VISTA, Calif. — As he exited the North County Courthouse elevator the morning that his son’s rape trial began, Kellen Winslow Sr. locked eyes with a familiar figure seated on a bench outside the courtroom.
They exchanged greetings before the conversation pivoted to how often Kellen Sr. planned to come to court to support his son.
“I’ll be here gavel to gavel,” the Hall of Fame tight end promised.
For the past week and a half, the elder Winslow has kept his word, enduring graphic accusations and detailed testimony no father should have to hear about his son. Kellen Winslow II faces life in prison if convicted of the alleged rapes of three women and indecent exposure, and lewd conduct involving two other women.
Throughout the trial, Kellen Sr. has occupied the same spot in the third-floor courtroom, a first-row seat just 10 feet behind the defense table. The former San Diego Chargers star is physically as close as he can be to his son, enabling them to exchange smiles when cross examination of a witness is going well or to mouth a few words back and forth during breaks between testimony.
Just before court returned to session after a 90-minute lunch break on Tuesday afternoon, the younger Winslow scribbled a note on yellow legal paper and passed it to his father via one of the bailiffs seated between them. Kellen Sr. unfolded the note, read it and smiled before putting it into his suit jacket pocket.
In addition to providing comfort to the younger Winslow, innocuous exchanges like that one also serve another purpose. They remind the jury that the defendant is more than just an accused rapist fighting to beat a series of disturbing charges against him.
“It’s always a good idea to humanize your client in any way you can,” said Philip Holloway, a legal analyst and criminal attorney with the Georgia-based Holloway Law Group. “In this case, showing that he’s a human being with a father who loves him and believes in him can send a powerful message to the jury.”
Though other people have sporadically filled in some of the two rows of seats reserved for the younger Winslow’s family and friends, Kellen Sr. thus far appears to be the only one of his son’s supporters regularly showing up. Wife Janelle Winslow accompanied the younger Winslow to many of his pretrial hearings, but it is believed she so far has not attended her husband’s trial.
On the first day of the younger Winslow’s trial, his father said through a court spokeswoman that he did not want to speak with any of the two dozen reporters in attendance. Kellen Sr. reaffirmed that stance Tuesday afternoon when approached in the hallway while court was in recess.
"I know you don't want to talk about the case, but ..." a reporter began, intending to ask what keeps the elder Winslow coming back day after day.
“Then don’t talk to me,” Winslow responded sharply, cutting short the conversation.
It’s certainly understandable that Winslow would not want to speak given how painful the past year has surely been for him. A family name revered for decades in San Diego now has been forever tarnished.
In nearly a decade as one of the centerpieces of innovative San Diego Chargers coach Don Coryell’s aerial attack, Kellen Sr. revolutionized his position by establishing the mold for today’s tight ends. Not only could he block or run short-to-intermediate routes, the 6-foot-5, 256-pound Winslow could also line up out wide and use his size and speed to win 1-on-1 matchups with linebackers or safeties.
Winslow’s signature game came in the 1982 AFC playoffs when Coryell’s Chargers traveled to Miami to face Don Shula’s Dolphins.
Battling lingering injuries and dehydration, Winslow still snagged 13 catches for 166 yards and a touchdown to help the Chargers build a 24-0 lead. He later blocked Miami’s potential game-winning field goal in the closing moments of regulation, enabling the Chargers to prevail in overtime and inspiring his teammates to carry him off the field on their shoulders.
The younger Winslow flashed many of his father’s athletic gifts as a high school star in the San Diego area, but he lacked his father’s trademark humility. Kellen Jr. became a unanimous first-team All-American at the University of Miami, a 2004 first-round draft pick of the Cleveland Browns and the highest-paid tight end in the NFL. Despite all that success he garnered more headlines for his bravado than anything else.
At Miami, he nicknamed himself “The Chosen One” because he believed he possessed athletic gifts no other player could match. He also launched into a memorable postgame rant as a junior when reporters dared question him for standing over and taunting a shaken Tennessee player after delivering a hard-hitting block
"It's war," Winslow II said. "They're out there to kill you, so I'm out there to kill them. We don't care about anybody but this U. They're going after my legs. I'm going to come right back at them. I'm a f----- soldier."
Though the younger Winslow’s NFL career fizzled more quickly than expected, his descent from football star to alleged sexual deviant did not start until after his playing career ended.
In 2013, a woman called the police after allegedly spotting him masturbating inside his car in a Target parking lot in New Jersey. That incident made Winslow a target of jokes at the time, but more serious allegations followed five years later.
In March 2018, a 55-year-old hitchhiker accused Winslow of picking her up in Encinitas, raping her in a shopping center parking lot and threatening to kill her if she told anyone. Two months later, Winslow allegedly also raped a 59-year-old homeless woman he allegedly picked up outside an Encinitas train station under the guise of buying her a cup of coffee.
The publicity generated by Winslow’s arrest in June inspired another alleged victim to find the courage to go to the police. This woman has accused Winslow of raping her at a 2003 house party when he was 19 years old and she was 17. She is expected to take the stand Wednesday.
As a result of those allegations, Winslow finds himself in a suburban courthouse with only one courtroom supporter regularly by his side.
On Tuesday, Kellen Sr. listened attentively as the prosecution called a parade of detectives and DNA and forensics experts in hopes of bolstering its case against his son. Two witnesses corroborated evidence that the younger Winslow had his Hummer washed, detailed and put up for sale the day after learning the police were investigating him last June. A third witness vouched for GPS data placing Winslow near his neighbor’s house at the time she claims he exposed himself to her in her front yard.
In happier times, the elder Winslow was a mentor, confidant and cheerleader for Kellen Jr. Their interactions are limited to scribbled notes and quick glances these days, but the NFL Hall of Fame tight end is still supporting his son.
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