PORT ARTHUR, Texas — If Bruce Springsteen were a Texan, he’d have a song about Port Arthur. It is very much the type of hardscrabble, blue-collar place about which The Boss frequently muses.
The work here, if you can find it, is mostly connected to oil refineries and the shipping that brings “Texas tea” to and from the Gulf of Mexico. Anyone aspiring to do something different usually goes elsewhere to find it. That tradition dates back to the town’s most famous son and daughter, College Football Hall of Fame member Jimmy Johnson and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member Janis Joplin, both of whom found accalim far from their Southeast Texas roots.
Just a few blocks off Jimmy Johnson Drive, one young Port Arthur resident is on a different path to success. He is LSU football signee Kary Vincent Jr. And yes, he too will be leaving home soon, bound for Baton Rouge and the SEC. But it took a return to his birthplace to set him on his path.
Vincent is Port Arthur-born, but he was not wholly Port Arthur-raised. When he was 3, he and his mother, Montrelle Shedrick, moved to Houston and its more abundant economic opportunities. His father, Kary Vincent Sr., remained in Port Arthur.
Because his father and grandmother still lived there, Port Arthur still felt like home when he visited on weekends and holidays.
“It’s always been home,” Vincent said. “I was born here. Houston is my home away from home.”
Port Arthur became his permanent home as he entered seventh grade. His parents agreed to switch primary custody as Vincent entered his teenage years.
“My idea was to raise him a very strong and respectful young man until he got to 18 and let him spread his wings,” Vincent Sr. said.
It was not easy for Shedrick to let her only son go, even if only an hour away. But she did agree that he had reached the age where his father would know best.
“It was tough. Kary is my only child,” Shedrick said. “But I understood the love his father had for him as well. I can’t teach him how to be a man.
“I still wrestle with it. But I get to be a part of it. I miss some moments, but don’t have any regrets.”
A proud lineage
Geographically and genetically, Vincent Jr. comes from a place of athletic excellence.
His father played at Texas A&M from 1988-91 and was a sixth-round pick by the New Orleans Saints in 1992. Vincent Sr. did not stick in the league, but he did play in the Arena Football League for two seasons before coming home to Port Arthur. He is now the track coach at Port Arthur Memorial High School.
Like any parent, Vincent Sr.’s goal is to see his child attain a higher level of success.
“You talk about raising the bar for your kids,” Vincent Sr. said. “It’s so competitive right here in this house. Which is a good thing.”
That competition level is easily found everywhere in Port Arthur. No fewer than 18 natives of this town of about 55,000 suited up in the NFL over the years. According to both father and son, that’s a matter of necessity.
“Here, it’s not much. Either you’re in school and playing sports or out doing something that’s none of your business,” Vincent Jr. said. “I see these guys who chose a positive path, and you get positive results.”
In a working-class city where more than one-quarter of the population lives below the poverty line — about double the state average — football is a means to higher education.
“Growing up here, you don’t really have money to go to college,” Vincent Sr. said. “The way you get out, for most African-American kids, is playing ball.
“Economically, it’s low. There’s not much to do. It’s a blue-collar town with the refineries. Pretty much if you’re not at the refinery, you’re in education or nursing.”
According to Vincent Sr., there’s one other place where too many locals either work or live.
“The one that I truly hate, and one I try to steer my kids away from, is correctional officer at the penitentiaries around here,” Vincent Sr. said. “It’s sad to see. Whenever we want to go to the mall, we have to pass these three penitentiaries right along the highway. That’s the place that you don’t want to be. County, state, fed. All three.”
‘Something comes over me’
Regardless of where he lived, Vincent Jr. was always running.
“You used to catch me in my apartment complex racing barefoot in the parking lot,” Vincent Jr. said. “And then I’d get older and spectators would watch you. It wasn’t a big deal until people started comparing me” to other runners.
His mother admittedly doesn’t have the same degree of athletic acumen as Kary or his father, but even she could tell early on that her son had a rare skill set.
“He’s always been fast,” Shedrick said. “I remember asking him, ‘What do you think about when you’re running?’ He said, ‘Mama, something comes over me.’ He was really little when he said that.”
It didn’t take long to put a football into the equation. It just became a question of what side of the ball Vincent Jr. would choose. And with a former defensive back raising him, he embraced that destiny more quickly than others might.
That’s because he has no shortage of the character trait most vital to a cornerback’s success: confidence.
“You have it or you don’t,” Vincent Jr. said. “Most of the time people will see the play you don’t make, not the ones that you do make. That’s something I live by and accept. I love having that pressure.”
The first quarterback whose pass he intercepted in high school was current Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts. Vincent Jr. picked off eight passes in his senior season at Memorial, returning three of them for touchdowns.
He also won the state title in the 200-meter dash last year and is poised to repeat his championship this spring.
Sticking with LSU
Vincent Jr. went from lightly regarded — if regarded at all — to a hot commodity as a junior. He admits it was dizzying to suddenly be on the radar of dozens of major programs.
“If you would have told me I’m doing half the stuff that I’m doing now, I never would have believed you,” he said. ” … You don’t see it happening from being a name no one really knew to my junior year having 30 offers in two-plus months and having Nick Saban and Les Miles knocking on the door.”
Miles, of course, is no longer part of the equation at LSU. But even after Miles’ firing Vincent Jr. did not waver from his commitment.
“I was never committed to coach Les Miles, even though he is a great guy,” Vincent Jr. said. “I was always committed to LSU, the campus and the tradition that it holds.”
And as intriguing as Alabama’s success might be, Vincent Jr. said Saban’s famed “Process” was a bit too vanilla for his tastes.
“To each his own,” Vincent Jr. said. “That wasn’t for me.”
There was also his father’s alma mater to consider. But Vincent Sr. did not put pressure on his son to become an Aggie even though his SUV bears a Texas A&M logo on the bumper.
“We’re big-time Aggies fans. I shed a lot of blood, sweat and tears over in Aggieland,” Vincent Sr. said. “At the same time, I’m in full support of my son. On that day, I guess I can put away my maroon and white and hope my son is successful.”
The next Port Arthur great?
For Vincent Jr. and anyone else in the current generation of Port Arthur players, there is the gold standard to live up to: Jamaal Charles. A current free agent running back and three-time All-Pro, Charles holds the NFL record for most yards per carry (5.5) in a single season.
Charles is revered back home because he hasn’t forgotten Port Arthur.
“He does a lot for this community,” Vincent Jr. said. “You often hear to not forget where you come from and give something to the people who gave something to you.”
Vincent Jr. hasn’t just admired Charles from afar. Charles is a reason he approaches football with so much enthusiasm.
“Jamaal’s a great person. He’s a great leader and a great motivator,” he said. “He’s been in my life since way before he was the Jamaal Charles that he is now … (he) actually dated one of my cousins, so I was around football players a lot. I fell in love with it.”
And though it’s a very high bar to reach, Vincent Jr. strives to have a career that makes a similar impact.
“It would mean a lot. But ultimately that’s not what I’m striving for. I want to be the best me,” he said. “Coming from Port Arthur, that’s great. But I’m trying to be the best at what I do not only in Port Arthur and not only in Texas. I’m trying to become a nationwide name and continue to do what I love.”