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Chris Kelley will have a personal workout with the Washington Redskins in Ashburn this week. It’s the first of several scheduled NFL tryouts for the University of Maryland senior.
That would seem a dream come true for a local kid who grew up wanting nothing but to be a pro football player. And, given the physical setbacks he’s suffered in recent years, Kelley is grateful to still be playing ball at all. But, all things considered, Kelley says he’d rather have spent his spring break preparing for spring practice and another year of college football.
“I really thought I’d be coming back,” says Kelley. “But it’s not up to me.”
No, it’s up to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). And in December, the all-powerful overseer of college sports denied Kelley’s request for a sixth year at College Park.
He’d suffered three serious knee injuries since signing with Maryland in 1999; he says that he’d long assumed that he’d be granted a waiver of NCAA Bylaw 14.2, which decrees that Division I athletes must complete their eligibility in five consecutive calendar years. There is a loophole in that bylaw for players with extenuating circumstances, and the NCAA had granted a bonus year to lots of folks who’d suffered lesser injuries—Oklahoma quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Jason White, for one. Kelley’s perseverance despite a slew of surgeries, along with his switch from quarterback to safety—a rarity at major college programs these days—make for a comeback story strong enough to jerk tears from the most grizzled gridiron observer.
But all that wasn’t enough to convince the NCAA to give him a return ticket to College Park.
A statement released by Maryland after the decision said the NCAA had determined that “Kelley was not deprived of the opportunity to participate for more than one season and there were no circumstances deemed extraordinary.”
But it appears that Kelley’s decision to rush back into playing shape after surgery in 2001 backfired. He got into games against Duke and Troy State at mop-up time, leaving him with only two carries for nine yards and no attempted passes on his stat sheet for the season. That was enough to cost him a year’s worth of eligibility to the NCAA.
Jennifer Kearns, NCAA spokesperson, says she cannot comment specifically on Kelley’s case because of federal privacy laws.
“Probably somebody who never played a sport made that decision,” Kelley says. “I figured if anybody’s going to get the exemption, I would. But I guess they flipped a coin on it.”
Up until the time Kelley signed with Maryland in 1999, it seemed the coin always landed on whatever side he called. No matter how his football career winds up, he’ll be remembered as perhaps the greatest high-school-football player the Washington area ever produced.
The Legend of Chris Kelley started in 1997, when he was a sophomore at Seneca Valley High School in Germantown, Md. He wanted to play quarterback for the Screaming Eagles, but that job was already locked up by a senior who happened to be both the coach’s stepson and a Washington Post All-Met. So Kelley tried out for linebacker instead. And he made all-county on defense.
He got the QB job he really wanted as a junior, and he made the most of it. Seneca Valley went undefeated and won a state championship. But he kept his job as linebacker, too, and made All-Met on defense that year. The next season, with Kelley playing QB and linebacker, and returning kicks, the Screaming Eagles notched another undefeated season and state championship. In his years there, Seneca Valley was 39-0 with Kelley in the lineup.
He was named the Post’s offensive player of the year his senior season and made various All-America teams. He turned down offers to play defense at Auburn University and quarterback at the University of Nebraska. Kelley instead chose Maryland, which at the time was going through yet another rebuilding phase with Ron Vanderlinden as head coach. Kelley told me at the time that he wanted to be the guy taking snaps when his underdog home-state school proved it was capable of competing with the Florida States of the football world.
But Kelley’s snowball started rolling downhill just after high school. One night in June, he was leading a group of all-star prep players from Maryland in the Super 44 game against a team of Virginia all-stars in Fairfax. Just eight minutes into the game, Kelley, who had already thrown TD passes of 80 and 60 yards, took off on a long run. But at the end of the play, he got hit from his blind side and, as he was going down, heard a grotesque pop.
Doctors told him he’d torn the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. There’d be no football for Kelley as a freshman at Maryland. Kelley kept a videotape of the Super 44 game in his dorm room. He told me that year that he’d watch it often and hit the slow-motion button whenever the blindside-tackle play came on.
After surgery to repair the tear, Kelley rehabbed the knee enough to be a considered a contender for the starting-quarterback job in the 2001 season. But during a vacation on the Eastern Shore just before the start of summer workouts, he dove into the surf and heard that popping sound again. His left knee had come apart once more. Doctors told him he’d be out all year, but Kelley had other ideas. He was ready to get back in the lineup by midseason.
The brutal truth of big-time college football is there’s a Chris Kelley at every position. But his toughness impressed then-new Terps coach Ralph Friedgen, and despite the “fragile” tag that was threatening to attach itself, Kelley had all but earned the starting QB job as spring practice for the 2002 season wound down.
Then, during the Red and White game that traditionally ends spring practice, fans saw another Kelley run, and he heard another pop. This time, it was his right knee that was wrecked and required surgery. After the 2002 injury, his third in three years, Friedgen dismissed questions about Kelley’s football future. The coach told the Washington Post he hoped Kelley would “concentrate on his academics.”
But, just as he had as a 10th grader at Seneca Valley when the QB job wasn’t an option, Kelley looked at the other side of the ball. And after spending his junior year learning the defensive backfield, Kelley started as strong safety for the Terps’ 2004 season. He was on the field when Maryland beat Florida State for the first time. He earned an honorable mention spot on the all-Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) team in his first real season at the position.
Kelley says he thought he’d be able to build on those honors next season. The NCAA’s decision to deny him a sixth year, he says, robbed him of having a real climax to his college career.
“I didn’t look at our last game of the season as my last game at Maryland, not at all,” he says.
The NCAA told Kelley he could appeal the decision, but that he wouldn’t find out if his eligibility would be reinstated for several months. That would have given him no chance to try out for the NFL this season if his appeal were denied. So, even though he doesn’t have a whole lot of highlights from College Park to sell himself with, Kelley put college ball behind him.
His agent, George Mavrickis, knows that nobody in the pros wants to hear about Kelley’s Seneca Valley glories. But, Mavrickis says, NFL scouts take heart and desire into account.
“You really don’t care what football guys do in high school,” says Mavrickis. “But, from a toughness standpoint, Chris brings an awful lot to the table, and I think guys [in the NFL] are going to take a look at that. His situation isn’t ideal—he really could have used the experience of another year at safety. But wherever he goes, Chris will really bring it.”
And it helps, of course, that now that Kelley’s got his body back in shape, he can flaunt the sort of speed and strength a pro’s gotta have. He showed as much during Pro Day at College Park two weeks ago. The event was mainly to showcase the talents of Terps linebacker Shawne Merriman, a blue-chipper who should go in the top 10 picks of next month’s NFL draft. But any other Terp with NFL dreams was invited to participate, too. And before a crowd of more than 70 scouts and coaches, including Kansas City Chiefs head coach Dick Vermeil, Kelley ran a 4.46-second 40-yard dash and bench-pressed 225 pounds 20 times.
“Chris surprised a lot of people that day,” says Greg Creese, spokesperson for Maryland’s football program. “He definitely helped himself.”
Given that he’s only got one real year of college ball on his résumé, Kelley probably still won’t get drafted. But since Pro Day, he’s gotten enough feelers to be confident that some team will invite him to training camp. St. Louis and Jacksonville called and asked for tapes. Atlanta sent him a plane ticket to come down for a personal workout. Kelley says the Redskins had already invited him for a workout before he posted the 4.46 40.
“Things at the beginning didn’t work out for me at Maryland, and I thought I’d be coming back, but I can’t have any regrets,” says Kelley. “I don’t have the time. And I had a great time while I was there, so much fun playing with all the guys. Now I just gotta work my tail off. Not that many people get the chance to try out for the NFL, so I just have to work every day, give it everything.”
He’ll get his B.S. in family studies in May. But Kelley says he doesn’t want to ever have to put his degree to work. He’s nowhere near ready to answer questions about life after football.
“If football doesn’t work out, well, I don’t know. I really don’t know,” he says. “I guess I’m going to have to figure out something.”