Moments after Cincinnati quarterback Deontey Kenner had led the unheralded Bearcats to a shocking 17-12 upset of then No. 9 Wisconsin on Sept. 18, he stood at midfield, euphoric, watching as Cincinnati fans tore down the goalposts. When he finally made his way to the locker room, offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher congratulated him before relaying some somber news: Kenner's maternal grandmother, Ruby, had suffered heart failure in Jacksonville and was scheduled to undergo emergency surgery. Kenner showered, spoke briefly to the press, hurried home to pack and was on a plane within two hours. "Football was the furthest thing from my mind," says Kenner, a 6'2", 204-pound junior who had 103 yards of total offense and one touchdown against Wisconsin. "My grandmother basically raised me and has always been my inspiration and my source of strength. There were so many things I wanted to say to her, and I prayed that I would be able to see her again."
Upon arriving in Jacksonville, Kenner learned that Ruby had survived surgery and that a pacemaker had been implanted. He wasn't allowed to see her that night, but he was at the hospital early the next day. "All she wanted to talk about was the Wisconsin game," says Kenner. "She said she had been upset with the people at the hospital because they couldn't get the game on television. That's when I knew she was O.K."
Kenner grew up in Hopkinsville, Ky., the son of Debra McNeill, a single parent who was 17 when she gave birth to her only child. Because Debra often worked two jobs, Deontey spent a lot of time with Ruby, who had raised 16 children of her own in a two-bedroom house. He was a four-year starter at Hopkinsville High, where he threw for 7,046 yards and 80 touchdowns, the third-highest touchdown total in Kentucky schoolboy history, behind only Browns rookie Tim Couch and Chris Redman, a senior at Louisville who's eighth in the nation in total offense this fall. Four years ago, in Kenner's junior season at Hopkinsville, he and the Tigers beat Couch's Leslie County High team 61-0.
Last season Kenner was one of the few bright spots for Cincinnati, which finished 2-9. Despite stalling just five games, he became the first Bearcats sophomore quarterback to throw for more than 2,000 yards in a season. That prompted coach Rick Minter to junk his run-oriented attack in favor of a spread offense this year. Kenner has flourished in the new scheme, throwing for 925 yards and six touchdowns as the Bearcats have split four games. The week after Cincinnati's win over Wisconsin, he passed for 343 yards against Ohio State, guiding the Bearcats to a 17-3 lead at the half of a 34-20 loss. "What you've seen so far is based on a lot of natural ability and instinct," says Minter. "He's just starting to learn the system, and he can be as good as he wants to be."
Kenner wants to play in the NFL one day, but he's just as focused on getting a degree in exercise physiology. "My dream is to be able to pay back my mother and grandmother for all the sacrifices they've made for me," he says. "If I can do that with the NFL, that's great, but if I can't, I want to make sure I can take care of them through my work. It might take me a little longer, but I'll do it."