For how elusive Kennedy Charles is when carrying the football, the senior quarterback’s value to the Portland High School football team this year is easy to pin down.
“The heart and soul,” of the team, many around the program called him.
While the 2022 season didn’t end how the Charles and the Bulldogs hoped, there’s still plenty to be proud of. A 1-3 start to the year didn’t deter Portland, who behind Charles’ stellar — and frankly unexpected — emergence, ripped off seven-straight wins before falling 20-14 to Skowhegan in the Class B state championship Saturday at Fitzpatrick Stadium.
“I’m very proud,” Charles said. “None of this year was easy. Every game was a challenge and hard fought.
“I feel like we deserved to be here. Win or lose, I feel like we deserved it.”
Thrust into a new role in his last high school football season, Charles thrived. Portland’s original starting quarterback, senior Sam Esposito, broke his collarbone and scapula in the first game of the season, which Portland won. After three straight losses with a stagnant offense, Bulldogs coach Jason McLeod inserted Charles in as the starting quarterback. Formerly a running back/slow receiver with zero prior experience under center, Charles didn’t throw much in his new role, but energized a high-powered offense. Portland never lost with Charles at quarterback until the state final. And in that final game, Charles put the Bulldogs on his back. Though he threw an interception midway through the fourth quarter that allowed Skowhegan to run out the clock, Charles also is why Portland was in the game at all. He rushed for a 44-yard touchdown in the first quarter, and made a critical 57-yard pass, followed by a touchdown run during a high-stakes third quarter drive.
“He made a lot of things that he was uncomfortable doing (look) comfortable,” McLeod said. “He made a lot of things look easy not only by his pure athleticism, but by his grit, determination, leadership and desire. He’s a special player and a special kid.”
The Bulldogs reached the Class B South regional final last year but fell 35-0 to eventual state champion Marshwood. Portland (8-4) previously won state championships in 1982 and 2002. They’ve lost in the state final four times since. Skowhegan (10-2) last won in 1978 and lost in the state final three times before this year. Technically the visiting team but playing on their home field, the Bulldogs traded their usual home blues for road whites, and their supporter section sat on what’s usually the road side opposite the Fitzpatrick Stadium press box. The River Hawks and senior quarterback Adam Savage proved too steep a challenge on that day.
Even in defeat, Charles and the Bulldogs showed grace. He and teammates were recognized for their sportsmanship, consoling South Portland players in the waning moments of Portland’s victory over the Red Riots in the Class B South final. This time, on the other end of the scoreboard, Charles kept his head high. He embraced his teammates, and then his opponents. The Skowhegan coaching staff displayed immense respect for Charles, too, engaging in postgame conversation and support. Charles spoke to the media with poise. Visibly, and rightfully, emotional, he reflected on what he and his teammates accomplished with maturity.
“Just because things started out rough at the beginning of the season, we chose not to give up,” Charles said.
And it’s not completely over yet. Portland does have one more game, the 110th edition of the Thanksgiving contest with rival Deering, another opportunity to wear the Bulldogs blue and white.
“I wouldn’t want to wear any other jersey,” Charles said. “I represent the Portland Bulldogs.”