Field of dreams: Kenny Kahn finds his passion coaching high school football

It was almost kickoff time for the El Cerrito High School football team. And like virtually all high school teams, the Gauchos huddled before taking the field on a sparkling Friday night.

One person not taking a knee was varsity head coach Kenny Kahn. As his players prayed for a gridiron triumph, Kahn approached Jake Schnur, a Jewish player on the team, and whispered in his ear: “Shabbat Shalom.”

Kahn, 29, might claim a one-of-a-kind profile in the annals of Bay Area high school football. He grew up in Richmond, the son of a Jewish mother and black father, played football at El Cerrito High, studied poetry in college, returned to El Cerrito and in 2008 become the youngest head coach in school history.

Though a proud Jew, during football season Kahn exchanges Shabbat candles for “Friday Night Lights.” “I identify as a young Jewish man,” Kahn said. “In Jewish tradition, we’re always a work in progress. I try to atone, become one with myself, take the reality placed before me and run with it.”

According to Kahn’s friends, relatives and students, he instills that spirit in his players. And he shares it with young Jews of color like himself every chance he gets.

At a recent home game, the Gauchos played Campolindo High School of Moraga in a non-league battle of teams with 2-0 records. The Gauchos started with an explosive first play from scrimmage, a 60-yard pass completion — which sent the crowd into a frenzy and the marching band into a rousing version of “Louie, Louie.”

The drive continued, but soon the Gauchos found themselves in a fourth-and-goal situation inside the 5-yard line. Instead of choosing a short field goal attempt, for what could have been an easy three points, Kahn decided to go for the touchdown.

Campolindo stopped them.

“You have to make a statement,” Kahn said of his decision to go for it. “We’re looking to get into the end zone. I’m trying to be an aggressive play caller. As head coach you have to be a little gutsy.”

A head coach also has to be someone who commands respect, which, according to Schnur, is exactly what the 5-foot-11, 300-pound Kahn does.

“He has a presence about him,” said Schnur, an offensive tackle. “Instead of yelling at us, he’s more inspiring, more understanding.”

Last summer, Kahn and Schnur worked together at the Be’chol Lashon Family Camp, a Jewish camp in Petaluma. Kahn served as sports director and since has taken over as co-director.

The camp is geared toward young Jews of color: Hispanic, black, Asian, and biracial. “With the camp, I get to be a participant, and do a camp I wish I had when I was a [young] kid,” Kahn noted. “Back then I was marginalized. Here we give kids an opportunity to celebrate themselves.

Diane Tobin is the co-founder and director of Be’chol Lashon, an S.F.-based nonprofit that aims to foster understanding and opportunities for Jews of color. She first met Kahn as a 19-year-old at a teen event run by Be’chol Lashon, which means “in every tongue.”

She thinks Kahn has what it takes to relate to kids struggling with Jewish identity.

“He is super accessible,” she said. “Because he’s a football coach, he’s very physical and commands a lot of respect. He’s a big guy, and being a coach he’s very direct. It’s part of his job.”

Midway through the second quarter, the Gauchos led Campolindo by a 13-0 score. At one point, El Cerrito’s defense sacked the opposing quarterback, knocking the ball loose. Linebacker Trevor Kroll recovered the fumble in the end zone for a touchdown.

It was beginning to smell like a blowout.

The green and white El Cerrito uniforms must be comforting colors for Kahn, reminding him of his own glory days, when he played offensive guard under coach George Austin.

“He was a special individual,” recalled Austin, now El Cerrito’s athletic director. “He was not only one of our top players, we counted on him heavily because he was a pretty tough kid. Throughout, you could see what kind of man he was going to grow into. He was solid, respectful, and his teachers and fellow players thought a lot of him.”

Kahn said that Austin “took me under his wing” and that playing high school football under him “gave me a father figure I was looking for.”

Football gave Kahn more than that; it offered him an outlet to deal with life’s challenges, one of which was his biracial, bicultural heritage.

His mother, Madelyn Kahn, grew up in Eugene, Ore., the daughter of Conservative Jews. She remembers being one of the only Jewish kids in school, and as such felt like an outsider.

After moving to the East Bay in 1970 to become a teacher, she met her future husband, a black musician. They married and had a daughter, Meka, and a son, Kenny. But the couple parted when Kenny was 2, and from then on, father and son have had relatively little contact.

Even though she struggled financially for a few years, Kahn’s mother made sure her kids had a solid Jewish education. The family joined Reform Congregation Beth El in Berkeley, and the children attended Camp Kee Tov. Later, Kahn attended Midrasha in Berkeley, an after-school Jewish learning program.

It helped solidify Kahn’s Jewish identity.

“I had a circle of Jewish friends at Midrasha and weekend Hebrew school at Beth El,” Kahn remembered. “My mother was adamant about us having a Jewish life. I had a bar mitzvah [at Beth El].”

He also befriended Sarah, Tobin’s daughter and a counselor at Midrasha. When she told him that her parents had adopted a black child, Kahn found himself drawn to the message and mission of Be’chol Lashon, which was founded by Tobin and her late husband, Gary A. Tobin, in 1997.

“As it evolved, Be’chol Lashon always had some type of place for me,” Kahn said. “As a participant or employee, they always facilitated my growth in the Jewish community.”

While in high school, Kahn made his first visit to Israel, something he said had an “incredible impact on me. Whether hiking Masada, going to the Wall, leaving a note of prayer, seeing the Ethiopian Jews and them saying, ‘You belong with us,’ it was an incredible experience. It gave me such a high level of pride.”

Though he attended public schools with sizeable black student populations, Kahn learned to move seamlessly between his black and Jewish worlds. He also was enmeshed in another world: sports. As a youngster, he played soccer, but that gave way to football, and by high school, he was a fearsome 275-pound lineman.

“I don’t think of football as therapy, but as a way to get out some negativity you may be going through,” he said, “to be a follower as well as a leader, and feel good about myself. As a young kid I dragged my feet a bit, but I noticed as I got older, I had my chest sticking out a bit more, what kids call swag.”

Because of a concussion suffered during his high school playing days, and fears over permanent damage from potential future concussions, Kahn decided not to play college football even though a few schools were looking at him.

“He realized he was a good athlete,” said his mother, “but he said, ‘I know I’m not going to make it in the pros.’ ” So he decided to go to U.C. Santa Cruz, which Kahn called “the least football-savvy institution I know.”

In the second half of the game, the tide began to turn. Campolindo came on strong and took a 16-13 lead. Late in the game, El Cerrito was marching toward a possible score, but the Gauchos were stopped on a fourth-and-four play at the Cougars’ 30-yard line.

The coach’s first-quarter decision to go for the touchdown — and not try a field goal — loomed large as the clock wound down with El Cerrito trailing by three. The Gauchos lost the game, and even though it wasn’t a league game, it still stung.

In the locker room afterward, Kahn knew how to keep his players’ heads up. He knows what it takes to turn disappointment and loss into redemption.

He did end up playing some local semi-pro football, but his college years were devoted to academics. He studied literature and poetry at U.C. Santa Cruz, and while there, he seized on opportunities to intern as a teacher’s aide. “It made me realize how important reading is,” he said. “Literature gave me a way to hone in on writing and speaking skills. I always had the gift of gab, but lit gave me the venue for being a better speaker.”

While an undergrad, he coached a local kids’ soccer team and was a student teacher at a middle school and high school. While earning his teaching credential, he found an opening as a student teacher at his alma mater, El Cerrito High. At that point, he gave his football mentor, Coach Austin, a ring.

“I had no clue he ever wanted to coach,” Austin remembered. “I said, ‘I’ll put in a word if you’re willing to be one of my junior varsity coaches.’ That first year as a JV coach felt like a natural fit for him.”

After the 2006 season, prostate cancer forced Austin to step down as head coach. In 2008, Kahn took over.

“Opportunity knocked and he answered,” Austin said. “Every year I see him growing as a coach. He may have started as a kid, but he’s a man now, and a good man. The kids love him.”

But do they know he’s Jewish? Or that he’s the only black Jewish coach in the Bay Area?

Kahn said “50 to 75 percent” of the players know he’s Jewish, but many “play the guessing game: They don’t know if I’m Samoan, Hispanic or South American.”

Kahn took his team to the playoffs in his first year, 2008, something rarely achieved by new coaches, and in his second year, as well. Halfway into his fourth season, his coaching record is 22-15 overall and an eye-popping 16-4 in league games. In 2009, he was honored as a High School Coach of the Week by the Oakland Raiders.

But Kahn sees his job as a teacher first. When he was a high school player, the game provided an outlet to meet the expectations of mentors, who gave him “discipline, confidence, a place to form a brotherhood, form a pact with young men who to this day are my best friends.”

He also says El Cerrito has a small-town feel, and that Gaucho pride is a big deal on campus. Moreover, the community rallies around the school and its athletic teams — and it comes together like a family when there is pain, like last year when Kahn’s mother was diagnosed with breast cancer.

“Right off the bat the whole school and team got on it,” Madelyn Kahn said, including wearing pink ribbons in October to raise cancer awareness. “Kenny told me later that the team decided to do something [more]: If they raised $3,000 for a cancer fund by February, he said, ‘I will have you come to school to shave my head in front of the whole school.’ ”

The school doubled that goal, raising $6,500 for a women’s cancer research center. So Kahn kept his promise. His mother did the honors and shaved her son’s head in front of an appreciative audience. After surgery and other treatments, she said she is now doing “amazingly well.”

After the 16-13 loss to Campolindo, Kahn told his team he was proud of them, and that the season, although only three games old at that point, was so exciting he “can’t sleep at night.”

The Gauchos followed that game with a 14-14 tie against Newark Memorial, then started league play in bang-bang fashion: wins over Pinole Valley and Richmond by a combined score of 100-13. The Gauchos are 2-0 in the Alameda Contra Costa Athletic League standings, with an eye on getting back into the section playoffs (after missing them last season).

For Kahn, football brings a level of excitement unlike any other activity. “You get a natural feeling of passion,” he explained. “I tell my players all the time, no matter how hard I am on you, I’m your biggest fan.”

Overall, the team has a 4-1-1 record with four games left in the regular season, and Kahn clearly is wrapped up in football. But he also has time to fulfill his new role as co-director of the Be’chol Lashon Family Camp. In fact, he recently returned from a camp weekend in Petaluma, during which he officiated at the camp Olympics, supervised the shofar-blowing contest and emceed the talent show.

He said Be’chol Lashon is the primary outlet for his Jewish life, though he also serves as adviser to the high school’s Jewish student union.

He added that his role as head coach offers “proof I can be an established young professional male of color, and wear a number of hats: whether teacher, coach or leader in the Jewish community. It allows me to realize how important it is to give back to the community. Football does all that for me.”

Austin, his coach and mentor, looked at everything Kahn has accomplished on and off the field, and summed it up: “I don’t know Yiddish,” he said, “but sometimes I tell him he’s a mensch.”

TAGS (Sports, School)