Kennard Backman ready for latest challenge

Weston Hodkiewicz
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Green Bay Packers rookie Kennard Backman (86) is stripped of the ball by LaDarius Gunter (36) in a drill during rookie orientation in the Don Hutson Center.

Kennard Backman didn't have a football in his hands the first time he stepped onto the football field at Whitefield Academy in Mableton, Ga.

Instead, the future Green Bay Packers tight end was carrying a trombone.

You see, the school encouraged its students to participate in after-school activities. While Backman was a budding star in basketball, he had a lot of spare time in the fall of his freshman year.

So he filled the gap by playing in the marching band. In between providing pregame and halftime entertainment, Backman became intrigued with the happenings on the field and approached Whitefield's football coach, Jimmy Field, about possibly making a switch.

"I didn't want to play in the marching band no more and they kind of gave me a shot," Backman said during the second day of rookie orientation Saturday. "They said, 'Hey, come out here and see what you can do.' "

It was a good thing Backman did. He developed into a two-time all-state performer in football. During his senior year in 2010, he caught 39 passes for 494 yards and five touchdowns, and registered another 73 tackles and seven sacks at defensive end.

Backman continued to play basketball throughout high school and fielded Division I offers in both sports. He finally committed to playing college football in October 2010 because he figured he was too small to play his natural position of forward at the next level.

However, 6-foot-3 is prototypical size for a tight end and the University of Alabama-Birmingham seemed like the ideal fit. It was only 21/2 hours from his home, which his mom liked, and had a good medical program, though he then opted to pursue a degree in financial management.

The football program had its struggles, but provided an opportunity for Backman to contribute immediately. He started eight games as a freshman and played in all 48 games during his college career, catching 96 passes for 979 yards and seven touchdowns.

The downside was the turmoil. He had three head coaches who each used different offenses. He started as a split-out tight end in 2011 under Neil Callaway and then transitioned to an in-line tight end in a three-point stance during Garrick McGee's two seasons.

He finished his career spread outside under Bill Clark and enjoyed a 6-6 season after going 8-28 during his first three campaigns. The Blazers became bowl-eligible for the first time in a decade after a 45-24 win over Southern Miss on Nov. 29.

"I know me and the guys I left with, we kind of came in saying we're going to change the program," Backman said. "Just to be able to be bowl-eligible with the guys kind of keeping our promise to each other. It was something special looking into their eyes after the Southern Miss game and say we did it. We actually made something out of nothing."

One day after the landmark victory, reports surfaced that school's administration was shutting down the program. A few days later, UAB president Ray Watts confirmed its closure, citing the rising cost of operating a football program.

UAB tight end Kennard Backman, left, was the last of the Green Bay Packers' three sixth-round draft picks on Saturday.

Backman was devastated. To this day, he's remained vocal in his support of the program and its coaches. When he reactivated his Twitter account after the draft, he wrote only one phrase in his biography: #FreeUAB.

There is a groundswell movement to keep the program alive. The UAB athletics assessment task force announced earlier this week it has received nearly $6 million in pledges from supporters.

"That is probably one of the toughest things to deal with as far as everything that's going on," Backman said. "You're just trying to keep your head up. The guys at UAB, I love them boys up there. It's such a family atmosphere. I feel like that's the part that people don't necessarily realize. Just family, man. From the coaches to the trainers to the players, it was something special being up there."

As backers work to save the program, Backman has shifted his attention to proving his worth in Green Bay after the Packers selected him with a sixth-round pick in last week's NFL draft.

The 6-3, 245-pound tight end received a lot of interest, taking predraft visits in Green Bay, Pittsburgh and Minnesota. Still, he kept his expectations modest. As the third day of the draft rolled on, he and his agent were preparing for undrafted free agency.

That was until the Packers selected him with the 213th overall pick.

"I kind of prepared for the UFA route to be honest," Backman said. "My agent kind of sat down and listed some teams where I wanted to fit in. It was kind of ironic that Green Bay was at the top and that's where I'm at. That's such a blessing."

Backman believes he possesses the versatility the Packers look for in their tight ends after playing in an H-back or utility-type role during most of his career at UAB. His also incorporates a lot of the lessons he learned on the basketball court.

It's basketball that taught him how to identify holes in zone defenses and box out defenders. He also learned how important positioning your body is to run-blocking and catch the ball away from your body in traffic.

Like his first year at UAB, there's opportunity to contribute immediately in Green Bay. Last year's third-round pick Richard Rodgers started the first three games until giving way to veteran Andrew Quarless.

Green Bay will look to Backman to help provide a presence in the seam. It's a role he was comfortable with in college, hauling in receptions of 36 and 43 yards during his final two seasons. It's even showed a little during the Packers' rookie camp.

"Watching him, he's a smart kid. He knows his stuff," said tight end Mitchell Henry, an undrafted rookie out of Western Kentucky. "He's a good route-runner. Good vertical runner. He does a lot of things great."

Sitting inside his locker, Backman smiled when reflecting on the path he's taken to the NFL. All week, the texts and calls poured in from family, friends and former coaches.

Now, he doesn't want to disappoint. "The train is rolling," he said. "You gotta hop on board or you're going to get left behind."

As for that decision to give up band and give football a shot? Well, he still got the best of both worlds.

"I actually kept playing in the jazz band," Backman said with a smile. "I just didn't play in the marching band anymore."

— and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.

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