By Mark Viera
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 25, 2009
The homeless man walked among U.S. senators. He wore a rumpled pink button-down shirt and dirt-stained khakis and nervously fidgeted with a blue pen, as if he knew he was somewhere he did not belong. In his hands, he held the three-page document that has consumed him for a better part of the year.
"Some call it obsessed," he said. "I call it dedicated."
Room 226 of the Dirksen Senate Office Building provided the setting during a Senate Judiciary subcommittee meeting on June 7. The participants included Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) , the lone panel member for most of the session, and four men who testified for or against the use of the Bowl Championship Series to determine a national champion in college football.
Fans, television pundits and even elected officials have debated the BCS since its inception in 1998. The system has been controversial in part because it relies on computers, not a playoff, to determine who plays for the championship and because some believe it marginalizes teams from smaller conferences.
But very few fans have as much desire for change as Brandon Kennedy, 21, of Cheney, Wash. And there are even fewer who have taken such extreme steps to try to make it happen.
He has drafted a paper, "The Kennedy Proposal," that outlines a new system. He sapped nearly all of his $450 bank account to fly from his home in Washington state to Washington, D.C., and has taken up residence underneath bridges and trees in Georgetown, living homeless for the past 13 weeks as he lobbies for change. He has sent, by his estimate, more than 15,000 e-mails and letters to college athletic conference commissioners, athletic directors and NCAA officials over the past year.
"You just look at history and the things that have been accomplished," Kennedy said. "Everyone's had to go to great lengths to accomplish something that's been great. This really just seems like the only way for me to do it."
The current system of deciding the national college football champion likely won't change until the BCS's television contract expires in January 2015. But that has not deterred some fans who think their idea is the best. At a given time, Bill Hancock, the BCS administrator, will collect 300 to 500 proposals for a new format.
Kennedy is one of those fans, and he attended the Senate hearing last month like the other faces in the crowd. But his proposal was not involved in the discussion of the men testifying, and he has not gained much attention.
Despite the long odds, Kennedy sat in the hearing and envisioned a day when his proposal would be discussed on Capitol Hill. He showed up first to the wood-paneled room and sat in the third row when the proceeding started. When it ended, he approached the important figures in attendance, including those who testified, to try to get more exposure for his plan.
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Kennedy had a much different football career before this. He was an all-state wide receiver and defensive back at Gonzaga Preparatory School in Spokane, Wash., and went on to play at Central Washington, a Division II university in Ellensburg, Wash. He holds the school's career records for interception return yardage (373) and interceptions returned for a touchdown (five). He transferred to Eastern Washington, a division I-AA university in Cheney, Wash., but did not have the money to stay enrolled and dropped out in the fall.
"I would have loved to have him here, not only for what he did on the field but what he brought to the locker room. He had a smile on his face every day," said Eastern Washington Coach Beau Baldwin, who also coached Kennedy for one year at Central Washington.
While still attending classes, Kennedy wrote a paper about college football's postseason for English class. Then he developed an intense interest in the topic.
Kennedy wrote and revised a plan to change the system, scrawling the text of the proposal on his apartment walls -- his landlord was going to apply new paint once his lease was up anyway -- and compiling more than 160 pages in drafts. He skipped trips to the bars on weekends to research the BCS at the library.
On April 17, Kennedy quit his job organizing and shipping animal food at a warehouse. He worked there for only a month, but his car had been towed and he was tired of the hours-long bus commute each day. And all he dreamed about was the BCS.
Because of his fixation on the topic, Kennedy said, his older brother cut him out of their joint cellphone plan, and he has stopped speaking with his parents. Kennedy described himself as "the black sheep" of the family.
"It's kind of hard," said his sister, Brittany, 19, a guard for the Oregon State women's basketball team. "But everyone comes to live with it."
Speaking about how her older brother might be perceived, she said: "Everyone's going to think he's out there, because there are a lot of people that want to change the BCS. The fact he doesn't have a degree will make it hard for people to take him serious. But that's how some people get started. If you don't try, you don't know how far you could get."
Five days after quitting his job, Kennedy bought a plane ticket for Washington, D.C. He wore a navy pinstripe suit, the only clothes he brought with him on the trip. He had a bag, with a Mickey Mouse blanket and family pictures, and the rosary beads he wears around his neck.
Kennedy had no place to stay, so when he arrived, he looked in the newspapers and identified Georgetown as a safe place to live. But he ruined the suit after sleeping in a ditch, leaving it smelling so bad the stench burned his eyes. He also learned where not to sleep from the local homeless population after overhearing conversation at Miriam's Kitchen, a nearby shelter, about people whose wallets and watches were stolen while they were sleeping in parks.
"There's a difference between the homeless and bums," he said. "I'm homeless, but I'm not a bum."
Kennedy said he recently acquired government food stamps. At church, he met a man named Elijah who bought him new clothes: two pairs of slacks, two button-down shirts and two polo shirts. Kennedy has been washing the clothes and "bird bathing" himself in hand sinks. His grandmother sent him money for a cellphone; he owes $53 at the end of the month and plans to beg for cash if he cannot pay the bill.
"It's actually been very humbling," Kennedy said of living homeless. "It's given me a perspective of life I never thought I would see, being homeless. I've tried to take a positive take on this whole thing. I tell people I'm camping."
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For months, Kennedy said, policymakers and administrators involved with the BCS paid him no mind.
He admitted his approach has grown antagonistic and even rude, justifying such behavior as the best way to elicit a response. In a recent e-mail to University of Nebraska Chancellor Harvey Perlman, who was present at the June 7 hearing, Kennedy said Perlman's secretary kept "telling me that my proposal was received. Seems suspicious that you would have mail . . . over nearly four months and not read it."
"The Kennedy Proposal" calls for six champions from the current BCS conferences and four at-large bids to be seeded in a playoff bracket. The eight teams that are eliminated from the playoff before the national championship game are routed to the four BCS bowl games. It is a playoff for those who want it, he reasoned, while keeping intact the BCS for the teams that do not make the national championship from that 10-team playoff.
The paper touches on certain issues regarding the BCS -- the conflicts that could arise with academic schedules, the traditional relationship with the bowls and the value of the regular season -- but does not specifically address the economic concerns tied into the discussion.
However improbable it would be to change the system, Kennedy has not given up hope. In college, he said, he was living "a half-empty life." But now, he said, he has given his all for what he believes in.
"I get an opportunity to enter myself in something that's never been done before," Kennedy said. "I'm not just a playoff advocate from Cheney, Washington, who's petitioning Congress. This is about my proposal. I have an idea, and I have the drive."
Kennedy's high school football coach, Dave Carson, said: "Knowing BK, it doesn't surprise me. It seems to me a little farfetched. What's the end product? You get it changed, now you've got to get a job. But some people are that way; they get on a mission and they don't give up."
Kennedy has spent his days in Georgetown Interim Library revising the proposal -- adding footnotes and annotations, reading newspaper articles about the BCS -- and trying to contact those who might listen. Some of the people he has contacted were recently confined to one room on Capitol Hill.
After the hearing concluded, reporters swarmed Hatch, Perlman and the lawyers lobbying for either side. Kennedy tried to talk to Michael Young, president of the University of Utah. Young's Utes were left out of the BCS title game last season even though they were the only undefeated division I-A team in the country, and he railed against the BCS in the hearing.
Young said he has heard from fans who have drafted proposals, saying, "it's a sign that people are passionate about this enough to do something like this."
"I don't think these are nuts," Young said in a telephone interview. "These are not people that are putting tinfoil over their heads. These people are thoughtful, for the most part, who want to show this can be done."
Young, on his way to catch a flight, left the hearing room and chatted with a few passersby before walking into an elevator at the end of the hallway. Kennedy chased after him. Young stood in the elevator and, as the door began to close, Kennedy handed him the paper.
"I've been pitching my proposal in D.C.," Kennedy said. "I've submitted it to the BCS and haven't heard from them." Then Kennedy quickly removed his hand as the elevator door slid shut.
Kennedy's proposal has not gained much attention, and he said he would return to Washington state next month if he could gather the money to fly home. But he said the roadblocks and seeming improbability of his mission would not stop him. Next summer, Kennedy plans to return to Washington D.C., to continue to push for change on a topic that has been debated by thousands of college football fans just like him.