Life rarely goes according to plan.
Even as undrafted cornerback Cameron Kinley bolted down the sideline carrying an interception off of Kyle Trask on Day 1 of the Bucs’ rookie mini-camp – fulfilling a life-long dream of battling for a spot on an NFL roster – the moment came from a very different path than he had imagined.
A three-sport athlete out of Lausanne Collegiate High School in Memphis, Tennessee, Kinley had dreams of attending Vanderbilt University. His eyes set on an SEC school that boasts nationally-renowned academics and resides just three hours away from home. But he ultimately never received an offer from the Commodores. Instead, Kinley was forced to make a choice between the offers that were extended to him. A comprehensive list that included the United States Naval Academy, the United States Air Force Academy, Harvard, Princeton and Yale.
Kinley had never considered joining the armed forces prior to his recruitment. But after discussions with some of his teachers and faculty as a senior, and some nudging from his grandfather who was once a chief in the Navy, Kinley ultimately decided to continue his football career at the Naval Academy.
CB Cameron Kinley – Photo by: USA Today
“As I did my research I just saw that Navy was the total package for me,” Kinley said. “I knew that I would be able to develop as a man which would make me a better leader, a better husband, a better father in the future. The academics were top-notch. I knew that a degree from the Naval Academy would open doors. Football, a top-25 program in the AAC. I [knew that I] was going to get to play against my hometown for four years and play in my hometown twice being in the AAC. On top of all that, serving in the military is something that not everyone gets to say that they were able to do. And to be able to give back to my country in that manner and place myself in an uncomfortable environment and allow the military to let me grow as a man, I definitely saw it as a great opportunity and it’s paid off so far.”
Kinley played four years at Navy and totaled 88 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, one sack, one interception, 12 passes defended and one forced fumble in 27 games. Even despite losing his starting role during the 2020 season, Kinley remained a team captain. And to make his resume even more impressive, Kinley was also the Academy’s senior class president.
Graduating with a degree in political science on Friday, Kinley will ultimately fulfill his service as an information warfare community officer when his football career ends. But as class president, Kinley will join an extensive list of presidents, vice presidents and cabinet members – among others – as a commencement speaker at the Naval Academy’s graduation ceremony. To top it off, Kinley will also present a gift from his graduating class to Vice President Kamala Harris.
“Not too long ago we found out that we were actually going to have Vice President Kamala Harris as our commencement speaker,” Kinley said. “So when I found that out it kind of put everything in perspective. I was like, ‘Man this is crazy.’ I’m going to have the opportunity to speak in front of my class at the Naval Academy’s graduation, but to also speak in front of the vice president who’s the first female vice president and the first African-American female vice president. And being able to present her with a gift from my class? That’s definitely an opportunity that not everyone will get to experience in their life. And me, being 22-years-old and already getting to experience something like that is definitely going to be something that I’ll get to talk to my kids and grandkids about down the road.”
So while Kinley had never dreamed of playing football at Navy, the discipline and lessons that he learned as a Midshipman will stay with him for a lifetime.
“When I think of a Naval Academy Midshipman, the first word that comes to my mind is discipline,” Kinley said. “It takes a lot, it’s very stressful at times. You’re going to get down mentally but you’re going to have that discipline to be able to go in every day and go about the strenuous routine that we have at the academy. To make sure you’re handling your academics, make sure you’re handling your military obligations, make sure you’re handling your stuff on the field or in the gym, whatever sport you participate in. So discipline is what gets you through and those who lack discipline won’t be able to get through the academy.”
Tasked with being a full-time student and a Division I athlete is a commitment in and of itself. But adding in the military obligations and the responsibility of Navy’s class president on Kinley’s plate, that discipline and focus were driving forces.
“Being at the Naval Academy I learned a lot about being able to cut out things that don’t align with where I want to go in life,” Kinley said. “It’s difficult to do that at a young age, especially being in college when you see your friends all out having fun and you feel like you’re missing out on a lot of that. But now, being at the end of my journey at the academy, you see just how much those things don’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. Being able to be disciplined and focus on what’s important in your life at a young age is what sets Midshipmen apart from other college students.”
After four years of college football Kinley began to prepare for the 2021 NFL Draft. Seven rounds came and went, surrounded by friends and family, but his name wasn’t called. With the draft over Kinley went for a short walk before he was contacted by his agent. At least two teams were interested in signing him as an undrafted free agent. The Kansas City Chiefs and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, two conference champions that most recently squared off in Super Bowl LV.
Cameron Kinley – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Kinley made his decision to sign with the Bucs quickly, feeling as though it was simply the right landing place for him. And his signing also comes with some connections as his father played with inside linebacker’s coach Mike Caldwell at Middle Tennessee State University and his brother, Jonathan Brown, spent one season in 2014 under Bruce Arians in Arizona.
“I definitely feel like I’m a natural-born leader,” Kinley said about what he brings to the Bucs. “I was a team captain at the Naval Academy as well as a class president. Going to the Naval Academy, it’s a leadership institution. So I think that I have a natural ability to lead others and help people move in the right direction by setting an example, first and foremost. Just trying to set the example for the guys around me.”
But it will take more than leadership to crack a Super Bowl-caliber roster in Tampa. The Bucs still have three young cornerbacks under contract in Carlton Davis, Jamel Dean and Sean Murphy-Bunting. Behind the young trio Tampa Bay brought back veteran Ross Cockrell to serve as the fourth cornerback. If Kinley can perform well on special teams, he may find himself in a training camp battle with Herb Miller and seventh-round pick Chris Wilcox.
“On the field as a defensive back, I feel like I bring a lot of length and that I fit well into the mold that Tampa Bay already has in the secondary,” Kinley said. “A smart defensive back, who can read tendencies, see the offense, see the quarterback, where he wants to go with the ball. I feel like a combination of those things. My size, my speed and then the leadership abilities that I can bring to the team is kind of what sets me apart.”
But for now Kinley is remains an underdog, a place he feels comfortable. A place he’s been since before he ever enrolled at the United States Naval Academy four long years ago.
“You’ve got a guy who’s persevered through a lot and has kind of been an underdog his whole life,” Kinley said to Bucs fans everywhere. “Working hard, the work ethic, will always be there. It’ll always be a part of me. But most importantly you’ve got a guy who’s going to lead by example and a lot of that comes from my faith in God. God guides my life in everything that I do and I hope that others see that through me. So I’m just trying to be a good teammate on the Bucs to the other players on the team and try to find where my role is. And once I figure that out, [I want to] just work my way up to become a key player for this team. To lead and help lead and try to get back to another Super Bowl this year.”