By Chase Hartsell, Guest Writer
November 7, 2023
On Saturday, Oct. 21, Ouachita running back Kendel Givens stood to the right of quarterback Riley Harms on a sunny Football Alumni Day at Cliff Harris Stadium. The Tigers, trailing the Arkansas Tech Wonder Boys by seven points with just over nine minutes to go in the fourth quarter, needed a spark to overcome their in-state rivals. Givens, with a touchdown already under his belt that day, fixated his eyes on the end zone in front of him and, in turn, history.
The junior from Little Rock, Arkansas, took the ball from Harms and broke multiple tackles en route to a seven-yard score. As he crossed the goal line, he also crossed a finish line that no Tiger before him ever had. Ouachita’s race to 50 career rushing touchdowns was complete.
Since the inception of Ouachita’s football team in 1895, dozens of running backs have created legacies of excellence within the program. Whether it be Johnny Baker’s 4,357-yard rushing career, Kris Oliver’s run to a 2018 Great American Conference (GAC) Offensive Player of the Year award or TJ Cole’s multiple first-team All-American selections, the Tigers are no stranger to remarkable feats from the position. Until 2023, however, no member of the elite group managed to reach 50 career rushing touchdowns.
Enter Kendel Givens.
After a standout high school career at Little Rock Christian Academy (LRCA) that included more than 4,000 rushing yards, two All-State selections and a 2018 state championship, Givens signed with Ouachita in February of 2020. The following month, the nation began to feel the widespread effect of the COVID-19 pandemic. Though Givens officially started his time
with the Tigers during the fall of 2020, his first season on the actual gridiron would have to wait. In August, the Great American Conference announced the cancellation of all athletics for the semester. In the meantime, the former LRCA Warrior trained and prepared himself for his eventual collegiate debut, and when the next fall arrived, he found himself number two on the depth chart behind veteran running back TJ Cole.
During the 2021 season, Givens made his mark immediately by scoring 23 rushing touchdowns: the most ever by a Tiger freshman. In 2022, he followed up his impressive first season with 13 additional scores on the ground and a selection to the All-GAC Second Team. That same season, TJ Cole made headlines by breaking Ouachita’s single-season and career records for rushing touchdowns with 26 and 49 scores, respectively, in his final year with the Tigers. Having already accumulated 36 rushing touchdowns in his own right as a complimentary back for Cole, Givens found himself within striking distance of his friend’s record heading into 2023.
Before the start of his junior campaign, Givens claimed his spot
s the number one running back on the Tigers’ depth chart. According to Ouachita head coach Todd Knight, the Little Rock native’s work ethic and values made him a fitting choice for a leadership role within the team.
“For [Kendel], it starts with faith,” Knight said. “[He’s] just a high-character individual, a good student; he’s really the prototype of what you want the Ouachita football player to look like. I’ve always said a player-led team is better than a coach-led team, and when you’ve got Kendel Givens, you’ve got a player-led team.”
Through the first seven games of the 2023 season, Givens tallied 12 rushing touchdowns, putting him just one shy of TJ Cole’s record heading into the Tigers’ matchup with Arkansas Tech. With his team down 7-0 early in the second quarter, the junior broke away for a 31-yard score on the ground to tie both the game and the school record for rushing touchdowns. The table was set for history.
Although Givens helped the Tigers move the ball successfully throughout the contest, he did not receive another opportunity to find the end zone until the fourth quarter. After the junior’s initial score,
three lead changes and one additional tie led to a 24-17 advantage for Arkansas Tech with just under fourteen minutes remaining in the game. On the following drive, Ouachita picked up 68 yards on the first 10 plays to reach the Wonder Boys’ seven-yard line. With the Tigers needing an equalizing score, Givens lined up next to Harms with a golden opportunity to record his 50th career rushing touchdown. He did not waste it.
With nine minutes and ten seconds left in the fourth quarter, Kendel Givens crossed the goal line and, upon doing so, became the first Ouachita player ever to reach 50 career rushing touchdowns. At the same time, he surpassed his friend and former teammate TJ Cole to claim sole possession of the school record in that category.
While Givens acknowledged the significance of the moment after the game, he admitted that it was tough to reflect on the milestone at the time.
“We were in a dogfight, so I couldn’t even think about, ‘yes, I have the record,’” Givens explained. “I was really worried about scoring and trying to win the game; trying to finish out the game the best way [I could].”
With the contest now tied at 24 points each, the running back knew his job was not finished. When the Tiger defense forced a three-and-out on Arkansas Tech’s next drive, Givens and the offense returned to the field with a chance to score again and take the lead.
After getting the ball rolling with a 13-yard reception, Givens capped off the drive by taking a direct snap and leaping over the defense for a one-yard, go-ahead score with less than three minutes to go in the game. From there, Ouachita’s defense made a last-second stand to secure the 31-24 win.
His team now standing victorious thanks, in large part, to his game-winning score, Givens finally allowed himself to let the achievements of the last quarter sink in. In the wake of an emotion-filled journey to the Tiger rushing touchdown record and a triumph over Arkansas Tech, one particular feeling took hold for Givens: thankfulness.
“I’m blessed,” Givens said. “God has really been faithful to me, and I can’t thank Him enough. Those guys up front – they got it done for me. I’m so happy; I’m grateful I got to do [this] in front of my family. I’m [just] blessed.”
Givens finished the game against the Wonder Boys with a career-best 181 rushing yards and three touchdowns. His performance earned him GAC Offensive Player of the Week honors. While these milestones highlight Givens’ already noteworthy career, Knight believes his running back has yet to reach his ceiling.
“He’s not done,” Knight said. “This is really just the start for him. There’s a lot of things hanging out there that he can surpass – not just touchdowns. I know he’s got even bigger goals.”
Never one to be complacent, Givens now sets his sights on new horizons with a record in tow.