WVU’s Kenny Bigelow: ‘Football Saved My Life’
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Kenny Bigelow doesn’t pull any punches when he talks about it.
“Football saved my life,” the 306-pound West Virginia nose guard said.
The conversation started lighthearted, as it often does with the upbeat graduate transfer from USC who has given an anchor to the Mountaineer defensive line.
The talk was about his long relationship with WVU wide receiver David Sills, about how Sills had been offered a scholarship to USC when he was 13 years old, about Sills’ father starting a football-first high school called Eastern Christian Academy.
But as he talked and joked and laughed, there came a moment when he said he had “seen so much bad in my life” as he grew up in a Wilmington, Del., neighborhood that isn’t on those Chamber of Commerce posters.
“A lot of violence, a lot of drugs, especially in the area I was from. That was something I didn’t want to be a part of, especially after losing my Dad,” Bigelow said.
Anytime a kid loses his father it’s a a difficult time, but when you are being pulled toward the dark side by your environment, it becomes a life or death battle.
“It was something I had to fight even harder to stay away from because mentally I wasn’t all the way there,” he said.
Enter football and David Sills, both V, his WVU teammate now, and IV, David’s father, who was a founder of the Eastern Christian Academy which was a place for such type kids to come play the game and get a degree and, more importantly, a chance at life.
“David and his father, my high school teammates, they pulled me out of there and kept me focused on the path I was going,” Bigelow said. “Football saved my life, and I’m not hesitant to tell anyone that. My life could have been a lot different, there were some choices I could have if I didn’t have football.”
Sometimes it is difficult to understand just how strong a persona David Sills is. You see him on the football field as an All-American wide receiver, one who last year tied for the national lead in touchdown receptions with 18, but his life has been a movie waiting to be made.
At 13 Lane Kiffin, then head coach at USC, thought so much of him that he offered him a scholarship to play at the Los Angeles school, one of the legendary football powers that churned out Heisman Trophy winners like O.J. Simpson, Marcus Allen and Mike Garrett along with national championships.
As such it made him a celebrity at an early age and those around him, people like Bigelow and Wendell Smallwood and Daikiel Shorts and Leddie Brown — all who would become Mountaineer players — came under his spell.
But there was a special connection between Sills and Bigelow.
“We’ve had a relationship for a long time. He used to crash at the house in high school,” Sills recalled.
“I can’t say enough good things about David. That’s who he’s always been, that charismatic, that leader, that high-energy guy. He has always carried himself like the guy and it has transitioned over here,” Bigelow said.
Back in those high school days, Sills was a celebrity due to his early USC offer and Bigelow and few of the other players had to be his body guard.
“Oh, yeah, everyone wanted a shot at the California kid. Everybody wanted to take down David. We all knew it, even when we went out,” Bigelow said. “People be saying ‘Is that David Sills?’ We’d say, ‘Yeah, stay away.’ We never let it get out of control.”
The idea was that the two of them would wind up at USC.
“I probably wouldn’t have gotten my offer to USC without David. He was committed to them at 13 and I went out with him and participated in a camp out there and the next thing was the next thing.
“It was supposed to be; it was something we were into. We talk about [both going to USC] a lot, but things worked themselves out differently,” Bigelow said.
Kiffin was gone from USC, Bigelow went there but Sills wound up at West Virginia, not quite at the level everyone expected as a quarterback.
“A lot of things change over a couple of years,” Sills said. “It didn’t work out, but it worked out that we’re playing here now. He was going to be my big brother at USC. Now it’s kind of like I’m the big brother here.”
The two kept in touch.
“We were in contact pretty much the whole time while he was at USC. We have a group message online and he was in it along with a couple of other guys from high school and we’d talk pretty much every day.”
After being converted to receiver, Sills decided to give himself one more chance to see if he could be a big time quarterback, returning to El Camino Community College in Los Angeles.
“He stayed in the building I stayed in. We hung out every day, catch a movie, come to USC game when he could,” Bigelow said.
Now it wasn’t exactly the big time, the apartment being in a zip code a long way from Beverly Hills or Malibu.
“It was tough area,” Bigelow said. “It wasn’t the worst area in L.A. It wasn’t that bad and just a 10-minute walk from school.”
Bigelow’s career was interrupted a couple of times for injuries and Sills began thinking he might be able to help WVU’s defensive line, which had lost starting nose guard Lamonte McDougle to transfer.
Sills went to Ryan Dorchester, the WVU director of football operations, but Dorchester wasn’t high on him because of the injuries, even though the NCAA had granted him a rare sixth year of eligibility.
“I was actually pretty involved with his recruiting here and bringing his name up. He wasn’t originally brought up as one of the guys to offer,” Sills said. “But I stayed on him and stayed on him and then they offered him. He’s playing pretty well for us now.”
Bigelow fell in love with the place on his visit.
“I got here and instantly fell in love with the coaches, with the blue collar ethic, how everyone carries themselves and how we hold each other to high standards,” he explained.
That made it an easy sell.
“When he came up for his visit, we told him how it is,” Sills said. “He had one more shot at it. We told him if he came in and worked he’d be a force for us on defense. We were excited to have him.”
He spent the off-season working himself back into playing shape and now savors every time he gets back on the field
“I can’t be anything but happy to be blessed to be back in the situation I love,” Bigelow concluded. “That helps me through things and I can fall back on football. This is my happy place.”