Susan Friedman rattled off the names of the cities and states, each one farther away and more untouchable than the one that preceded it.
Kentucky. Missouri. Omaha. Oklahoma. Texas. California. Washington. Hawaii …
These locales, and many more across the nation, sent high school football players to participate in the Blue-Grey All-American Bowl, played on Dec. 22 at AT&T Stadium, a sprawling, massive cathedral that is home to the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys.
In the middle of that field hosting some of the nation’s top high school football players was Friedman’s only son, Cody Kettyle, a 6-foot-4, 320-pound senior offensive lineman at Abraham Lincoln. For Kettyle — the only player from Pennsylvania on the East team’s roster — getting to play in such an elite invitation-only event is a major achievement in and of itself, but one that was perhaps overshadowed by the actions of a determined mother and a supportive community who fought tooth and nail to get him there.
“When I got that envelope with the invitation, I didn’t know how to act, or if it was even true,” Kettyle said in the living room of his Holmesburg home during a Thursday evening conversation. “I called my mom at work and she was ecstatic. But of course after you read you’re chosen, you have to look at the price sheet. I was happy and couldn’t get over how excited I was, and then we had to start planning to figure out how to make it happen.”
Let’s rewind first, to examine how this all happened.
Kettyle said sometime last winter, a Lincoln counselor dropped off an envelope containing an invite to a Blue-Grey combine workout at the NovaCare Complex in South Philadelphia. Kettyle worked out with other interested players, mostly from the Mid-Atlantic, and did well enough to earn an invitation to a “super combine” in Massachusetts in June. When he heard nothing by September, Kettyle figured he had missed the cut. But then around the third week of October, an envelope arrived at his house.
“It said that out of 7,000 kids who tried out, I had been chosen to go play in the Dallas Cowboys’ $1.4 billion stadium,” he said.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t an all-expenses paid invite, so now came the obstacle of figuring out how to come up with the money to get Cody and Susan to Texas. Friedman, with a mother’s love fueling her ambition, began a grassroots fundraising campaign, soliciting local businesses for donations either on foot or via email and the telephone. T-shirts and loom bracelets were made for sale, and Kettyle brought big boxes of candy to sell to Lincoln students, where, “I think I did $30 of candy sales the first day,” he said with a laugh.
A late-November fundraiser at Leneghan’s Crusader Inn brought in about $1,700, mainly through donations that were raffled off (the Eagles donated an autographed helmet with the signatures of two dozen players) and more T-shirt and bracelet sales. The event drew roughly 80 supporters, with more than half of them being people Kettyle had never met. Between that, plus the donations from family members and local businesses, Kettyle and Friedman had come close to hitting their target of $3,500. The family is still processing the community’s kindness, which Friedman called “overwhelming.”
“I became very determined, more than I ever thought I could become,” Friedman said. “But the support we got, I was totally blown away. I was taken aback that these people were actually calling me back. I think they could sense my determination, and most people helped, no questions asked. I can’t even fathom it.”
With the necessary funds in hand, Kettyle and Friedman caught a Dec. 19 flight to Dallas. The weekend was a whirlwind, as both the East and West teams had just two practices together before Sunday evening’s game. Former NFL players acted as coaches for each side, and Kettyle and Friedman quickly made friends with families from as far away as Texas and California.
They were treated like professional players, with everything from using the actual lockers belonging to the Cowboys and running onto the field while a sizable crowd cheered them on.
The game itself was a mixed bag, at least in terms of the score. Kettyle’s East squad fell to the West, 41-7, but this game and this weekend meant much more than just who won and lost. Rather, it was more about a celebration of these players’ journeys to get there, and learning more about each other in the short time they were together. Kettyle said he earned a newfound respect for how seriously football is treated in Texas, where, “It’s more of a religion than a game,” he said, as well as forging new relationships he hopes will be everlasting with the help of social media.
“It was the best weekend of my life,” Kettyle said. “There’s nothing like it, and I will never, ever forget. Nothing will be able to compare to this experience. All the practices, the hard work, the injuries … it all paid off in that one letter I got inviting me to this game. On the plane down there I just wanted it to be Sunday so I could play, but once it comes and goes, you just want to relive it all over again.”
And despite being a left guard all season for Lincoln, Kettyle’s coaches asked him to play out of position at right tackle; while it may have taken Kettyle out of his own comfort zone, he agreed to the switch right away when he realized it was what the team needed to have the best chance.
“Cody has this saying he likes, from (ex-Baltimore Ravens linebacker) Ray Lewis, that says, ‘Do it for the man next to you,’ ” Friedman said. “He knew coaches would be watching him and that might not be his best position. That’s taking one for the man next to you, so that his team could have a complete offensive line. I’m just a very proud mom.”
Kettyle himself said his favorite two parts of the weekend were hanging out with his new coast-to-coast friends during downtime at the hotel, just getting to know each other, as well as a certain play in the game where he knocked down a rushing defensive end, who in turn fell into another West player, knocking them both over and giving the quarterback a chance to gain yardage.
“I knocked two guys down on one play … I was pretty happy about that,” he said with a laugh. “It’s always nice to come back home where you’re most comfortable, but if I could go back there now I’d be on the next plane.”
The trip strengthened an already tight bond between Kettyle and Friedman, and they proved that they could get through anything together so long as they had each other’s backs. To make matters even more difficult in the weeks leading up to the trip, Kettyle’s maternal grandfather, Berill Friedman, who was Cody’s most fervent supporter next to his mother, passed away in Florida on Nov. 26. The fundraiser was on Nov. 22.
“I talked to him every day, and before he passed away, he heard that we had raised enough money and that I was going to Dallas,” Kettyle said. “He knew I was going, which is all I could ask for.”
“The night before he died, Cody got an acceptance letter from Towson University in Maryland,” Friedman said through tears. “It was the last thing I ever got to tell my father, and then he left us.”
Now that this once-in-a-lifetime experience is behind him, Kettyle is determined to focus on his schoolwork and not get diagnosed with a case of “senior-itis.” An honors student at Lincoln, Kettyle is taking five advanced placement courses, boasts a 3.9 GPA and is ranked 10th in his class. He’s hoping that his play in the Blue-Grey game will open some previously unforeseen collegiate opportunities, but if not, heading to Towson in the fall could be on the docket. No matter what happens, Kettyle knows he’ll be somewhere, in large part due to hard work in the classroom and on the football field, as well as the unequivocal support of his mom and the supportive community she rallied on her back.
“I think it was more shock than anything,” Kettyle said. “Everyone was in constant support mode. Nobody told me it was out of reach or that I couldn’t do it. Seeing everyone there to back me up and not put me down made me want it even more. It was just one big family in the community that I never knew I had coming out to help me. They told me they would do whatever it took to get me there, and they did.”
“It was the furthest dream I could think of, relying on others to get him there,” an extremely grateful Friedman said. “I didn’t even think there was a speck of a thought at the time, and I told one of the moms from Texas that I had met that I didn’t know if we could do it. When we got to Dallas, I sat in the hotel with her and I told her, ‘I can’t believe we made it. We got here.’ ”
And they got there the same way they’ve always gotten anywhere: together. ••