The first step GJ Kinne and Jeff Traylor took into each other's lives was a reluctant one.
It was 2006. Traylor was the head coach at Gilmer High School, a small town in East Texas. Kinne was a senior quarterback looking for a place to play. Kinne's father, Gary Joe, was the head coach at Canton High School, another small town in East Texas, and had successfully turned around their struggling program in his three years on the job. (If you know the name, it's likely because he was shot by a player's parent in 2005.) The 2005 Canton Eagles knocked out Gilmer, the defending Class 3A Division II state champion, in the second round of the playoffs -- a 61-58 barnburner; GJ Kinne threw for 430 yards and scored seven touchdowns -- en route to the regional finals. With GJ returning for his senior season, the first state championship in school history seemed like a real possibility for Canton in 2006.
In January of that year, though, Gary Joe Kinne landed the linebackers job at Baylor. "I've always wanted to coach at the college level and to do so at my alma mater is just icing on the cake," Kinne said at the time. "This is a tremendous opportunity."
With his father now working in college football, the reigning Class 3A Offensive Player of the Year needed a place to play. The No. 4-rated quarterback in the state of Texas was a free agent. "I had a lot of offers," GJ Kinne told FootballScoop.
He enrolled, of all places, at Gilmer. Well before anyone combined the words "transfer" and "portal," imagine Caleb Williams transferring to Georgia and playing immediately. "I remember everyone calling me, being on the news, people trying to talk to the counselors. It was a big deal," he said. "Well, a big deal for East Texas."
Some accused Kinne of moving to Gilmer for athletic purposes, which, if proven, would have made him ineligible for the 2006 season. A vote among the district's superintendents ended in a tie, kicking the issue up to the University Interscholastic League's executive committee. Traylor had to appear in front of the committee alongside Gilmer ISD's lawyer, the high school principal, and the district's superintendent. The UIL ruled unanimously in Kinne and Gilmer's favor. "The superintendents that voted against us should be ashamed of themselves," Traylor says now.
The truth was that Kinne moved to Gilmer to live with his mother and stepfather, who lived in town. "I didn't recruit GJ, I didn't know GJ. His dad just brought GJ to us and that was all there was to it," Traylor said.
With the eligibility issue behind them, Kinne moved on to a more pressing matter. "We had a QB returning by the name of Jamel Kennedy who was a really good quarterback," Traylor said. "I remember telling him we've got a really good quarterback and Gary Joe said, 'If he can't beat him out, he's not as good as I think he is.'" (Gary Joe Kinne did not respond to requests for comment.)
"I hadn't done some of the stuff they were doing," Kinne said. "I wanted to come in there and prove myself. I think that's where I won Jeff over."
"He was not a guy that liked the weight room," Traylor said. "Just a natural, natural athlete."
Kinne won the starting job, and with Kennedy at receiver (he would eventually sign with SMU), Gilmer rolled through the regular season. Kinne threw for 47 touchdowns against one interception while adding another 11 on the ground. The Buckeyes entered the playoffs 10-0, including a win over powerhouse Bishop Gorman of Las Vegas, and ranked No. 1 in the state. They broke a 47-year-old UIL Class 3A scoring record. A state championship seemed almost predetermined.
Instead, Gilmer lost in the first round of the playoffs.
Led by future MLB third baseman Will Middlebrooks at quarterback and future NFL running back LaMichael James, Texarkana Liberty-Eylau kept the Gilmer offense off the field for all but five minutes of the second half, turning a 22-13 halftime deficit into a 39-36 upset.
"The biggest loss of my career, no doubt," Traylor said. "It still hurts me. It really does. We were loaded," Kinne said.
The loss ended Kinne's career 770 yards shy of Graham Harrell's state high school passing record. "I thought we were going to play five more games and he would get to break the record," Traylor said. "(Gary Joe) or GJ have never said a word about that. And you know it had to hurt him to miss out on that. Gary Joe came to practice and not one time got involved. He was the perfect parent to coach."
The premature end to their season did not end Traylor and Kinne's relationship. Really, it was only the beginning.
Kinne spent his senior year committed to play with his dad at Baylor, but after the season ended and as February's signing day approached, he began contemplating a flip to Texas. "I was at Disneyworld during Christmas break with my kids. (My wife's) like, 'I love GJ, but can we just have Disneyworld with our children?'," Traylor said. "And then Mack Brown calls, Greg Davis calls, and I was on the phone the entire time we were at Disneyworld."
Kinne signed with Texas in February of 2007 and, roadblocked by Colt McCoy, transferred to Tulsa the following spring. Among his coaches during Kinne's three years at Tulsa: Gus Malzahn, Mike Norvell, and Chad Morris. "Chad and I were on the phone constantly, talking through concepts we'd done with GJ," Traylor said.
Kinne threw for 9,455 yards and 81 touchdowns as a Hurricane, winning the Conference USA Offensive Player of the Year award as a senior in 2011. "Any time I would come home I would always go up to the field house and we would talk ball," Kinne said. "He would come up to Tulsa and watch practice. He always said they way we practiced at Tulsa had a lasting impact on him."
Undrafted in 2012, Kinne spent five years bouncing between the NFL and the CFL before hanging up his helmet for good in 2016.
He entered coaching in 2017, snagging a GA job on Chad Morris's SMU staff, where Traylor happened to be the assistant head coach and running backs coach. "You think you have it all figured out, and then you become a GA," Kinne said.
The pair moved to Arkansas together the following season, until their paths parted again in 2019, when Kinne landed an off-the-field job with the Philadelphia Eagles. When Todd Graham, Kinne's first head coach at Tulsa, landed the Hawai'i job in 2020, Kinne became his offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. When Malzahn landed the UCF job in 2021, Kinne became his co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.
And then, this past December, Washington State named Jake Dickert its full-time head coach. Dickert hired Eric Morris to run his offense, opening the head coaching job at Incarnate Word. Guess who was across town, fresh off a Conference USA championship run at UTSA?
"Jeff was one of the first people I called, if not the first, when they reached out. Just started talking to him about the interview process -- what to ask, what to do, what to wear," Kinne said.
"I was basically like his agent giving out his number to 1,000 coaches trying to get jobs," Traylor said.
Kinne was named Incarnate Word's fourth head football coach on Dec. 20.
Kinne's Incarnate Word teams will be shaped by his father, Gary Joe, and by his father away from home, Jeff Traylor.
"A lot of people get lost in trying to be someone else and try to be yourself. Jeff is himself every day. When Jeff didn't get that job at SMU, there were tears shed. It was a bad deal there for a while because he didn't get that job. He builds real relationships with kids," Kinne said. "I told my kids here, I'm going to have a real relationship. That's something that get lost because (Jeff) wins so many games."
For a time, Traylor and Kinne spoke every day. Today, they speak from time to time. The demands of two head coaching jobs don't allow for much more, even if they're in the same city. Their relationship, born of awkward circumstances, has taken the two of them to places they never could've imagined when Kinne first appeared at the Gilmer field house 16 years ago.
"The other day we both had Spurs tickets, my son Lincoln got to go up and give Jeff and Carey a hug. I talk to his son Jordan almost every day," Kinne said. "He was a ball boy when I was at Gilmer and we worked together at Arkansas. He's become one of my best friends."
"I love the kid. We've been through a lot together," Traylor said. "He's literally kid like my child. There's no exaggeration."