Bend wrestler's inspiring story

Bend High wrestler overcomes poverty and a violent past

Published Jan 30, 2011 at 04:00AM

Editor's note: This is the first installment of a two-part series about Bend High junior Kenny Dailey. A troubled youth in middle school — he had been arrested four times before he even started high school — Dailey cleaned up his act after joining the Pilot Butte Middle School wrestling team as an eighth-grader and the Bend High football program as a freshman. This is his story, one not without its share of setbacks. Dailey has risen above an impoverished past and a chaotic home life to become not only a standout athlete with a bright future, but also a responsible and law-abiding citizen. Beau Eastes can be reached at 541-383-0305 or at beastes@bendbulletin.

Sometimes when things are going a little too smoothly, Kenny Dailey reflects back on how far he has come.

The Bend High junior reminds himself that he is just three years removed from his last arrest.

That his time in the Deschutes County Juvenile Detention Center was not that long ago.

That one more fight would likely send him to jail and almost certainly end his promising career as a high school football player and wrestler.

“In a snap of a finger, all this could be gone,” says Dailey, 17, who, despite an impoverished childhood checkered by periods of homelessness and marred by episodes of violence, is now a standout athlete for the Lava Bears.

As starting fullback for the football team last fall, he helped Lava Bear tailback Gavin Gerdes rush for an impressive 1,330 yards and nine touchdowns with his reliable blocking. Dailey himself scored four touchdowns during a season in which Bend advanced to the Class 5A state playoffs. Also an accomplished wrestler, Dailey, who last weekend won his weight class at the Eagle Point Invitational, boasts a record of 17-3 this season and is currently ranked fifth in Class 5A at 189 pounds by the Oregon Wrestling Forum. Dailey's turnaround so impressed his coaches that he was nominated for the 2010 High School Football Rudy Award, a national award program that recognizes high school football players with inspirational stories (see sidebar, this page).

“Sometimes after I do something good,” says Dailey, who bounced in and out of “juvie” and was arrested four times before he even started high school, “I think how none of this could have happened ... how it all could have been ruined.”

Troubled past

The first time Scott Novelli met Kenny Dailey, the two were at Bend's Pilot Butte Middle School — Novelli was a physical education teacher and wrestling coach, Dailey a troubled eighth-grader.

“I was talking to a kid in my office in the locker room and I heard someone smashing something,” Novelli recalls. “Another kid was going, ‘Stop! Stop!' And then I heard Kenny say, ‘Who's going to make me?' ”

“Well, I came out of the office and said, ‘I'll make you,' ” Novelli remembers. “It was nose to nose the first time we met.”

Novelli was hardly the first authority figure with whom Dailey had clashed. By his own account, Dailey had been arrested three times before his second stint at Pilot Butte and had been kicked out of three of Bend's four middle schools.

“All of them except Sky View,” Dailey says matter-of-factly. “And that's just because I didn't go there. I even got kicked out of second-chance school (Bend-La Pine Schools' program for students who have been expelled or suspended from school.)”

At the time one of six children living with his mother, Rebecca VerValen, Dailey was an emotional powder keg in middle school. After a fire destroyed the trailer in which the family was living in March 2007, when Dailey was in seventh grade, VerValen and her kids bounced around Bend. They lived in a tent east of town for almost a month before moving into a single room in a low-rent motel.

“There were seven of us kids — mostly all of them little — and my mom, and all that was crammed in either tents or a little motel room,” recalls Dailey, whose youngest brother — the seventh sibling — was born while the family was staying at the motel. “Kids are screaming 'cause they can't go outside 'cause there's a highway out front and a river (the Central Oregon Canal) in the back. Nobody could get their own space. ... Before that we were in a trailer that was really compact. There was a lot of noise and no way to get away from it. That definitely fumed me.”

Adding to the stress, Dailey says, an autistic younger brother was without medication while the family's living situation was in limbo.

“I'd go crazy and freak out at my little brothers 'cause I didn't want to deal with it anymore,” Dailey says. “Then when someone at school would say (anything) I'd snap and freak out at them. I made it a habit.”

Dailey's anger was not a new development. When he was 3 years old, his mother spent 10 days in jail on a misdemeanor charge and was forced to surrender custody of her children. Dailey and his older brother went to live with an uncle in Bremerton, Wash., for 2 1⁄2 years while his two other siblings at the time went to live with other family members. Once his mother regained custody of her kids, Dailey for the next several years bounced back and forth between living with his mom and living with his uncle.

“Kenny was a very angry child when I got him back,” VerValen says about Dailey, who has had little contact with his biological father. “His uncle ... is a very decent man and gave him a lot of structure. When he (Kenny) came back to me he was used to that structure, and at that point in my life I wasn't able to give it to him.”

VerValen struggled to find a decent home for her growing family, and at one point she and her children lived in a cornfield in Washington. There, she would bathe the kids in creek water heated over a campfire.

“Kenny was such a strong little person,” VerValen recalls. “He wanted to change the situation, but he couldn't.”

Finding his sport

Enraged at the world and ready to brawl was pretty much how Novelli and then-Pilot Butte assistant principal Gene Dusan found Dailey in fall 2007. In May of that year Dailey had been arrested for a pair of fights he had gotten into earlier that spring.

“He was an angry, confused kid,” Novelli says about Dailey, who had transferred to Pilot Butte Middle School after spending the first part of the 2007-08 school year in second-chance school. “He was kind of a bully. He was a kid enshrouded in negativity.”

Demonstrating the same behavior that had gotten him suspended elsewhere, Dailey soon became familiar with Dusan, who handled discipline matters at Pilot Butte.

“He lacked direction,” Dusan says about Dailey. “He hadn't had a lot of stable influences in his life. But the top thing we had going (at Pilot Butte) was our wrestling program. Scott Novelli is a Pied Piper. He impacts young people. ... We had a good indication that if we could get Kenny out for wrestling it would be something he would gravitate to and build some solid self-esteem.”

“Gene and I talked that we had to get him (Dailey) in something,” Novelli adds. “Really, we weren't holding our breath. But we wanted to give the kid a chance.”

Standing 5 feet 7 inches tall and weighing a little more than 160 pounds — he was built like a tank even in middle school — Dailey was a good candidate for football. But the season was almost over by the time he enrolled at Pilot Butte, so Dusan and Novelli pointed him toward wrestling.

“(Dusan) called me into his office and gave me some old Nike wrestling shoes,” says Dailey, who had plenty of brawling experience but had never wrestled in a structured program. “Then Novelli comes in and says, ‘We really want you to do this.' ”

Despite having no background in organized sports, Dailey took instantly to wrestling and its physicality.

“Honestly, I didn't know if it was going to work,” Novelli recalls. “But from the first day of practice, he was there early, setting up mats, getting kids involved. He was a natural leader.”

He also was a pretty decent wrestler. A thick, strong kid with a low center of gravity, Dailey was able to win a lot of early-season matches on his strength and athleticism alone.

“He was a first-year wrestler, but he picked up on it,” Novelli says. “He'd been in his share of fights, been in competitive situations and was a brave kid. He wasn't scared of anyone.”

For the first time in his life, Dailey was receiving attention for doing good things. He had become part of the solution to his own problems.

“It was easy to channel that energy into wrestling,” Dailey says about his first experience on the mat. “When I was mad, I could feel myself working harder in practice. I wasn't necessarily mean or aggressive against people in wrestling, but I was focused and working harder.”

“He blossomed,” Novelli adds about Dailey's transformation. “He absolutely lit up. And he continued to improve and beat a lot of kids because he was big, strong and athletic.”

While he understandably was pleased by Dailey's fast start in wrestling, Novelli also developed a concern: Eventually, his big rookie wrestler was going to face an opponent who had grown up on the youth wrestling circuit, who was light-years ahead of Dailey in terms of technique and strategy and could exploit Dailey's inexperience.

“What happens when he gets thumped?” Novelli remembers thinking. “We talked about it. I told him wrestling's a very humbling sport.

“When he lost that first one, it was one of the final hurdles for him,” Novelli says with pride. “He came back (off the mat) upset ... but immediately he knew what mistakes he made. He told me, ‘Coach, I'll get him by the end of the year.'

“I just thought, ‘Wow,' ” Novelli says. “Holy smokes. A month before he'd beat up a kid who looked at him the wrong way.”

Strong finish

Dailey continued to progress as a wrestler, and at season's end he won a regional tournament at 175 pounds, qualifying him for the 2008 middle school state championships.

“I was hoping for maybe one win (by Dailey),” Novelli says about the state tournament, which actually is more of a regional championship including teams from several different states, but primarily from Oregon. “He was unseeded at this thing where there are 400 middle schools vying for 16 spots (at each weight class). ... Him being there was amazing for a first-year kid.”

But Dailey's improbable run was just getting started. He won his first state match by fall and then won by decision in the quarterfinals. He posted another victory in the semifinals and then — less than three months after taking up the sport — he found himself wrestling for a state title.

“He was beating kids on guts and heart and got to the finals,” Novelli remembers. “I was awe-struck.”

Dailey was still such a newbie to the sport that before the championship match he did not recognize a telltale sign of a longtime wrestler.

“He looks over at (his opponent) and asks, ‘Coach, what's wrong with his ears?' ” Novelli recalls, laughing. “I tell him, ‘That's cauliflower ear, Kenny.' ”

After a back-and-forth match, Dailey trailed by four points late in the third and final period. On his back with less than a minute remaining, Dailey escaped, caused a scramble and took his opponent down to the mat, scoring several near-fall points but not a pin. Thinking he had needed a pin to win, Dailey walked off the mat believing he would have to settle for second place.

“The buzzer goes off and I'm bummed,” Dailey recounts. “I didn't know what the score was. I stood up, though, and my mom's freaking out, my sister's screaming and Novelli's jumping around. I got up, looked at the score ... and saw I won.”

Coming Monday

Sports changed Kenny Dailey's perspective, but not before one more brush with the law. Educators, teachers and coaches go out on a limb for the troubled teen before he enters high school, giving Dailey one last chance to turn his life around.

High School Rudy Awards

Kenny Dailey's story first came to The Bulletin's attention when the Bend High junior was nominated for the High School Football Rudy Awards by Lava Bear football coach Craig Walker.

Inspired by former Notre Dame University football Daniel Ruettiger, whom the movie “Rudy” was based on, the High School Football Rudy Awards are given to prep football players who demonstrate “character, courage, contribution and commitment,” according to the foundation's website. One winner receives a $10,000 academic scholarship while three runners-up receive financial aid awards of $5,000 (first runner-up) and $2,500 (two second runners-up). A “fan favorite”, which is voted on by web users, also receives a $5,000 scholarship.

Open to football players across the nation — more than 250 nominations were submitted for the 2010 High School Football Rudy Awards — an eight-person selection committee narrowed the field down to 12 finalists in December before selecting one winner and three runners-up this January. Dailey was one of the 12 finalists for the 2010 award but was not one of the winners.

For more information on the High School Football Rudy Awards and information go to www.highschoolrudyawards.com.