Whether it was smothering Iowa’s C.J. Beathard or dragging down Ohio State signal-caller J.T. Barrett to finish off a season-changing upset, Penn State defensive tackle Kevin Givens was a violent redshirt freshman last season.
But Altoona Area High School instructional coach Kelli Livermore knows a different Kevin Givens.
“He’s quiet,” Livermore said. “He’s very smart, but quiet. It’s very easy to like Kevin because he’s so honest. He’s genuine.”
Livermore and her family, along with Altoona football coach John Franco, saw a side of Givens not many have. They saw a budding star that hadn’t realized his potential, a teen bigger and more determined than most, one just needing an extra push.
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Givens — who was born in Newark, N.J., and moved to Altoona with his mother at a young age — hasn’t had it easy.
But because of the surrounding support at Altoona and, more importantly his own resolve, Givens has already made a name for himself.
“I just put it in my mind that I can do this,” Givens told The Centre Daily Times. “I just kept telling myself that if I worked hard, the results would pay off.”
And they certainly have.
After a practice in the fall of 2012, Givens’ high school sophomore season, Franco surprised his then-linebacker.
“Hey, what are your goals?” Franco asked at the time. “Obviously you want to play Division I football, right? Because you have an opportunity to play Division I football.”
That was the first time Givens had ever heard that.
“I never knew that before,” Givens said. “It kind of hit me pretty good. It hit me hard.”
Franco told Givens to talk to his mom and friends, think it over and come back to him when he made a decision.
Givens walked into Franco’s office less than a week later. “Yeah, Coach,” Givens told him. “I think I’d like to play Division I football.”
That’s when it all started.
Franco, a Pennsylvania Scholastic Football Coaches Association Hall of Famer, has guided countless players through the process of preparing for college football. The former Altoona coach had a three-step, tried-and-true plan: 1) Focus on academics, 2) Hit the weight room, and 3) Become a well-rounded athlete by playing more than just football.
Givens adhered to all three. He already played basketball but added track & field to the repertoire his junior year. When it came to hitting the weight room, Givens never missed an offseason football workout — he was never even late.
Why was that impressive? Givens’ family didn’t have a car he could take to and from school every day.
“He was always one of the first to be there,” Franco said. “He made sure he arranged rides every day, and for Kevin, that was pretty big. He taught that to himself and knew what was important.”
Added Givens: “I just did what I had to do.”
That left one more piece of the plan to be taken care of: Academics.
Up until his conversation with Franco, Givens didn’t take his school work seriously. He never cultivated positive study habits or had the educational structure in place to succeed.
That changed when he met Kelli Livermore.
As a part of Givens’ plan, Franco set his player up in Livermore’s SAT prep course in 10th grade.
“Ever since, we’ve been close,” Givens said.
Givens was already friends with Livermore’s son, Troy, a freshman on the Altoona football team. Livermore was also a “football mom,” so she helped coordinate rides and more for the Mountain Lions.
The familiarity was already there, but then a bond started to form.
“He became more of a family friend,” Livermore said.
At school, Livermore helped Givens learn really how to study and prepare for harder course work, and that support spilled over at home. Givens was often at the Livermore’s house, eating dinner with the family and hanging out with Troy. Of course, Kelli pulled the “mom card” more than once, sitting both Givens and her son down to do their homework.
She was always there if Givens needed help with anything — whether it was homework, a ride to practice or life advice.
“Kevin’s a proud person,” Livermore said. “If he can do it on his own, he’s going to do it on his own. He’ll initiate and make it happen on his own first. But sometimes I would have to say, ‘C’mon, let me help.’”
And Givens was more than appreciative.
“She was always very friendly and sincere,” Givens said with a smile.
To Givens, the Livermores were — and still are — family.
Growing up in Altoona with just his mom, it was difficult on the defensive tackle at first. Givens has family still in Newark, but he hasn’t been back in quite a while.
He doesn’t recall too much from his time in Newark, which ranked as the sixth-most dangerous city in the United States in 2012, per CNN.
And Givens doesn’t like what he does remember.
“It was shitty,” Givens said. “It wasn’t a good place. But it was still home.”
For most of his life, home was Altoona. And as a sophomore, his family grew. It wasn’t just him and his mom anymore — Givens had the Livermores and Franco. He had more people looking after him than he ever thought would.
Givens learned a lesson from Kelli Livermore, one he’ll always keep with him close.
“There are good people out there trying to help you,” Givens said.
Franco called Livermore “an angel,” saying she was “instrumental in making (Givens) as successful as he’s been.” But Livermore deflects any credit. She always goes back to Kevin’s attitude.
Livermore remembers the first time Givens cautiously walked into her SAT prep class.
She recalls how kind he was to his fellow Altoona classmates.
She saw how much he grew, from a reserved, uncertain teenager to a self-assured Division I student-athlete.
And now, after her family bought season tickets for the upcoming 2017 season, she’ll watch Givens live on the field for Penn State.
Givens’ second mom — and soon-to-be Beaver Stadium’s proudest patron — just has to see him fulfill his potential.
“We love him to death,” Livermore said. “We think the world of him.”
Kevin Givens’ 2016 stats
Games played/started: 14/6
Fumble recoveries: 2
Notable game: vs. Ohio State, combined with Evan Schwan to sack J.T. Barrett for the game-sealing sack on fourth down
Postseason accolades: Campus Insiders Freshman All-America second team, ESPN.com All-Big Ten Freshman Team, BTN.com All-Big Ten Freshman Team