The lifeguard: Georgia’s biggest player swims against the tide

Solomon Kindley earned the nickname 'Big Fish' as a lifeguard at his community pool.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla.  – The idea, in part, was to keep Solomon Kindley and the other four children away from trouble. Their mother, Lashonna Johnson, encouraged all of them to become swimmers, even when Kindley, to put it bluntly, seemed too big for it.  Never mind that. This was a tough neighborhood, so maybe the distraction would keep him alive.

It would turn out to save someone else’s life too.

His name, to the best of Kindley’s memory, was Trevor. He was in a group of five kids, ages 6 and 7, receiving swim lessons from Kindley at the recreation center near his north Jacksonville home. Kindley was teaching them to jump off the wall in the shallow area, go to the bottom, push off, and come back up.

“Trevor always jumped off the wall,” Kindley said. “He jumped off the wall, and he usually pushed back up.”

One day he didn’t. Kindley’s back was turned, working with another kid, when he heard a call: “Solomon, Solomon, he’s under the water!”

Kindley moved as fast as his 350 pounds (or so) would get him there. He pulled up Trevor, who weighed about 60 pounds normally, but had taken on so much water that he felt twice that heavy. The child’s face was purple.

Carefully, Kindley performed chest compressions. It would almost break Trevor’s ribs. But eventually water spouted out of his mouth. The child was safe.

“He almost drowned on me,” Kindley says now, a few years later, shaking his head.

“It scared Solomon. But he knew what he needed to do,” Johnson said. “When he got home that evening he was really shook up.”

When Kindley reports to Georgia this week, what will stand out to most is his weight. But to know Kindley is to realize that the Bulldogs are getting much more than just a big guy.

LIFE ON THE ‘PRETTY ROUGH SIDE’ OF JACKSONVILLE

Johnson’s second son was bigger from the start: Nine pounds and five ounces at birth. Kindley, who would take the last name of his father, wore the same shoe size as his age from age seven until his feet finally stopped growing at 14. He often wore men’s pants, which his mother cut up for him.

“Part of that is my fault,” Johnson said. “Solomon was spoiled: He would always ask for seconds, and I would give it to him.”

Solomon Kindley serving as a lifeguard. (USA TODAY HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS.)

There would eventually be five children in the household, all mostly raised by Johnson. (Kindley says his father is in his life, but leans mostly on his mother, whose first name is tattooed on his right arm.)

Kindley would eventually emerge as the gentle giant of the household, which included two brothers and two sisters. Johnson called him “the peacemaker of the house,” stepping between siblings and ending tussles, verbal and otherwise.

Then there were the potential pitfalls outside.

Jacksonville is, geographically, a very large town. Football fans know about the Landing, and the football stadium that annually houses the Georgia-Florida game. While there, they seldom venture to where Kindley grew up.

The north side of Jacksonville is poorer and more hard-edged. Johnson referred to it as “a pretty rough side,” with drug dealers slinging on corners.

“Jacksonville is Jacksonville,” Kindley said. “Growing up in the city, going to a school on the north side, you see people that make you want to do better, growing up in the hood, it makes you want to get out, experience the world, do better things for people that don’t have anything.

“So really just living here and being here in Jacksonville just showed me how hard I need to work, and what I need to do to experience better things and have a better life for me and my whole family.”

Football eventually was the ticket. But first there was swimming.

THE BIGGEST LIFEGUARD IN JACKSONVILLE

Johnson had a rule for her children: When the street lights came on, they came in the house. And they would stay there until it was time for school the next day.

“It wasn’t the worst neighborhood. But it wasn’t the best,” she said. “I just wanted to keep them away from the bad crowd.”

So anything she could do to keep them busy, she did: football, basketball and swimming. Kindley was too overweight for Pop Warner football limits. Basketball was tough because he didn’t move his feet well until he was older. Solomon also wasn’t the most athletic very early in life. He would trip on his feet all the time, and only later in life did he shake the clumsiness.

Solomon Kindley played guard and tackle for Raines High School. (Photo courtesy of GARY McCULLOUGH.)

“It was almost like the ugly duckling turning into the swan,” Johnson said.

Swimming, with the dexterity it causes, may have helped. Kindley took to it right away, and it was the first clue that he’d be able to do something with his wide frame.

Kindley’s best events were the butterfly – which requires lurching forward in the water with both arms – and the freestyle. Both events require leg strength.

“When you can swim, coordinate your body, to be a lifeguard, to save a life if you have to, that’s a lot of athleticism,” said Deran Wiley, the football coach at Jacksonville’s Raines High School. “Most big guys are not coordinated. So that’s the one asset that he has that makes him different from a lot of folks.”

The lifeguarding would come three years ago. Kindley’s mother told him he needed to get a job, and with his other time commitments – by this time Wiley had him on the Raines football team – Kindley figured he could combine pool time with a job.

The sight of a 370-pound life guard surprised plenty of people. Kids gave him the nickname “Big Fish.” No one took a poll, but he was safely regarded as the biggest lifeguard in Jacksonville.

What he wasn’t known as, until very recently, was a big-time football prospect.

‘THE BIGGEST STEAL’ IN FLORIDA?

Kindley grew up a Florida fan. So did his mother, who heard about the Georgia-Florida rivalry constantly at her workplace, Swisher International, which makes cigars. Johnson was on her way, years ago, to getting a bachelor’s degree, but as she said, “life got in the way.”

The game formerly known as the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party was something that Kindley was always aware of, though not particularly obsessed over. He also was vaguely aware that one of Raines’ rivals, the Bolles School, had an offensive tackle named John Theus, who had gone on to Georgia.

But neither the Bulldogs nor the Gators showed much interest in Kindley, who was still somewhat raw as an offensive lineman – and overweight.

“My jersey came up to about right there,” Kindley recalled, pointing above his belly button, “and it couldn’t come down.”

Solomon Kindley at Raines High School. (SETH EMERSON/AJC).

Iowa State, of all places, was the first major-conference school to invite him for a visit. Florida did kick the tires but never offered a scholarship.

“Recruiting is so funny,” Raines coach Deran Wiley said. “They may have felt he was a little overweight, that they had to be careful with that. They worried what his grades may be. So sometimes that makes them a little tentative to make a move.

“But he had drawn attention from a lot of people. I think in the end, once Georgia showed the interest, it was a quick match made.”

It was indeed a quick courtship. Sam Pittman, hired in December as Georgia’s new offensive line coach, sent Kindley a Twitter direct message. They exchanged messages over a few days, then Pittman visited Raines and invited Kindley to Athens for an official visit.

“The coaches seemed to like me, and they gave me a scholarship. After that, I just pictured myself being at Georgia,” Kindley said. “It fit me well. It’s a great offense. Great running backs. It fit, just like I’m at home but just on another level.”

He committed on his visit.

“I think Georgia got the biggest steal out of the state of Florida this year,” Wiley said. “Obviously we’ll have to measure that statement in some years to come. But I like where it’s headed.”

LOOKING AHEAD TO COMING BACK

Kindley has his mother’s first name, Lashonna, tattooed in script on his right arm.

“The first thing I do, if I do get a chance to go to the NFL, is give my mom anything she wants,” Kindley said. “Get her a house, get her a car. And I’d give back to the communities that I grew up with. Like going to the community center that fed me. The pool. People that really don’t have anything that really need it.”

Solomon Kindley said the fit with Georgia was right during his visit. (UGA).

He will begin at guard for Georgia, after playing guard and tackle at Raines, in addition to nose guard. In fact, half the schools that showed interest in him wanted him on defense, which is understandable given his size and athleticism.

It remains to be seen whether Kindley even plays his first season. The coaches might prefer he redshirt, saving one year of eligibility, while working in the weight room. But at some point he figures to make that long trip with his new team back to Jacksonville, and suit up against the team he used to call his favorite.

“No doubt,” he said, when asked if that will serve as motivation. “That just makes me go harder. I’m going to show you why you should have, what you could have gotten.”

And that is about the closest you will get to angry words from the big lineman, the peacemaker of his household, the kid who teaches young children to swim, and then saves them.

“He’s just a good kid,” Johnson says of her second child. “He always has been.”

Next Generation is a series of profiles on the individuals who have signed on with the Georgia Bulldogs and will join the team this summer.

THE NEXT GENERATION SERIES

 

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