‘All you want is an opportunity,’ ” said Jones. “It’s very fitting that he was an undrafted free agent because he’s had to work hard and earn everything he’s received in his life.”
And Jones made sure his close friend Nick Caserio, the Patriots director of player personnel, knew how hard Thompkins would work. In early May, Thompkins signed a three-year, nearly $1.5 million contract with the Patriots.
A son in the picture
To prepare for the 2013 NFL preseason, Thompkins spent nearly every summer morning on a track. He ran 200-meter repeats, covering 2 miles in full-out sprints. Afternoon sessions included cone and footwork drills, as well as strength and conditioning exercises. Brown joined Thompkins, pushing his rookie cousin and passing along advice.
“I told him to remember that feeling he has now, how hungry and passionate and willing to prove himself he is so he could build off that every year,” said Brown. “This league is not about just right now, but it’s about longevity.”
After a shaky start in the season opener against the Buffalo Bills, Thompkins caught two passes for 47 yards in sloppy conditions against the New York Jets. He remains focused on improving.
“I wake up and think about football,” said Thompkins. “I fall asleep and think about it.”
Away from his Patriots responsibilities, he plays football with his 2-year-old son, Kenbrell Thompkins II. It’s the rare kind of topic that lightens the wide receiver’s serious demeanor.
“You can’t get a football out of his hands right now,” said Thompkins. “He may be a quarterback. He’s got a great arm.”
Thompkins purposely did not make his son a “junior.”
“There are a lot of juniors, and I wanted him to be special,” said Thompkins. “I wanted something different for him.”
Considering his past, it’s clear Thompkins is talking about much more than a name.