This article was originally published in the Jan. 22, 2017 edition of the Sun.
Purchase a Worcester Sun membership for as low as $2, or sign up for our email newsletter below.
To say the last year has been draining for Kevin Mensah would be an understatement.
The star running back and Worcester native transferred from Holy Name Central Catholic High School on Granite Street to Shepherd Hill Regional in Dudley in the offseason, to much fanfare and, of course, much controversy.
Holy Name initially refused to sign a transfer waiver that would grant Mensah eligibility at his new school, and even after Holy Name decided to sign the waiver, the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association seemed to do everything it could to keep Kevin sidelined.
— Kevin Mensah (@OheneKM) October 9, 2016
Mensah was forced to sit out the first two games of his team’s eight-game regular season. He was then granted two temporary injunctions in state court. The MIAA appealed both of those injunctions, and the threat of Mensah once again being sidelined loomed over the senior every week as he prepared for the Rams’ next opponent.
Mensah was finally able to exhale on Oct. 28, just hours before his team was set to play Fitchburg, when a state appeals court denied the MIAA’s latest appeal of his injunction, clearing the way for him to finish the season.
That is the story most high school football fans around Central Mass. know, but many may not realize that Mensah’s departure from Holy Name and subsequent transfer to Shepherd Hill were both the results of a prep school recruitment gone awry.
Mensah began 2016 thinking he would be moving to Cheshire, Connecticut, to play for the prestigious Cheshire Academy football team. Not only is Cheshire Academy one of the oldest and most respected academic institutions in the country, its football team plays a rigorous schedule and regularly churns out Division I football players.
This year’s Cheshire football team boasts more than a half-dozen major Div. I football prospects heading to powerhouse programs like Michigan and Notre Dame.
Leaving Holy Name was a difficult decision for Mensah, but if it meant he could practice and play against top next-level prospects every week, and maybe catch the eye of a few college coaches, it seemed worth it. Since Cheshire is a boarding school, Kevin spent weeks packing up his life to head to Connecticut toward the end of the summer.
Just a week before he was set to leave, though, everything changed.
“They told me personally I had a spot at Cheshire, and then they kind of left me unanswered for a while,” Mensah said. “It was a week before we were gonna move in, and I hadn’t heard from them, so I called them. They said they couldn’t get the money for my spot.
“I just said thank you for the opportunity.”
“My mom just kept telling me to stay calm,” Mensah added. “She kept saying it was all going to work out, and that everything happens for a reason.”
Suddenly, everything began to speed up. Mensah initially thought he would simply head back to Holy Name, but a number of his cousins had ties to Shepherd Hill and the star running back considered School Choice to play for the Rams.
Holy Name administrators decided not to sign Mensah’s transfer waiver, and there was a noticeable backlash against the former Nap star on social media and on several popular local blogs. Of course, very few, if any, of the voices online accusing Mensah of being a “free agent” or “mercenary” knew his Cheshire scholarship had been pulled out from under him just weeks before the start of the season.
“My mom was in shock when I first told her I might not be able to play. She was like, ‘What do you mean you can’t play?'” Mensah said. “It was so hard. That’s when she started to become stressed, and she couldn’t sleep and stuff. She has to be my mom and my dad, and she worries about me.
“I didn’t want her to worry, and the whole reason I’m working so hard is to get a free education, and be able to pay her back for the 18 years she’s done so much for me.”
Perhaps the biggest challenge for Mensah has been reaching NCAA eligibility since transferring to Shepherd Hill.
Once the guidance department and recruiting coordinator Nate Skermont were able to get Kevin’s transcripts from Holy Name, they found a student who had much work left to do to make it through the NCAA Clearinghouse.
The fact that Mensah is still working toward NCAA eligibility deep into his senior year, Skermont says, is also causing some schools to hold off on offering him a full scholarship.
“These guys need to meet (Shepherd Hill’s) graduation requirements, then we have to find out what they need to do for NCAA eligibility,” Skermont said. “I can’t say (why Mensah was behind), because I’m not in that building (at Holy Name). He was taking a full course load there, but not enough of those were NCAA eligible.”
Skermont added that the coaching staff was confused as to why the MIAA would try to keep a student working a full course load off the field, especially after Holy Name agreed to sign a transfer waiver.
“Kevin has had to work. He takes seven classes a day, and we only have seven periods, so he’s got no study halls; he’s got to take all the MCAS, because he didn’t take those at private school,” Skermont said. “And that’s why the court thing rubbed us the wrong way at that point. Here’s a kid at a new school, taking a full course load and all these tests, and he’s got to deal with that on top of it.
“These guys all want to be big tough guys, but they’re not. They’re kids, and kids shouldn’t have to deal with this stuff. Not to mention that, with the court stuff, he would have to leave school. We’re trying to get him caught up, taking all these classes, and now he’s got to miss class just to make sure he can play.
“The whole thing dragged on way too long.”
Once Mensah finally got on the field, he was nothing short of dominant. He rushed for more than 1,200 yards and 13 touchdowns, all on an absurd 10 yards per carry average. Mensah proved he was deserving of the hype he received during the offseason.
Still, Shepherd Hill failed to make the playoffs in its first year of Division 2 play (the largest division in the region), and Mensah still only had one scholarship offer, from Bryant University in Rhode Island, as he began running track this winter.
But Mensah and Skermont have remained undeterred, sending Kevin’s highlights, lifting numbers, running times, transcripts and academic interests to any coach that would look at them. Eventually, Michigan offered Kevin an invited walk-on spot, and guaranteed him a spot on the team, though he would not initially be on scholarship.
Tuition, fees, and room and board at University of Michigan approaches $60,000 per year for out-of-state students.
Boston College had also kept up steady communication with Mensah, though the commitment of four-star running back A.J. Dillon to the Eagles may have caused them to shift their focus to other positions.
Most recently, UConn has begun showing more interest in Kevin. Recently rehired coach Randy Edsall set up an official visit for Mensah at the end of the month, and his son, UConn tight ends coach Corey Edsall, stopped by Shepherd Hill’s campus in Dudley to meet with Kevin.
“Coach Edsall gave me his number around New Year’s, and said they still want me to come up there,” Mensah said. “He said they’re gonna keep watching my film and talk with me more. We’re starting to build a connection.”
Elon University in North Carolina has also picked up its interest in Mensah, and with less than two weeks to go until National Signing Day on Feb. 1, it appears that Kevin will have a home somewhere. After the whirlwind year he’s had, he’s thankful for that.
“I still have to thank (Holy Name) for everything they’ve done for me,” Mensah said. “If it wasn’t for the coaches and players there, I wouldn’t be in the position I’m in now. … All the coaches and guys here at Shepherd Hill, along with my family, they want the best for me. Even though football is over, they still all check in on me and want me to find a home for next year.”
Joe Parello is a deputy editor and cofounder of SuiteSports.com.