ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Twenty-four weeks since his last Sunday in the spotlight, Kendall Hinton found himself taking center stage once again.
On that November afternoon, Hinton became a nationwide figure as a practice squad receiver turned emergency quarterback. As COVID-19 contact tracing protocols sidelined the entire quarterback corps, the Broncos turned to the only player on their roster with experience at the position, and even though Hinton hadn't played it since 2017, he embraced the opportunity.
On this May afternoon, Hinton returned to that experience and the many moments that led to it to tell Wake Forest's 2021 undergraduate class about the lessons he learned, as he served as one of three featured speakers at his alma mater's undergraduate commencement ceremony.
This time, he had plenty of time to prepare, and in place of the likes of Garett Bolles and Noah Fant, his teammates were former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and current Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, who gave the first two speeches of the virtual event.
Wake Forest approached him with the opportunity more than a month earlier, and he leapt at it. He started crafting his speech whenever inspiration struck; if an idea came to him while he was driving, he'd make sure to later jot it down or record it on his phone. Over the final two weeks, Hinton put it all together and shaped the story that he'd tell in his speech.
"When they told me, it was definitely a surprise to me," Hinton says. "When I tried to think of a topic to talk about, I'm telling these students to go with uncertainty. Is that the best message? I felt like that's something that got me where I'm at today, something I could pass along."
In the script that resulted, Hinton spoke of how we all have expectations or ideas for how our lives will unfold, though they all encounter forks in the road.
"My journey up to today has taught me that we must embrace a story that hasn't been written," Hinton said in his commencement speech. "For many of us, coming out of college, we have some idea of how we want our futures to play out, whether that be our first job or how much money we plan to save in X amount of years. And by doing so, we put ourselves in these parameters, and if anything deviates from that plan, we often times feel defeated or unable to adapt. In order to create a story that hasn't been written, we must embrace the unknown."
Then he went into his own path — how he started playing Pop Warner football with quarterback dreams but was placed at fullback, how he encountered struggles at quarterback in college and how he changed positions and began his career in the NFL — and how he eventually encountered the strange and unbelievable opportunity to play the position for a game in the NFL.
That Saturday night when the Broncos called him and asked if he'd play quarterback would change his life, but it would only come about because of Hinton's willingness to put himself in what must have been an enticing yet uncomfortable position, playing a game at a position he hadn't played in years against one of the top defenses.
"As I tried my best to prepare that night and calm my nerves, it dawned on me," Hinton said in his speech. "At every single stage of my life, there has been a moment where I've had the choice to embrace uncertainty or stay in my parameters. Always choose uncertainty."
Though the Broncos didn't get the win and Hinton didn't magically walk onto the field with only about 12 hours of preparation to throw for 300 yards, his story has served as an inspiration for many who tuned in to watch him take the field.
The idea of turning that opportunity down, though, never occurred to him, Hinton says. And ever since that day in November, he hasn't thought about what his life would have been like had he not taken this fork in the road.
"Honestly, I haven't," Hinton says. "… I think that being able to be an inspiration has been the biggest thing. Just being able to get my story out is what this opportunity has given me the most, being able to get the story out and allow others to find motivation and whatever it is that I experienced. I think that's been the biggest thing in all of it."
In part because of that, other Demon Deacon alumni have lifted up Hinton with their support.
"The Wake fans, Wake alums, they've definitely embraced me," Hinton says. "Even leaving Wake, the support from the university, it's such a tight-knit community, so it's always been love, it's always been tight. But you know, being able to see one of their own having a story like this and being able to share that, I think it was a big deal for the university."
For his part, being able to serve as one of the speakers for the commencement ceremony was a monumental honor, but Hinton says the weekend's event has been perhaps even more meaningful for his parents.
"They're proud as can be, and I feel that they are enjoying watching my story be written just as much as me, if not more," Hinton says.
As he continues his career, Hinton will continue to follow his mantra of embracing uncertainty, and already Broncos fans have seen it in action again. During the Broncos' recent rookie minicamp, Hinton was asked to do some work at defensive back for a day, though he was back at receiver as Phase 2 of the team's offseason program began Monday.
"It's all about adjusting," Hinton says. "Things are going to pop up, and life happens. I'm just enjoying playing football. I just love to play football, so wherever I can get on the field, I'm going to take that opportunity. And I guess that applies to life, you know? Just enjoying the moment, enjoying every opportunity you get."