James Robert “Radio” Kennedy walks on the red carpet in his hometown as he arrives for a screening of the movie “Radio,” which is based on his life, Thursday, Oct. 23, 2003, in Anderson, S.C.
James Robert “Radio” Kennedy walks on the red carpet in his hometown as he arrives for a screening of the movie “Radio,” which is based on his life, Thursday, Oct. 23, 2003, in Anderson, S.C.
Photo: Mary Ann Chastain (AP)

James Robert Kennedy, a man embraced by a South Carolina high school football team and the inspiration behind the 2003 film Radio has died at the age of 73.

Details of Kennedy’s death are not known at this time per the New York Times, though T.L. Hanna High School’s website confirms he was surrounded by family after midnight on Sunday.

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After showing up on the T.L. Hanna football field in the mid-1960s as a teenager, Kennedy, who had developmental disabilities, became a fixture at games by mimicking the coaches’ signals and play-calling. Seemingly wearing a transistor radio just like a coach, Kennedy earned the nickname “Radio.” One of the coaches, Harold Jones, began caring for Kennedy resulting in Kennedy referring to him as “daddy.” In 2003, Cuba Gooding Jr. portrayed Kennedy in the film, Radio, inspired by the 1996 Sports Illustrated article, “Someone To Lean On,” about Kennedy and Jones’ relationship by Gary Smith.

In a tribute to Kennedy, T.L. Hanna’s former principal Sheila Hilton wrote:

Generations of Hanna students and faculty had an opportunity to know Radio. Everyone has a story to tell, some of them priceless — his eating a cooler full of sandwiches that had been made for the team and stored safely on the bus; his pass-kick-and-throw half-time shows; his permanent status as a junior, with no threat of graduation; and his astounding ability to name the mascot of any team in the state. The stories could fill the pages of a lengthy book, each showing the child-like innocence and loving heart that existed within him.

It would be easy to talk about all the school did for Radio, but the miraculous thing about this story is what Radio did for the school. It is perhaps a lesson of which all of us need to be reminded. Because he was embraced by caring people, he was stimulated to learn. Because he was loved, he found his place in the world. Because people looked past his disabilities and imperfections, he found a way to make his own unique contribution to the world. What a lesson there is to be learned here. How many lost souls could be saved with a little care and attention? The thousands of students who have made their way through the halls of T. L. Hanna over the years have seen the results of the love and caring given to Radio. He had a permanent smile on his face. He was never without his ability to shake hands and hug necks. He returned exponentially whatever love was given to him. And here the irony rests. He gave back much more than he received.

“Details for his funeral will be handled by McDougald Funeral Home in Anderson. No details have been finalized at this time. Please keep his family in your prayers in this difficult time,” John Cann, T.L. Hanna’s athletic director, confirmed on Sunday.

Forever beloved by T.L. Hanna, Kennedy became a permanent high school junior so that he would never have to leave.

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R.I.P. Radio.

Staff Writer, Entertainment at The Root. Sugar, spice & everything rice. Equipped with the uncanny ability to make a Disney reference and a double entendre in the same sentence.

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