Cardinals RB Kenyan Drake motivated by positive thinking

·10 min read

Kenyan Drake’s eyes lit up when he saw his stepmother mark the calendar. The date didn’t matter. The location didn’t matter. What excited him, though, was what they were doing that day.

When the day finally came, Janett Drake would load the minivan with Kenyan, his three younger siblings and drive to different food pantries around Marietta, Georgia. Sometimes they donated food, or volunteered their time, or delivered meals to the needy. And Kenyan loved every moment.

“Kenyan really, really adapted to it,” Janett Drake told Yahoo Sports. “He's always just had that type of attitude where he was concerned about others. He was just excited about helping and feeling that he really was involved in helping.”

Those moments formed a central theme in Kenyan’s life – a thread of positivity and selflessness that fed itself from his childhood through his four years at Alabama and into his NFL career with the Miami Dolphins and Arizona Cardinals. He volunteered at a Boys and Girls Club in Broward County in Florida soon after the Dolphins drafted him in the third round of the 2016 draft and became a global ambassador for SmileTrain, a nonprofit organization that provides cleft repair surgery to underprivileged children.

“I’m just trying to use my platform to bring positivity to the world,” Drake told Yahoo Sports earlier this year, “and just letting people know that what's right is right and what's wrong is wrong.”

‘A champion of the innocent’

Drake knows the world is in turmoil right now. But he tries not to dwell on the negative and instead focus on what he can do to inspire a better world in a positive way. He finds that path in helping children grow and live happier lives.

“I feel like I want to be a champion of the innocent and to continue to uplift kids so there is a better tomorrow,” he said. “That's where you start.”

Drake doesn't think the ugliness in the world is intrinsic. There is beauty and thoughtfulness in the world – you just have to be willing to look and listen. Children have the ability to see that far more than adults, Drake thinks, and that’s where his sense of purpose derives from.

“Kids have this innocent bliss about them that is refreshing to be around,” Drake says. “They haven't really stood the test of time that changes adults to become a worse [version] of themselves from when they were kids. If that makes sense?”

That’s why he volunteered at the Boys and Girls Club as soon as he entered the NFL. And why he became an ambassador for SmileTrain.

He learned that from his family. From Janett bringing him to those food pantries. From his grandmother and great aunt keeping him busy as a child with books and lessons. From his father, William, who instilled the idea of positive thinking during Drake’s early days on the football field. And from his mother, Yurinita, who passed on his grandfathers’ sentiment of selflessness.

“He just grew up seeing that in his life,” Yurinita says. “But that was just something that came normal for him.”

His mentors passed it down to him, but being the oldest of five – one from his mother’s second marriage and three from his father’s second marriage – helped him learn how to be a leader. He regularly checks in on his younger brother, Tristen, calls his sister Anijah while she’s stationed at Fort Bragg and retweets hype videos of his youngest brother Isaiah’s baseball highlights.

“He's always been drawn to like younger kids and kind of like being a mentor to kids because he's kind of like a kid at heart,” Yurinita says. “He's really good with kids, as far as just trying to be a positive influence on them. So I'm really proud of him for that. He's always really kind of had that in him.”

“He's just always been, honestly, the brother who all of my siblings could go talk to quite honestly and just have a good conversation,” Anijah adds. “Like if something's going on with me, the first person I think to call is my brother, because I know he'll say what I need to hear.”

Kenyan, Anijah and Isaiah Drake. (Courtesy of Anijah Drake)
Kenyan, Anijah and Isaiah Drake. (Courtesy of Anijah Drake)

Drake’s work at the Boys and Girls Club and SmileTrain is personal, too. He grew up going to several B&G clubs after school in the metro Atlanta area and wanted to give as many kids the same experience he enjoyed as a child. And for SmileTrain, he wanted to help give children the confidence to enjoy their life with a smile and visited patients in Mexico and Brazil.

He would typically show up to the clubs unannounced, according to Broward club co-CEO Chris Gentile, without an agenda and just play games with the kids or have one-on-one mentoring sessions.

“Whatever they were doing he wanted to be there at the heart of it as another kid,” Gentile said. “And you would never know that he was the athlete on the field. You just know him as the individual that really wanted to give back and cared so much about kids and making a better life for them.”

Drake brought some bigger initiatives to the club, too. He invited 75 members to the Dolphins’ Hard Rock Stadium for Thanksgiving dinner, made gingerbread cookies and handed out presents as Santa on Christmas. And his “My Cleats My Cause” campaign raised enough money to pay for all the memberships for the kids at the club.

“It really hit home for me,” Drake said. “For those kids to be able to go there and have a safe haven to be able to be themselves and just enjoy a few hours of snacks and camaraderie with counselors and their peers, it meant a lot to me.”

Never giving up on himself

When Drake’s father, William, coached him between the ages of 8 and 12, he told Kenyan two things: Never think negatively about your performance, and always be prepared when your number is called. Those ideas stuck with Kenyan throughout his football career, even through tumultuous moments.

He was never featured at Hillgrove High school in Powder Springs, Georgia, according to head coach Phillip Ironside, but still rushed for over 100 yards in his first varsity action seven weeks into the season. Four years later, Drake watched as the University of Alabama brought in multiple running backs throughout his career – including Alvin Kamara and Derrick Henry – who ate into his workload. He never thought negatively about anyone ahead of him on the depth chart, and saw it more as a brotherhood than a competition.

“We all love each other like brothers, you know?” Drake said, looking back. “We understood that it was only one ball and we could really probably be on a field one at time … but if one of us went out there and had success, we feel like we all had success because we worked hard for it.”

ATLANTA, GA - DECEMBER 5: Running back Derrick Henry #2 of the Alabama Crimson Tide celebrates with running back Kenyan Drake #17 of the Alabama Crimson Tides after scoring a second quarter touchdown against the Florida Gators during the SEC Championship at the Georgia Dome on December 5, 2015 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Derrick Henry (No. 2) and Kenyan Drake (No. 17) played together at Alabama from 2013-2015. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Then came the injury against Ole Miss on Oct. 4, 2015.

Drake caught a screen pass early in the second quarter, ran 10 yards up-field for the first down and took a punishing blow from multiple Ole Miss defenders that twisted Drake’s leg so badly his left foot pointed the wrong way. He missed the rest of his junior season and didn’t know if he’d play football again.

The injury didn’t hinder Kenyan’s spirits. William remembers visiting his son in the hospital after the game and said Kenyan didn’t look distraught or upset despite knowing he’d miss up to six months.

“He was actually in pretty good spirits from where I would have been,” William said. “He was laying on the table in a lot of pain. But he wasn't saying anything. It was like he was being tough. He was being strong.”

Kenyan didn’t wallow in self-pity, either. Alabama teammate ArDarius Stewart remembers Drake turning into a hype man for the Crimson Tide for the rest of the 2014 season. He’d try to keep a smile on everyone’s faces, and even carried a box of Little Debbie Oatmeal Creme Pies with him on the sideline to give to teammates after good plays.

“That was one of the most hilarious things that I have ever seen,” Stewart says. “He kept us all motivated from every standpoint. If he saw his guys were down, he did everything he could to uplift [them].”

Drake came back to have a great senior season that included a 95-yard kickoff return touchdown in the national title game against Clemson in 2016. Alabama went on to win the title, and the Dolphins drafted Drake a few months later.

A similar trajectory unfolded in Miami after he was drafted in 2016. Drake averaged a healthy 4.8 yards per carry in 2017 after Dolphins traded Jay Ajayi to the Eagles but returned to a reserve role when Adam Gase brought in Frank Gore in 2018. Then, midway through the 2019 season, the Dolphins traded Drake to the Arizona Cardinals, which ended up being the opportunity he needed to stake his claim as a feature running back.

Right system, right coach

Drake played only eight games for the Cardinals in 2019, but he still recorded career-highs in total touches (151), total yards (1,162), touchdowns (eight) and yards per rush (5.2). He also was one of the most valuable running backs from an efficiency standpoint, according to Football Outsiders, where he ranked fifth in DYAR and third in DVOA.

“I always knew that, if given the opportunity to play and to get the opportunity to get the number of touches I feel like would warrant a certain amount of success,” Drake said. “I felt like I could have that production and I was able to consistently get that production in Arizona because of the opportunity.”

Drake attributes his success not just to the opportunity, but the players and team around him in Arizona. He praises Kyler Murray for his spontaneous play-making ability – something that forced defenses to leave space in the middle of the field for Drake to attack. He also credits his coach, Kliff Kingsbury, for trusting him with the ball and not being afraid to feed the hot hand.

“He's not afraid to call a play and kind of draw something up in the dirt, really, and go out there and let his athletes perform,” Drake said. “He allows you just to be the athlete that got you to this position.”

GLENDALE, ARIZONA - DECEMBER 15: Kenyan Drake #41 of the Arizona Cardinals takes a handoff from Kyler Murray #1 during a game against the Cleveland Browns at State Farm Stadium on December 15, 2019 in Glendale, Arizona. Cardinals won 38-24. (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)
Kyler Murray and Kenyan Drake formed an early bond in Arizona. (Norm Hall/Getty Images)

Drake’s 2020 campaign hasn’t gone as well as he probably would have like. He has seen his yards per carry average drop despite a rise in rushing attempts. He still ranks seventh in the league with 612 rushing yards despite suffering an ankle injury in Week 7 and missing two games.

It’s not the breakout year he wanted, but right now he’s more focused on winning and, above all else, staying positive. With the Cardinals sitting at 6-3 atop the NFC West, that shouldn’t be too hard.

“At the end of the day, you just have to continue to become the best person you can be from the experiences that you have,” he says. “Because that's all we have is the experiences and the things that people teach us and you can't be afraid to live and not love.”

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