Cameron Kinley is all grown up now, and that curious mind has developed a certain unabashed ambition. He is a starting cornerback at the Naval Academy, where he was recently named a team captain, and he is also a political science major who serves as president for his graduating class of midshipmen. No Navy football player had been voted class president since at least 1991.
Oh, and Kinley has aspirations of living in the White House one day.
“Cameron’s always been a different kid,” Candace Kinley said. “Cameron always from a young age just always stood out. . . . He was always inquisitive. He always asked a lot of questions. I remember someone saying once: ‘If Cameron asks you a question, you have to give him an answer. You can’t just blow him off, because he’s going to dig until he gets the answer he wants.’ ”
Kinley was in fourth grade when Barack Obama was elected the first African American president of the United States. His election had enormous meaning to minority communities, and it planted a seed in the mind of a Black kid in Memphis.
Kinley had demanded to switch to a private school as a first-grader after his sister, two years older, flipped to a private all-girls school. He often was one of the only Black children in his classes at Presbyterian Day School, and he remembers watching the Obama inauguration on a projector while fighting back tears. His family discussed the election often, and it struck a chord with Kinley: He had just watched a Black man become president of a nation that does not look like him while he sat in classrooms every day as a Black kid surrounded by classmates who do not look like him.
“It was moving,” Kinley said. “It goes beyond policies for me with President Obama — just what he did for young African Americans in this country. He opened up the vision for so many people that this is possible if you want to do it. If you want to be the first Black whatever, it’s possible. … That kind of opened my interest into things.”
“He really got it, even at that age,” Candace Kinley added.
The extracurricular accolades piled up over the years as Kinley participated in Model United Nations and debate in addition to athletics. Candace Kinley recalled people nicknaming her son “President” in high school before he even ran for any student government position; he was class secretary as a junior and co-president as a senior. Others would make remarks about Kinley being the next Obama before he truly developed that aspiration. That didn’t fully materialize until he was at the Naval Academy and took a class trip to the District.
“Seeing all of the different monuments, I just began to get the feeling within me that this is probably something I want to do in my future,” Kinley said.
Kinley maintains three daily planners to keep his life in order. One is dedicated to sports, another is for academics, and the third keeps track of his many meetings as class president and for other clubs he is involved in. Virtually every minute of the day is accounted for, starting with a 6:40 a.m. wake-up call, as Kinley embarks on his final year at the academy.
Teammates already looked to Kinley for leadership — and that was before he was named a team captain — but so does his entire class. Being class president at the Naval Academy differs a bit from the role at traditional universities. The position is political at many institutions, but the Naval Academy runs a different ship under Superintendent Vice Adm. Sean Buck, following a system built over generations.
A class president at the Naval Academy serves more as a voice between the class and higher-ranking officials. There are several events and ceremonies to be organized, including the creation and implementation of a variety of class projects.
“It’s one of the highest honors that any academy midshipman or graduate can achieve,” said Stephen Comiskey, chair of the Naval Academy’s Council of Class Presidents. “The Naval Academy is all about teaching warriors to lead other warriors.”
Kinley is all about leading, and that’s why he takes on so much. Beyond his responsibilities as a class president and football team captain, he is a member of the Midshipmen Black Studies Club, the Midshipmen Diversity Team and the Navy Football Players Council for Racial Equality. There’s a theme to those organizations: Kinley said he gets a “sick feeling” every time he sees another example of social injustice affecting people of color in this country.
Regardless of his position as class president or team captain, Kinley felt a duty to be an instrument of actionable change as a Black man in America. Failing to do so would be akin to staying silent during these times of unrest, he said.
“Love that guy,” senior slotback Myles Fells said. “To see him juggle all these things, being class president, being a huge leader and team captain on the football team, the things he does in his own community, all the different community service things that he does outside of football, I’m so proud to call him my brother. We all call him ‘Attention On Deck’ because that’s the captain, that’s the boss right there. I’m looking forward to when we run for president [and] vice president. So stay tuned, Kinley-Fells!”
Juggling all of that can take a toll physically and mentally. Paying attention to and being involved in social justice activism can be draining, and Kinley needed to find some balance. While isolating amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, he began to meditate and started journaling to relieve stress. There are plenty of calls to his parents and siblings, and his faith provides a steadying force when things feel overwhelming. And then there are always the soothing sounds of the Isley Brothers, New Edition, the Whispers and other old-school R&B groups.
Kinley recently read “The Power of Favor” by Joel Osteen to better understand both the blessings he has received and the responsibility that comes with them.
“To be a football player and to receive that award is awesome,” Navy Coach Ken Niumatalolo said of the class presidency. “Everybody at the academy, we’re all busy — all the different sports, all the extracurricular activities. So to receive that award, to be voted on, that’s a pretty cool deal. Also, to be Black is awesome. In a predominantly White school, I think it’s a pretty big honor. … I think it’s pretty sweet in a lot of different ways.”
As Navy starts its season Monday night against BYU in Annapolis, it will be the beginning of the end of Kinley’s career as a football player. It already has been a strange final season after the pandemic forced everyone to leave campus in the spring, then brought back and locked down in an attempt to keep the virus outside the Naval Academy’s walls. So that has been different, but it also closes a circle that seemed destined for Kinley.
His grandfather and cousin were in the Navy, and in elementary school Kinley wrote an essay about what it meant to be a Naval Academy athlete. The family had no ties to the academy at the time, and Candace Kinley still doesn’t know where the idea came from. Years later, Navy was one of the first schools to offer Kinley a scholarship, and both he and his mom immediately remembered that essay.
Four years later, Kinley is a team captain and a class president, even though his mom had to nudge him into running in the first place. All of those experiences, plus a class that took a trip to the White House, have him envisioning taking up residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
“I told him, ‘Don’t be scared to go for things that may seem out of reach for you,’ ” Candace Kinley said.
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