Kenny Stills wasn't happy when his mom decided they were moving south, down the coast of southern California from Oceanside to Encinitas right before he started high school. Instead of playing for the team that produced Willie Buchanon, Junior Seau and his dad, he was headed to La Costa Canyon.
The school is top notch, but it's better known for speech and chess, volleyball and lacrosse than for football.
“When I moved, going into high school, I was surrounded by different people, different culture,” Stills said. “Kids had to work a lot harder because they weren't as blessed with talent.”
Even though Stills had the talent, he fell in line with that mentality. He scoured the Internet for camps. He begged his mom to let him attend. He worked out with a trainer. He dedicated extra time to his receiving skills, perfecting everything from how to stem a route to how to catch the ball at its highest point.
By his junior year at La Costa Canyon, he had become one of the best receiver prospects in the country and his team had become one of the best in the area.
La Costa Canyon did more than play for a section title at the Chargers' Qualcomm Stadium for the first time in school history. It won the darn thing, too.
“The group of kids that I hung out with just showed me … how to work hard and that things just don't come easy,” Stills said. “If it wasn't for them, I don't think I would be where I am now.”
Those teammates motivated him to get his first tattoo — the one on the inside of his left forearm.
His dad had sent him the quote, and the sentiment about doing something you'd never done to get something you never had, about God's will never taking you somewhere that God's grace couldn't protect you resonated with Stills. He posted it on the mirror in his bedroom. He wrote it on his notebooks at school.
And when he wanted to put it permanently on his arm, his parents had a hard time arguing against a mantra that they believed, too.
“He learned those fundamentals … to care about people, to do the right thing,” his dad said. “Kenny has got a good heart.”
His mom said: “I know people think he's got this cocky attitude and this hair and tattoos and everything. He's just really kind.”
Before a game earlier this season, she happened to meet a mother and son who'd crossed paths with Kenny during the summer. The son was struggling in school and wanting to quit football, but the mom saw football as a way to keep him out of trouble.
Stills encouraged the boy, told him to work hard in school, to stay with football, to keep his head up.
But that wasn't all.
“Here's my phone number,” he told them. “Call me anytime you need anything.”
Ready to face the challenge
Kenny Stills insists the hair and the tats and the piercings aren't some sort of college rebellion.
“I don't feel like … I'm trying to find myself or trying to grow,” he said. “That's just who I am, and that's always who I'm going to be.”
But who he is?
It's a complicated question. While he's someone who gives his cell number to a kid in need, he's the same guy who was arrested last winter on suspicion of misdemeanor driving under the influence, then caused a summer brouhaha when he criticized Oklahoma State receiver Justin Blackmon via Twitter.
But whenever he's had tough times, he's always found comfort in those words on his left forearm.
When God takes something from your grasp, he's not punishing you. He's merely opening your hands to receive something better. The will of God will not take you where the grace of God cannot protect you.
Now that Broyles is sidelined for the rest of the season, Stills finds himself focused on those words once again.
“People might say that we're not anything because Ryan's gone,” Stills said. “I have full confidence in the fact that we're going to go out and play well on Saturday because of my faith.
“I'm taking it as a challenge. I'm going to go out there and play my tail off.”