FEATURE: The Kessinger Tradition Continues at Ole Miss
Oct. 6, 2016
By Dylan Edwards, OleMissSports.com
For some, it's a personal choice to attend the University of Mississippi. For others, being a Rebel is something that's engrained into their family. It's something that is as hereditary as a birthmark. For two generations of Kessingers in Keith, Kevin and now Kevin's son Grae, it was the latter.
However, the link between the Kessinger family and Ole Miss had to first be established. That's where, in 1960, a boy from Forrest City, Arkansas, named Don comes in. He was such a great athlete, he wanted to go to a school where he could play both baseball and basketball.
"When you grow up in Arkansas, you automatically grow up to be a Razorback fan whether you want to or not," Don Kessinger said. "The choice was relatively easy for me as far as Arkansas was concerned. Arkansas and Ole Miss basketball were pretty much the same, but in baseball, they were miles apart at that time."
Arkansas played a limited schedule and didn't offer the type of opportunity in baseball that Ole Miss did under head coach Tom Swayze. After all, Kessinger's main goal was to play in the MLB.
"When I visited Ole Miss, it was just a great place," Don Kessinger said. "Everyone was as friendly as it is today. It seemed at home for me. Ole Miss at that time, under Coach Tom Swayze, had the best program in the South I thought. It was a natural thing to do."
It's fair to say that Ole Miss was a good launching pad for Kessinger. He signed with the Cubs after leading Ole Miss to Omaha in 1964, his senior year. A year later, he was already in the big leagues. His 16-year career consisted of more than 2,000 games, six All-Star selections and two Gold Gloves as well as being inducted into the Chicago Cubs Hall of Fame.
Fast-forward a few years, and there was now another Kessinger wanting to play both baseball and basketball in college. Keith, however, grew up an Ole Miss fan.
"We had been Ole Miss fans when we lived in Chicago," Don Kessinger said. "When I was traded from the Cubs to the Cardinals, we moved to Memphis. Keith and I went to thousands of Ole Miss games.
When Keith received the offer to play as a Rebel, he jumped at the chance. Just as his father did, Keith would man shortstop for Ole Miss.
"When Ole Miss gave me that opportunity, it was an easy answer," Keith Kessinger said. "That's where I wanted to go to school. It was very cool because it's what you worked for and wanted to do. It made it more special because you're doing it after your dad did it here."
Just three years later, Ole Miss would have two Kessingers on the same roster. Don's younger son, Kevin, also had his sights set on playing baseball for the Rebels. Unlike his father and older brother, Kevin was more comfortable in center field than in the middle infield.
"I was the oddball," Kevin Kessinger said. "Keith was a shortstop. Dad was a shortstop. Someone had to come along and decide to be different."
Kevin's first year on the team was Keith's last season. The two would play important roles on the team, as the elder brother batted third and played short while Kevin led off and played right field.
"That was my favorite year at Ole Miss," Keith said. "The fact that I was able to finally outhit him by the end of the year made it all worthwhile because I was very afraid he was going to outhit me as a freshman."
After Kevin's second season on the team, Ole Miss legend Jake Gibbs retired as the baseball coach. The replacement was someone that Kevin would be quite well acquainted with: his father, Don Kessinger.
"Coaching here was something that was really kind of a dream for me," Don Kessinger said. "That was amplified by the fact that I was going to get to coach Kevin for a couple of years. Kevin made it very easy for me. When we practiced, he practiced hard. There was never that time where I had to say `Come on Kevin, you're making me look bad here.'"
Kevin's experience with Ole Miss is an extremely unique one. He played with his brother for a season. His dad coached him for two seasons. Now, he gets to watch his son, Grae, play in the Red and Blue.
"I got to play a year with my brother and two years under my father," Kevin Kessinger said. "Those are things people can never take away from me. Even when (Don) was coaching and before, it was just be you. Go out and do your own thing. It's the same thing we've told Grae. You've got to be your own person."
Grae grew up going to Ole Miss games, but his father wanted him to make sure Ole Miss was the right fit for him.
"I wanted him to experience all the other schools," Kevin Kessinger said. "Then if you choose Ole Miss, you're doing it because it's what you want. He went on many visits at many schools and finally said Ole Miss is home to him."
When spring rolls around, Kevin will see his son take the field with the same team name on his chest that he wore, his brother wore and his father wore. However, Grae already delivered his father and family a heavy dose of nostalgia when he played in the Under Armour All-America Game at Wrigley Field, his granddad's professional home.
"When Grae played at the All-America Game at Wrigley, I wasn't sure how that was going to feel," Kevin Kessinger said. "When he ran out to shortstop and the game started and thinking about all the years we grew up there, I get choked up thinking about it now. It'll probably be similar (when he takes Swayze Field)."
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