“Freshman” Kendzior defeats injuries to help LA Tech defeat USM

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LA Tech 31, USM 30
Conference-USA game played Sept. 19 at M.M. Roberts Stadium, Hattiesburg, Miss. (Photo by TOM MORRIS/LATechSporrtsPix.com)

Nineteen freshmen played a big part in helping Louisiana Tech overcome a 17-point deficit to defeat rival Southern Miss this past Saturday in Hattiesburg.

That’s a success story in itself.

Well, in a way it was 20 freshmen helping lead the Bulldogs to victory because of an even bigger success story.  That is the comeback of Eric Kendzior.

“I hadn’t played in such a long time, I did feel like a freshman a little bit,” the defensive end admitted.

If seeing No. 47 get after the opposing quarterback looked vaguely familiar, that’s because Kendzior was a mainstay on the Bulldog defense as a true freshman in 2016, so much so that he was named to the Conference USA All-Freshman Team after recording 3.5 tackles for loss including two sacks.

Then came the first injury.

“After we played in the Armed Forces Bowl, I noticed that my foot was starting to hurt,” recalled Kendzior.  “I went and got it checked out and turns out it was broken.  So I got a pin put in on the outside of my foot.  I missed spring ball, but I played my sophomore season.”

Then came the second injury.

“During my sophomore year, I starting noticing the pain in both of my feet now.  I went to go get it looked at again and there were bones in both of my feet starting to crack.  I was basically playing the whole season with two broken feet.  I wanted to get the surgery right after the season was over.”

Then came the third injury.

“During the Frisco Bowl, I tore my elbow.  It was a low point for me because I knew that it was going to be a very long process and it was going to be another surgery I would have to have.  It was a really dark place for me.  I pretty much knew I was going to miss not just the next year, but maybe two years.”

So in mid-January of 2018, that long process began.

The doctors were kind enough to ask which surgery he wanted to start with.  “I just told them the right foot because that one hurt the most.”

When he was not in a boot, he was in a pool rehabbing.  Sometimes twice a day for multiple hours at a time.  The next surgery was on the left foot, requiring the same recovery methods.

The third and final surgery came in June on the elbow.

“That rehab took about four or five months,” said Kendzior.  “Doing a lot of pulls with the rubber bands.  Every day, I was able to move it a little bit more forward.  It still felt a little weak going into that 2019 season.  I went and talked to coach Holtz and told him that I felt like I wasn’t ready to play yet.”

“For him not to be able to be out for not one but two years, I know that was frustrating for him,” said the head coach.  “The last time he left the football field in that Frisco Bowl, he had three injuries.  We ended up having a lot of conversations in the offseason about the battles he was going through physically and mentally.  We thought he was going to be a really good player for us.”

The 51-10 shellacking of SMU in Frisco happened on Dec. 20, 2017.

On Sept. 19, 2020, Kendzior put on the helmet and pads and made his much-anticipated return to the gridiron.

It was never a question of if, but when.

“I was determined to get back out there.  I wanted to keep playing for coach Holtz.  I wanted to keep playing for my teammates who always kept me cheered up, even when I was having my bad days.  That is the brotherhood that has been built here and I’m glad I’m a part of it.”

Not only did Kendzior play in the season opener against the Golden Eagles, he started.  And not only did he start, he made one of the biggest plays of the game late in the fourth quarter.

USM was facing a 3rd-and-11 at the Tech 12-yard line, up 27-24 with under six minutes to play.  The opportunity was there for the home team to score a touchdown to go up two scores and potentially put the game out of reach for LA Tech.

Instead, Kendzior applied a speed rush off the left edge and was able to grab the QB with his right arm and take him down to the ground for an 8-yard loss, forcing a field goal attempt.

What followed was an intense jolt of energy.  A roaring scream of excitement that had been built up for nearly three years.

“I let it all out.  When I got that sack, it all just got released.  I just was overwhelmed with emotion.  I was so hype because I also knew what the play meant.  My teammates were talking about how much I bent my back in excitement.  They were worried I had broken my back.”

Good news, no broken back.  No broken body parts of any kind.

“To see the joy and emotion in him, knowing what he has gone through over the last few years in getting back out onto the field was incredibly rewarding for me as a coach,” said Holtz.  “Nobody see the frustrations, the setbacks and the surgeries.  He put in a lot of hard work behind the scenes before he had the opportunity to step on that national TV stage and do what he did.”

“I just tried to keep my head up through all of it,” said Kendzior.  “I spent a lot of time praying.  I talked to my mom and my coaches a lot.  I owe a lot of credit to the doctors, the trainers, to coach Hester who helped make me better.

“There were a lot of emotions for me on Saturday.  I was nervous, I was excited.  Coach [Anthony] Camp came up to me before the game and told me to just go out there and play football.”

Exactly 1,004 days after being carried off the field with three injuries to his body, that is exactly what No. 47 did.

And help sack Southern Miss in the process.

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