Before he was the head coach of the undefeated First Academy Royals, Leroy Kinard was a youth growing up in Oakland and finding his love for the game in West Orange County.
As someone who grew up in Oakland in the 1970s and ’80s, Leroy Kinard knows how much West Orange County has changed.
Kinard, who left his hometown in 1987 to play college football, remembers coming back to visit in 2001 and — while taking a back road from Orlando that he’d once been familiar with — the Oakland native got lost in his old stomping grounds.
“I didn’t know that there were so many new communities — it’s crazy,” Kinard recalls now with a laugh.
He has since moved back to Central Florida full-time, and Kinard has had ample time to reacquaint himself with his changing hometown. After all, as the head football coach of The First Academy since 2008, he has coached plenty of players who commute to the Orlando-based school from West Orange and Windermere.
Kinard’s Royals are 8-0 this season and closing in on consecutive undefeated regular seasons. Winners of 23 straight regular-season games, the Royals are nearly a lock to be the top seed in the FHSAA’s Class 3A, Region 2 Playoffs, which will begin Nov. 10.
The success of the program at The First Academy is just the latest chapter in a football life for Kinard that started at Walker Field in Winter Garden and, later, at West Orange High.
Kinard attended Lakeview Junior High, Calvary Christian School and, for his junior and senior years of high school, West Orange High. He played football at all three and, by the time he was suiting up in orange and blue for the Warriors, he was a standout running back that then-head coach Mark Hodge told the West Orange Times in 1986 was a “blue-chip kind of guy” with plenty of options for college.
Although he says his most memorable games as a Warrior were losses — a “fog bowl” against Apopka and a double-overtime loss to Evans that involved three crucial missed field goals — Kinard remembers most fondly those he came to know through game. Former Warriors such as Ben Cooley, Henry Ruben, Carl Latimer and DeAndre Clark became lifelong friends.
“It’s about the relationships,” Kinard said. “The guys that I was with made the difference.”
Growing up through tragedy
It was during that season of Kinard’s life, between ages 16 and 19, where the roots of his coaching career were planted — and it came through tragedy. First, Kinard’s father, Jesse, died when he was 16. Then, at 19, his mother, Clara, died.
Suddenly, Kinard — who grew up with two brothers and a sister — was without the most prominent examples in his life before he had turned 20.
“It was very, very difficult to kind of navigate things — and that’s part of my story and part of why I’m so passionate about (mentoring young people),” Kinard said. “I didn’t have great guidance all the time.”
Despite the void the loss of his parents left, Kinard continued with the help of his uncle and other family members. After committing and later de-committing to South Carolina State, he played his college football at Liberty University (then Liberty Baptist College). He had a standout career there, a career that brought about an opportunity he would have never envisioned when he was dashing up and down Walker Field as a youth — the opportunity to play in the National Football League.
“I had literally never thought about it,” Kinard said. “My position coach called me into his office and said, ‘You have an opportunity to play on Sundays.’”
A contract and a car
Kinard signed a free-agent contract with the New York Jets and, although his stint in the NFL was not long, he did get a great story out of it.
Pete Carroll, currently the coach of the Seattle Seahawks, was the defensive coordinator for the Jets from 1990 through 1993. During training camp ahead of the 1991 season, he put together an event for the players — a home-run derby, with the winner receiving a car.
Kinard, who had also played baseball as a youth in West Orange, won the derby — but the car was a little less than spectacular.
“It had no hubcaps on it, and in house paint, they put, ‘New York Jets,’ on the side of the car — it was a complete beater,” Kinard said, recalling the Pontiac Grand Prix. “I tried to drive it, and it literally broke down before I could get back to the Jets facility a mile away.”
Jokes aside, Kinard’s time with the Jets taught him a lesson that he carries with him to this day, something he can share with his players who see a career in the NFL as their dream job.
“When you get to the NFL, it changes — it’s a complete business,” Kinard said. “There were people that, I don’t know if they cared if you did the right thing, just as long as you played well.”
It wasn’t long after his playing career ended that Kinard began his coaching career, first as an assistant at his collegiate alma mater in 1995 and later at a nearby high school. Coaching didn’t immediately catch for Kinard, though, and he began a career in pharmaceutical sales.
A convergence of things brought Kinard back to the sidelines.
First, he and his wife, Rebekah, desired to move back to Central Florida. Then, a chance encounter with an old friend left an indelible impression. As the two exchanged pleasantries, Kinard’s friend said he was “serving the Lord” — causing him to reflect on how he was using his own talents to give back.
There was an opening at The First Academy for the head coaching job, and although the job ultimately went to Dale Salapa — who later coached at Dr. Phillips and Ocoee — Kinard impressed the administration enough that they offered him a job as an assistant.
After a brief stop as an assistant at Trinity Prep in Winter Park from 2005-07, Kinard returned to the Royals as the program’s head coach in 2008. This time, it stuck. He has been leading The First Academy’s football program ever since and believes that being at a faith-based school has enabled him to make his role more than that of someone teaching X’s and O’s.
“I just fell in love with it,” Kinard said. “When you’re at a faith-based school, you’re able to specifically say, ‘This is who we are and this is what we do.’ We really have an opportunity to impact kids’ lives.”
As evidence of his mission to build great fathers and husbands in addition to football players, Kinard points to a statistic that has nothing to do with football. In the past five years, 15 young men who have come through his program have been baptized.
Kinard, who lives with his wife in Orlando, became a father along the way, too, and he said his daughter, Jordyn, also has helped him evolve as a coach.
“Being a father gives you perspective,” Kinard said. “Being a father has helped me understand there is ‘why’ behind when kids do things.”
On the field this fall, Kinard’s Royals are a gritty bunch, and with several hard-fought wins to their credit, they are determined to eclipse their first-round playoff exit from 2016.
And although he wants to see his program make a run at a state title, it doesn’t mean he’s forgotten his ultimate goal — and why it is so.
“People talk to (young men) all the time and say, ‘Hey, be a man’ — but when you’re (a teenager), what does that mean?” Kinard said. “You have no concept and everything you get is out of the (popular) culture. We (the staff at TFA) try and make sure that we build principles into their lives — God uses pain sometimes to help you, and I think that’s one of the things that’s been used in my life.”