Categorized | Your Community, Sports

Faces in Focus: Kenny Kahn


When Kenny Kahn played high school football in El Cerrito, he made a promise to himself and his coach.

“I told him when I graduated one of my goals was to come back and coach under him and learn as much as I could,” says Kahn, now 26, flashing a wide, toothy smile as he recollects. “He’s the reason I wanted to become a football coach.”

Today, walking across the El Cerrito High School football field amid a sea of his players’ green and white jerseys, Kahn, the youngest head coach in the history of ECHS football, has met that promise and much more.

Raised in neighboring Richmond, Calif., Kahn came up through the El Cerrito school system – Castro Elementary, Adams Middle School – and graduated from ECHS in 2000.

The former 275-pound offensive lineman then went on to UC Santa Cruz where he earned his bachelor degree in literature, creative writing and poetry. Determined to teach, he pursued his masters of education degree and received his certification to teach English.

Kahn returned to ECHS in the fall of 2006 to complete his student teaching internship and realize his dream of working under his former mentor and coach, George Austin.

“To be a good coach you need to be compassionate and you need to be able to relate to players,” says Austin, now the school’s athletic director, who appointed Kahn to the head coaching position this fall. “I think that comes through in Kenny’s interactions with young people – I can see it as he walks across campus.”

Since taking charge, Kahn has worked to establish a new team culture balancing playfulness with accountability and mutual respect among his players.

“In high school he was voted class clown,” says Kahn’s current offensive coordinator Joe McBride, who played quarterback on the ECHS team with Kahn in the late ’90s. “But he knows when to turn off the funny and get serious and the kids respect that. They love playing for him.”

Team captain Malcolm Carson, a senior, agrees.

“It’s easy to relate to him. He understands where we’re coming from and there are life lessons he can teach us outside of football,” Carson says. “He doesn’t let us get bigheaded. He keeps us in check.”

Being both a teacher and a coach, Kahn interacts with his players every day. When he learns about academic or disciplinary problems, he attempts to works closely with the other teachers to keep his students motivated and focused on school.

“Settling for mediocrity is unacceptable, particularly in a working class community like El Cerrito where our football team does greatly reflect the African-American male community,” says Kahn, the son of an African-American father and white Jewish mother.

“I want these guys to be the most successful individuals that they can be and not need football as their fallback plan. I want them to realize that football is just one of many labels or aspects of their lives that they can enjoy and be a part of. Grades come first.”

On the field, Kahn says his greatest challenge has been getting his young team to buy into his philosophy of selflessness.

“At the beginning of the season we were a really egocentric group of guys…our chemistry as a team was heavily compromised.”

And that compromise cost the Gauchos – the team started the season with three straight losses. But Kahn says he never lost faith. Slowly, he began to see an emotional shift in his players.

“These guys were able to put together some great game play and also not be selfish and be able to work together to meet a common goal.”

For his part, Kahn says he has learned how much his attitude affects his team’s successes and failures.

“I always need to remain a calm, collected individual who can always be the voice of reason, who can always give the players positive words, who can tell another coach that it’s okay, or say in a constructive way when we need to make some type of change or accommodation.”

“I have high expectations for each and every one of my players and I think that, as a result, they have a high expectation of me. Which means that they hope I’m going to lead them to greatness, or lead them to victory, or lead them to whatever type of win is available for us to obtain.”

Dan “Shag” Shaughnessy, a Bay Area high school football legend with 49 years of coaching experience, believes Kahn has what it takes to be a great coach.

“He’s a real forthright gentleman, and I think he carries a lot of qualities the kids respond to. He has a big heart for the kids, and he’s very honest with them. He’s going to do very well.”

Shaughnessy felt so strongly about Kahn’s potential that he accepted the coach’s offer to return to ECHS and join the staff as defensive coordinator.

Kahn himself wasn’t so confident.

“When I first started out this season, I said to myself if I could get one win – one win – I’d be a happy camper,” he says.

Now, with a record of 6-3 and only one regular season game remaining, Kahn is poised to accomplish something even his idol, George Austin, was never able to do – take the team to the playoffs in his first season as head coach.

“I’m just really happy and impressed with where my team is right now. I think the sky’s the limit for them,” says Kahn.

At the end of the day, all of Kahn’s hard work, his dedication to his students, is fundamentally about honoring his roots.

“Football in El Cerrito for a very long time was the focal point of what we were about in terms of our community’s culture,” Kahn says. “There was a time when I played where the entire stands were filled and people had to stand on the track to watch the game. I would like to get it back to that point where people want to come and see some great football at the high school level.”

For Kahn, a return to greatness starts with the right attitude.

“We have an old saying [at ECHS] called Gaucho Pride. For me Gaucho Pride means that I came from a great lineage of football excellence and I want to continue that and work hard every day to ensure that the excellence will continue on for many years after I’m here.”

When asked about his long-term plans, Kahn’s big, toothy grin returns.

“I want to stay here as long as I’m wanted,” he says with a laugh. “This city has a lot of great thing to offer me. It’s providing my employment, my housing. It’s providing all of the major things I need in order to live a sustainable lifestyle.”

The autumn sun has nearly set as the last few players leave the field and head back towards the locker room. Each boy extends a weary arm to shake the coach’s hand as they pass by.

Kahn looks pleased.

“I have a job and I’m giving back to my community. I’m a pretty content individual.”

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