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Utah team captain Kenneth Scott's life experiences have made him tougher, more appreciative

Utah Utes wide receiver Kenneth Scott celebrates as the University of Utah defeats Colorado State 45-10 in NCAA football at the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bow.  Saturday, Dec. 20, 2014, in Las Vegas.
Utah Utes wide receiver Kenneth Scott celebrates as the University of Utah defeats Colorado State 45-10 in NCAA football at the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bow. Saturday, Dec. 20, 2014, in Las Vegas.
Tom Smart, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — A lot of teenagers may not understand the value of athletic talent.

They don’t completely comprehend the gift and how it can bless or even change the course of their lives.

Kenneth Scott was not one of those teenagers.

The senior wide receiver has always understood what a lifeline sports could be, and he clung to it, embracing every opportunity, even the most monotonous and discouraging.

“(Sports) definitely can change people’s lives,” said Scott, who was recently voted one of Utah’s captains by his teammates. “To be honest, if you ask half the team what they’d be doing if they didn’t have football, and it’s definitely not the best stuff just because of the situations we grew up in. Sports is definitely a big thing for us. We grow through sports, it teaches us to be role models and things like that, teaches us to make it out of the places that we did and to show other kids that there is light at the end of the tunnel.” It's a “tunnel” that many players come from growing up in neighborhoods where young men and women don’t necessarily see — or have — the same opportunities offered in more upscale areas.

Scott said that once he and his mom moved from Texas to California, they moved repeatedly, even living with relatives, as his mom tried to find the best environment for her son. When he was a teenager, his mom and stepdad decided that they’d take him to a high school in Ontario, California — 30 minutes from their home in Fontana.

“They switched me to a school 30 minutes away to get me out of the bad areas,” Scott said. “A lot of my friends are proud of me because I didn’t let (the negative influences) take me to where they’re at.” Scott smiles as he talks about a childhood friend who went to prison about the same time he came to Utah.

“I have a friend who is about to get out next month,” he said. “Ever since I’ve been here, he’s been in (prison).”

When asked what saved him from going down that same path, he pauses and then talks about one of the toughest losses of his life.

“My best friend died, he got murdered, when I was 16,” Scott said. “Credit to my mom and my stepfather at the time. They forced me to get away.”

Scott said he and his best friend and another teen were playing basketball at a court in their apartment complex when the boy they called “Bird” got a phone call from a girl.

“They used a girl to set him up, to get him to a place,” Scott said. He said he and his other friend heard the gunshots, squealing tires, and they ran to the narrow street where Bird had gotten into his car.

“We saw the car, pulled off, and we saw him in the front seat laying there dead,” he said.

He said his stepfather was the one to tell him the hard truths. He told him he was better suited for football than basketball, and he told him he needed a better environment if he was going to succeed in life.

“I am very used to change,” he said with a shrug. “They just said, ‘We think this is best for you.’ When I first got to high school, I was not really looking to play football. I was more of a basketball type person. My step-pops said, ‘You’re 6-3, you’re a post, you don’t have a future there. He was very blunt about it, but he was right.” Without that advice, Scott laughs when asked where he might be today.

“I’d probably still be shooting hoops in the street thinking I was Kobe instead of here,” he laughed.

Injuries forced Scott to spend much of spring and most of fall camp in the Pit, an area where injured players work out while their teammates practice. Scott said it was a completely different kind of mental challenge.

“The Pit, they work you out so hard,” he said shaking his head. It’s worse than practice. It’s ridiculous. … It’s very mental. If you can push through the Pit, through numerous practices, then you’re a strong dude cuz it can wear on you for sure.” Receivers coach Taylor Stubblefield asked Scott to lead the young players, even though he wasn’t spending practices with them. Scott waited until he felt the timing was right and then he arrived early for the position meeting and wrote — in black and white — what it means to be a member of the Utah AFG or Air Force Gang.

“It’s a culture,” he said, noting that he told the young receivers he plays with that AFG was more than flying around and catching passes.

He knows receivers are seen as “prima donnas” but that’s how he was taught to play the position.

“I had a different upbringing,” he said, smiling. “Other programs might teach you to look nice catching the ball, but going through high school, my coaches, it was different for me.” Scott played tight end, as well as wide receiver in high school, and he took great pride in aggressive blocking.

“I used to have competitions with my linemen to see who could get the most pancakes,” he said. “Coaches bred that into my head, they instilled that, and I brought it to the next level. That’s the reason (Utah) recruited me because I was a tough physical player. I’ve always loved physical play.”

He is flattered — and maybe a little overwhelmed — that his teammates voted him a captain. His coaches have consistently singled him out as one of the team’s best leaders, especially the last six months.

Scott doesn’t take the responsibility lightly, and he hopes the first teammates he influences are the other receivers. Last year, he led the group with 48 receptions for 506 yards (second most in yardage). He tied for most touchdown catches, including the double overtime game-winner at Stanford.

“The receivers are the spark of the offense,” he said. “Everybody gets excited for a running back who gets 10 or 15 yards, but when a receiver gets a big play, it brings more excitement. The receiver group can be a spark or it can be a deflation, as you could see last year.” Last year, Utah’s receivers struggled with dropped passes and endured near constant questions and criticism from media and fans. Scott said the reality is that to be successful, players can’t worry too much about the highs or lows of the game.

“Maybe because of the circumstances I’ve had to go through, I don’t get too low about anything,” Scott said. “I don’t get too over-hyped about anything. I’m more even-keeled.” And almost daily, he thinks of Bird and what might have been had he or his parents made different choices.

“I do think about it often,” he said. “Life’s too short. Life is very short.”

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