Joe Kenn is not afraid to put himself out there.
The Carolina Panthers’ strength and conditioning coach has competed in a kilt at the Highland Games, walks to and from Bank of America Stadium with a walking stick and is willing to think outside the box when setting up the Panthers’ offseason program.
Kenn concedes that some might consider it odd that a 49-year-old with a history of knee problems still loads up the bar with 45-pound plates to squat and do other lifts when players aren’t around the weight room.
But it’s Kenn’s way of staying in shape and keeping his street cred.
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“People may think it’s a warped sense of reality. But it gives me my sense of earning a guy’s respect in a role that I have,” Kenn said this week. “Because I know this: If I had a weight coach who didn’t lift weights, I ain’t listening to that weight coach.”
The Panthers’ players have listened, and Kenn’s peers have noticed: He was voted the NFL’s Strength Coach of the Year in February after a 17-2 season that ended with a loss to Denver in the Super Bowl.
It’s the second time Kenn has been recognized since the Panthers hired him in 2011 following nearly two decades as a college strength coach.
He was honored as the pro strength coach of the year in 2013 by the National Strength and Conditioning Association, the same group that gave Kenn its collegiate award in 2003 when he was at Arizona State.
Kenn understands the accolades come with winning, and says he feels fortunate to work with a head coach in Ron Rivera, who has a strong weightlifting background as a former Chicago Bears linebacker.
“That helps me because I know I’ve got a coach that understands the weight room’s important,” Kenn said. “There’s times when football always supersedes. And that’s where from our standpoint we have to be well aware of that.
“At the end of the day we want competitive football players, not competitive weight lifters.”
Kenn, who grew up in New York, has been both.
He went to Wake Forest as an offensive lineman in 1984, but knee injuries limited him to five games his first three seasons. That meant he spent a lot of time in the treatment room – as well as the weight room.
“All I did was lift,” Kenn said.
Finally healthy as a senior, the bulked-up Kenn weighed in at 287 pounds, the Deacons’ heaviest player in 1988. That earned him a nickname, “House,” when one of his buddies said he looked as big as a house.
Coming to work in shorts
The name stuck – as did his affinity for lifting.
“When it was time to choose a major back then everybody was like, ‘Business this, business that.’ I’m like, I might want to go this direction,” Kenn said. “I’m watching my strength coach and you’re like, you can get paid to train and watch guys lift weights and come to work in shorts and a T-shirt? I was like, all right this might be a pretty good gig.”
Kenn graduated with a health and sports science degree and coached two years at a high school in Florida before returning to Wake as a summer intern in the weight room. That led to strength coach positions at Boise State, Utah, Arizona State and Louisville.
While at Utah, Kenn worked with a smallish wide receiver from Los Angeles named Steve Smith, whom Kenn calls the hardest-working college player he coached.
“No one came close. Well, (Terrell) Suggs came close (at Arizona State),” Kenn said. “But Steve Smith’s practice habits in college as a football player – and I coached 19 years of college – no one comes close.”
Kenn says the Panthers have plenty of hard workers in the weight room, including their quarterback.
Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis has been critical of Cam Newton for working out on his own rather than with teammates. But Kenn says he has no issues with Newton, who’s individualized lifts are overseen by assistant strength coach Jason Benguche.
“I can tell you the dude’s putting in work. When he’s in there, he ain’t afraid,” Kenn said. “Now he’s fortunate, like a lot of guys at this level, he doesn’t have to be in there a lot. But he’s extremely effective and efficient.”
Keeping players fresh for football
The Panthers will start their offseason program later this year because Rivera wanted to give players a longer break after a season that extended to February. While most teams begin lifting April 18, Carolina’s voluntary workouts start April 25.
Kenn is mindful of how much energy players can expend on weight training while keeping their bodies fresh for football. While Kenn incorporates most of the traditional lifts such as bench press and squat, he doesn’t have players “max” their heaviest weights.
Instead, the Panthers top out at 91 percent of their estimated max in bench, and do sets of three in squats rather than one rep with the most weight they can handle. Kenn says some strength coaches get carried away with having players max.
“They’re always like, ‘Well, I’ve got this many guys who bench 400 (pounds). I’ve got this many guys that squat 500,’ ” he said. “And then you look at their record and their record doesn’t (equal) the strength gains in the weight room.”
‘Fast and effective’
Panthers linebacker Ben Jacobs says players appreciate Kenn’s approach.
“It’s kind of a get-after-it philosophy while still being smart about it. We’re going to work while we’re in there, but we’re not going to do anything we don’t need to,” Jacobs said. “The workout is fast and effective. That’s what I like about it.”
Kenn didn’t say how much he can squat. But given how his 280 pounds are distributed on his thick frame, it would seem to be a lot.
Kenn was a competitorcompetitive lifter while at Boise State and still occasionally enters dead-lift meets. The Highland Games – and accompanying kilt – are more for fun.
“I’m watching my buddies and they’re like, ‘Hey, you should try this out.’ And I’m like, ‘I can throw a stone. I can flip a log.’ So I went in and competed, and I’m trying to win even if I know I can’t.”
Kenn’s personal workouts have not gone unnoticed.
“We see him in there. I think every morning he does something,” Jacobs said. “You’re as old as you feel. I think he feels he’s 25. He can still do it.”