The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of Ken Dorsey

Jeremy Unger

Nearly a decade ago a senior quarterback helped lead the Matadors to two straight NCS finals. Ten years later, Ken Dorsey ‘99 has returned to his roots, coaching high school quarterbacks at a Florida high school. Dorsey’s long journey from Orinda, California to Lakewood Ranch, Florida, has seen Dorsey go from the top to the bottom and back again.

A High School Standout
Dorsey started playing football at Orinda Intermediate School for the flag football team, but he didn’t get much recognition until his junior year at Miramonte in 1997. That year, Dorsey led the Mats to an NCS title over Foothill, and in his senior year Dorsey again led the Mats back to the finals.

Dorsey with his last team, the Browns. Photo: Lew Stamp/Akron Beacon Journal/MCT
Dorsey with his last team, the Browns. Photo: Lew Stamp/Akron Beacon Journal/MCT

“We were really successful because we were just able to come together as a team. We really just knew each other and our capabilities and talents,” said Dorsey.

In just two seasons on the varsity team, Dorsey passed for 4,968 yards and 52 touchdowns, earning All-American honors his senior year.

On Top of the Sporting World
Going into his college career, Dorsey was ranked in multiple top 100 recruiter rankings and was considering many top colleges, including USC and Tennessee. But Dorsey ended up settling on the University of Miami.

“I liked Miami because the coaches were excellent and I was able to really connect with them and the other players,” said Dorsey. “A lot of the other coaches didn’t seem to care as much.”

Dorsey was quickly shoved into the Miami offense his freshman year after starting quarterback Kenny Kelly was injured with three games left in the regular season.

“It was really exciting getting to start my first game my freshman year, the whole crowd and the media was a real shock,” said Dorsey.

Dorsey proved though that he was going to be something special. Dorsey completed 74-of-120 passes for 803 yards and 10 touchdowns and led the Hurricanes to four straight victories, including a Gator Bowl victory against Georgia Tech.

His sophomore year Dorsey continued his dominance, leading his team to a 12-1 season, including a 37-20 victory against Florida in the Sugar Bowl. However, Dorsey also had his first great hardship that year.

“We went up to Seattle to play Washington in our second game, and they took us by surprise. It was really difficult flying back to Miami after that game. But it taught me how to take a loss and keep going,” said Dorsey.

Dorsey’s experiences during his freshman and sophomore years set up what would not only be a magical year, but one of the greatest seasons in the history of college football. With the help of teammates like NFL stars Clinton Portis, Andre Johnson, Ed Reed, and Jeremy Shockey, Dorsey helped the Hurricanes to a perfect 14-0 season, dominating ranked teams throughout the year and winning a national championship.

“I think everyone on the team really believed in a perfect season,” said Dorsey.

“We believed in each other and we just worked harder than anyone else. It was all about the hours we spent staying late after practice and studying hours of film, we just wanted it more than anyone.”

At this point in his career, Dorsey was at the top of the sporting world. A Heisman finalist, a recipient of the Maxwell Award for the best player in college football, and a national champion, Dorsey seemed to be headed to another championship season and a long NFL career.

The Fall From Football Grace
In his senior year Dorsey’s career began a sudden downturn, starting off with a double overtime loss in the National Championship to Ohio State.

The following year Dorsey entered the 2003 NFL draft, but wasn’t picked until the seventh round by the San Francisco 49ers with the 241st overall pick. Although he was drafted much later than expected, Dorsey was still satisfied.

“I was really excited. They were my team all through my childhood, and I got to play in front of my home crowd,” said Dorsey.

Dorsey spent the first half of his rookie campaign playing second string to starter Tim Rattay, but when Rattay was injured, Dorsey was catapulted into the starting role. But unlike his freshman year for the Hurricanes, Dorsey had difficulty adapting to the NFL. Dorsey completed only 123 of his 226 passes in his first nine games and threw nine interceptions.

“The level of talent in the NFL is a lot greater than in college,” said Dorsey.

“All of these players were great in college, the best at their positions, so there wasn’t one guy you could take advantage of or take your eyes off of.”

With number one draft pick Alex Smith taking the reins for the Niners the following year, Dorsey was relegated to third string, and would only play three more games for the Niners before being traded to the Cleveland Browns at the end of the year.

“I definitely enjoyed the time in San Francisco. A lot of the players in Cleveland were not as respectful as those on the Niners, and I really missed that,” said Dorsey.

Dorsey played three years with Cleveland, but despite having five years of experience, the Browns never gave Dorsey the starting job and in 2008 he was let go.

“I had a lot of chances to prove myself, and in my opinion I had a pretty decent career. Do I wish I could have had more starts? Sure, but it just happened that each year these number one draft guys came in and I just didn’t get a chance, but I really valued my time in the NFL,” said Dorsey.

Back to the Basics
A year out from football and Dorsey had moved to Lakewood Ranch, Florida, a town about 50 miles south of Tampa, to settle down with his family until he could sign with another NFL team.

Dorsey runs for a gain during his first NFL season. Photo: Karl Mondon/Contra Costa Times/MCT
Dorsey runs for a gain during his first NFL season. Photo: Karl Mondon/Contra Costa Times/MCT

“I was still a free agent and I had talked with some teams, but nothing really came to fruition,” said Dorsey.

Even though talks with Carolina, Miami, and others didn’t go anywhere, Dorsey continued training for the NFL, using facilities at Lakewood Ranch High School.  Dorsey would pass with players on the high school football team and use the weight machines there as well.
Last August though, as Lakewood Ranch High was getting ready for the football season, the team lost their quarterbacks coach. Ken Dorsey would finally return to high school football.
“The coach called me and asked if I would be willing to take the job, and I told him I would do it but he had to know I could leave at any moment for the NFL,” said Dorsey.

With the help of Dorsey the Lakewood Ranch Mustangs went 6-5 this year and reached the playoffs, a huge improvement after they went 1-9 in 2008. The year seemed to have a profound effect on Dorsey.

“Coaching here I realized that my accomplishments gave me a unique platform,” said Dorsey.

“If I wanted to help a quarterback on his accuracy, show a wide receiver tips on running a route, or just show that you can’t blow off education, the kids listened to me.”

What the Future Holds
As for whether Dorsey plans to return to play in the NFL or head for a college or NFL coaching career, his plans remain uncertain.

“Football is still a huge part of my life, but it’s not who I am. As a person, I’m more than what I was on the football field. I’ve got a family, a wife and a daughter; they are what’s most important to me. I’ve gotten coaching offers that I have thought about, but for now I need to think about my family,” said Dorsey.

Friday Night Lights
Before the Mats’ Dec. 4 game against Encinal in the NCS semi-finals, Dorsey gave me a message for the football team.

“You’ve got to enjoy every second of your football season, cherish it, and leave it all on the field, because soon it will all be gone. You guys have some of the best coaches that I’ve ever been taught by; listen to them, and be proud. Nobody gave you guys a chance in NCS this year, and you proved them wrong. So no matter what happens, hold your heads high.”

Ten years ago Dorsey was a senior like many Mats today playing in a big NCS game. Dorsey would later go on to become a national champion, a Heisman finalist, and an NFL quarterback. But what Dorsey remembers most in his career were the Friday night games in Orinda.

“I’ve loved every part of my football career. But high school football was so special for me,” said Dorsey.

“To be there at that school with my friends and teammates was really amazing, and my coaches Floyd Burnsed and John Wade were some of the best coaches I’ve had in my football career.”

“I think high school football is the only place where players compete for the true love of the game. In my opinion it’s the last place where it’s not about the business, it’s about just playing the game.”

Even through the highs and lows of Dorsey’s illustrious career, it seems like that high school quarterback never left.