What Do We Teach Our Sons: Step In, Walk Away, Die?

Michele Weldon | July 13, 2011


The question is not why does this happen but how can we make it not happen again?

The heart-wrenching photos of the parents surrounded by hundreds of relatives, friends, teachers and coaches from the Saturday funeral of a 17-year-old Chicago high school senior make me weep. Though I did not know Kevin Kennelley, Jr., the Mount Carmel High School athlete from the Beverly neighborhood who died following his intervention in a fight in Long Beach, Indiana, I believe I know the kind of young man he was.

Because I have raised three of them.

Over the July 4th weekend Kennelley died from injuries caused by blunt force trauma to his head, as he was trying to break up a scuffle at a summer getaway popular with Chicagoans for generations. The boys and I were just a few miles away that weekend.

Kennelley was a young man just trying to do the right thing. And his parents, like many of us, have spent our lives trying to teach our sons to do just that.

Reports say Chicagoan James Malecek, 19, a Loyola Academy graduate and athlete, has not been in trouble before and was trying to defend his sister, not from Kennelley, but from others throwing taunts. Malecek, a former high school football player, faces charges of involuntary manslaughter and aggravated battery because of his punch to Kennelly that caused his death.

The ABC-TV show, “What Would You Do?” highlights just such scenes of emotional altercations and records the reactions and interventions of passers by. Those who step in are applauded.

As an empathetic parent, the question is not how did this happen, but is there anything we can do to guarantee it doesn’t recur?

The fact that both young men were athletes may have contributed to their behavior, according to a 2009 study of more than 13,000 male and female high school students. The study from the Injury Prevention Center at University Hospitals’ Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital in Cleveland showed that boys who participated in team sports reported fighting 30 percent more often than nonathletes. I believe that data speaks not to athletes being more pugnacious, but athletes being more confident in their strength and tenacity, the natural ability to prevail. I know a whole lot of wrestlers who think they can always win.

I know that I have told my sons—all athletes who have wrestled in youth and high school-- to walk away from conflict. They scoff at me and tell me I don’t understand the dynamics of male interaction. In addition to teaching them not to instigate any kind of fight, I have also taught them lessons of fairness and self-confidence. I don't know if they listen. But like many young men, each one of them is self-assured of their strength, agility and athleticism.

I am not sure that my sons, Weldon, 22, Brendan, 20, or Colin, 17, would walk away. Colin is the same age as Kennelley was. I am not certain my boys would stand by if they saw someone get hurt, jumped, ganged up on—or especially if they saw a man bullying a woman. Brendan, just a year older than Malecek, has told me he has intervened in just such a scene at his college campus.

Yes. Hundreds of teens die in Chicago each year due to senseless violence, many of them shootings and beatings, including the 18-year-old Chicago teen shot and killed on July 4th by a 57-year-old who believed he was burglarizing his vehicle. A few days earlier a 16-year-old boy was shot and killed as he walked down a Southwest side alley. Younger children die walking onto their porches. It seems each day the news has another awful story of a life cut down. Because the incidents are becoming commonplace, the horror of each death is not reduced.

Still, you don’t expect to read news of a young man dying at a beach party trying to stop a fight.

I understand how this brand of tragedy can happen and how quickly a momentary decision can change lives forever. It ended one life and changed another for the worse. The decision to fight. The decision to try to stop one.

Short of turning back time to the early childhoods of everyone involved in this one tragedy of the July 4th weekend and reprogramming each player in that event to avoid confrontation at all costs for a lifetime, I am not sure what we can possibly do to avert another similar outcome. And that notion terrifies me.

My heart cries for Jean and Kevin Kennelly, Sr., their family and all those who knew him as a baseball and soccer player, good student and loving son.

I grew up spending summers at my family’s house at Stop 22 in Long Beach, just four bus stops from the scene at Stop 26. In the 70s and 80s, Long Beach was a quiet, family retreat with a few public beaches interrupting the long, wide stretch of sand from Michigan City to Grand Beach. My mother sold that house off Karwick Road in the early 90s, after my father passed away and she had little desire to maintain by herself a four-bedroom summer getaway for six married children and 21 active grandchildren.

I know that stretch of sand in Long Beach well. I know the kind of young man like Kevin who would try to stop a fight, because my sons are the same type. And I know there is no way to look at this senseless death other than as a horrible waste of a life destined for much bigger things.

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