It would be easy to label Josh Kennedy the smartest kid in the building at Fort Myers High.
After all, he’s the Green Wave junior who aced his SATs as a sophomore, carries an unweighted 4.0 GPA and once prompted his math teacher to say about his work in calculus, “That was a work of art.”
“He does an unbelievable job in the classroom,” said Yancey Palmer, who is both Kennedy’s math teacher and cross country coach. “I teach the highest level of math there is. And he’s well beyond any of that.”
But let’s not forget he’s one of the better athletes, too, the type of runner who could finish within the top 10 places at the FHSAA Class 3A cross country championships in Tallahassee on Saturday.
“I’ve always been really competitive,” Kennedy says. “I’ve always tended to do well in the race situation.”
So what happens when you combine an athlete with a perfect SAT score with someone with natural running ability?
Is he, like, a robot out there?
“I’ve talked to him about that before,” teammate Evan Babatz said. “He says that’s not really the case. He just forgets about everything and just focuses on running.”
Sure, Kennedy might process information like a high-grade NASA computer, but he’s human. To look at his life through a microscope, you would find so much more.
Kennedy lost his father, Richard, two years ago, just one race into this freshman cross country season.
He had been at Josh’s first race. And then he wasn’t.
Nothing could have prepared Kennedy.
“It was a major shock,” said Palmer, who barely knew his freshman runner at that point. “It was like he (Richard) was pumping gas after work one day and then he was gone, like that.”
Palmer remembers attending Kennedy’s father’s funeral with a few members of the team. But emotion wasn’t something you could easily see out of the freshman.
“The team rallied behind him,” Palmer said. “We wanted to do whatever we could for him.”
Just days later, Kennedy emerged. He appeared at the Optimist Invitational and won the JV race in 18 minutes, 30 seconds.
“It was definitely an emotional race,” he said. “I’ve won a few varsity races this year, but I think that still stands out in my mind as probably the most memorable thing that happened.”
Weeks later, however, running was taken away from him, too.
Unsure of the heart condition that may have contributed to his father’s death, cardiologists examined Kennedy to see if he was inflicted with the same ailment.
They found an irregularity and pulled him out of action.
“They wanted to play it safe and get a diagnosis on that before I started running again,” Kennedy said.
He didn’t run for the next 10 weeks, starting from square one the following spring.
It’s been two seasons since, and much has changed. Kennedy, who turned 16 this year, has won two major races heading into the state championships on Saturday: the Caloosahatchee Invitational and the Lee County Athletic Conference meet.
He’s run under 17 minutes five times. He’s as confident as he’s ever been.
But Kennedy still doesn’t wear his heart on his sleeve. And he still works through races on his own terms.
Palmer has tried to pull emotion out of him in various ways.
“We’ve talked about different things,” Palmer said. “I don’t want to put that kind of pressure on him. I don’t tell him, ‘Run for your father.’ But we do talk about running for something that’s bigger than you.”
There could be a handful of reasons.
Kennedy has a brother, Jacob, who has Down syndrome. He’s in the eighth grade.
Since his father’s passing, Kennedy has taken turns caring for him. After meets, for instance, he might set up a place for him to eat. Or he might drive home after school.
“It’s forced me to take on a bigger male role in the household,” Kennedy said. “With Jacob I have to really be a role model for him. I lead by example for him.”
His mother, Sherry, who’s a dentist, doesn’t feel like he needs to do any of this. But she admires the way he’s been a big brother.
The junior sacrifices social outings with friends to study or help with his family.
“I think he’s been very resilient after the loss of his father,” she said. “And so I think he’s done very well in moving on and try to do very well for us.”
Hitting the books
Although running is important to Kennedy, it’s not his entire focus.
He values education first. Sherry thinks this is a trait she instilled in him at an early age.
“My husband was an engineer,” she said. “I suppose he got his math ability that way. I was always very academically inclined though as well.”
As an eighth-grader, Kennedy submitted an economics paper for a statewide competition. It was reviewed and later deemed “college worthy.”
By high school, he was impressing teachers like Palmer with his mathematical acumen.
“The second week of school, he did this little trick and was able to factor this trinomial,” Palmer said. “It was one of the first times I’ve said, that math was beautiful. Just what he did was beautiful.”
The perfect SAT score – in three sections: math, reading, writing – came as a shock to his mother, but Kennedy didn’t seem too surprised.
“Going in, I knew I would do pretty well based on practice tests,” he said, “but I had never aced one in practice, so I kind of had a good day.”
It seems anything is possible for him. Harvard? MIT? Yale? What field will he be drawn to? Mathematics? Economics?
“I think he’s trying to figure it out,” Sherry said. “I tell him not to stress out about it. Enjoy your high school years. Wherever he goes, he’ll do a good job in whatever field he chooses.”
First, however, Kennedy will need to finish out his cross country season.
It all ends in Tallahassee, where in October he scored the best race of his career. He finished in 16:12.
“My goal is to get under that at states and I think I have a good shot at that,” he said.
Palmer thinks there may come a moment, though, when training won’t prepare him for a critical moment. Then, he feels, something else will need to come out of Kennedy.
“I think he just wants to prove that the time he ran earlier wasn’t a fluke,” Palmer said. “He wants to be able to do it again. He can compete with any of those other guys out front.”
“He wants to finish and be on that podium,” Palmer said. “Where he can smile at his mom and his brother.”