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I cut back, heard a crack

Still hurts me, but I don’t mind

Reminds me I was No. 29

—Steve Earle, “No. 29”

Last Wednesday was national signing day for prep football players. That’s when schoolboy stars in small towns and big towns and towns in between stand before fans and family and formally declare where they’ll be going to college.

The University of Maryland, on this big day, announced that it had signed 18 recruits from the class of 2001, including a blue-chip running back and an All-American offensive lineman. No quarterbacks were signed.

The Terrapins, however, still have Chris Kelley for four more years. And he hopes they won’t need another QB.

Kelley is now a freshman on a football scholarship. Because he hasn’t yet suited up for the Terrapins, he’s got all his athletic eligibility left. Kelley says he spent the latest national signing day reflecting, as he often does, on the ups and downs in the year since he signed with Maryland. The downs, such as the recurrent soreness and swelling in his left knee, have been more profound.

“The day I signed, that was a great day for me, a big day,” Kelley says.

He’d earned it. From 1997 to 1999, Kelley more than starred for Seneca Valley High School, where football is king. By consensus, actually, he’s the greatest player the Germantown school ever had—and one of the best ever to grace any gridiron in the D.C. area. He could, as they say, do it all. He dominated when playing linebacker or quarterback or returning punts or kickoffs. On a typical fall Friday under the lights, he just seemed stronger, faster, and tougher than the rest.

The Screamin’ Eagles never lost a game with Kelley on the field.

Shortly after his Seneca Valley career ended with a third consecutive state championship, Kelley was named to several All-America teams. The Washington Post tabbed him as its Player of the Year for 1999, and USA Today and the Associated Press named him Maryland Player of the Year.

He was a can’t-miss kid.

Can’t-miss kids have their pick of colleges. Kelley visited Nebraska, a school that usually gets whomever it wants, and had Syracuse begging him to come play defensive back. But Kelley chose Maryland. In part, Kelley says, he made the decision because he wanted to play quarterback and stay close to home. It also helped that he had such fond feelings for Byrd Stadium, which, along with being the Terrapins’ home field, is the site of the state championship football game.

“I played in three games at Byrd in high school and won every one,” Kelley says. “I figured the place was good luck for me.”

His luck turned, however, before he’d even enrolled at Maryland. After graduation, Kelley was asked to participate in the Super 44, an annual matchup of high school all-stars from Maryland and Virginia. Kelley didn’t need to play in the exhibition, held last July in Fairfax, because his scholarship was already guaranteed. But by summer, he missed playing football. So he suited up.

“I just wanted to play the game,” Kelley says. “These were the best players from the area, and I wanted to see how I matched up against them.”

For a brief time, Kelley not only matched up—he dominated. With the first quarter only eight minutes old, he’d already thrown for 150 yards and had his Maryland squad up 14-0. He was leading what looked like a third consecutive scoring drive when, for the first time in his football life, he and good luck parted company. On a quarterback draw called deep in Virginia territory, Kelley bolted through the line and into the open field, just as he had so many times at Seneca Valley.

“I was sure I had a touchdown,” Kelley says.

He was wrong. Not one but two Virginia defenders blindsided the scrambling Kelley. As he was falling to the ground, he felt his left ankle twist oddly, then heard a popping sound coming from deep inside his leg. Kelley had to be helped to the sidelines. As soon as he could stand on his own, he asked to be put back in the game.

Not tonight, coaches told him. You’re hurt.

Kelley watched the last three quarters with his leg in a temporary cast. He went home with the game ball and the awe of his peers.

“A lot of times, you hear hype about a guy and you automatically think he’s not that good,” a Virginia linebacker told the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star. “Then you see [Kelley] play and realize he’s as good as everybody says.”

An MRI showed that Kelley’s first football injury was a biggie: He’d suffered a complete tear of his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), which connects the tibia and femur and stabilizes the front of the knee. A generation ago, that diagnosis would have been a career-ender.

But thanks to incredible advances in orthopedic medicine, doctors were able to tell Kelley that with some surgery and some hard work and some luck, he’d eventually be able to again run a 4.5 in the 40-yard dash and make cuts as sharp as a butcher knife. But playing ball in his freshman year was out, meaning that for the first time since second grade, he’d be on the sidelines for a season.

While Kelley threw himself into a six-month rehabilitation program—he says his knee’s now at “about 90 percent” of its pre-accident condition and improving—the Terrapins suffered through a 5-6 season, which included a 59-7 blowout loss to Florida State.

At season’s end, coach Ron Vanderlinden, who had recruited Kelley, and essentially all of his assistants were fired by Maryland Athletic Director Debbie Yow. Ralph Friedgen, an offensive coordinator for Georgia Tech, was brought in to rebuild the program.

Players, even those with undamaged ACLs, often get lost in coaching shuffles at the college level and end up transferring or quitting. Kelley vows he’s not going to do either.

“When the guy who recruited you and spent all that time getting you to come to a school [is fired], well, there are always questions about what you’re going to do,” he says. “I never thought about leaving. To me, if you can play, you’re going to play, so why leave? I came to Maryland to play quarterback and win games. I’m still going to play quarterback and win games here.”

The Terrapins’ spring practice starts March 28. Kelley says he’ll be ready.

Kelley keeps a videotape of the Super 44 game—his own Zapruder film—in his dorm room. He watches it fairly often and admits that he usually hits the slow motion button when it gets to his last play. He can’t explain why he keeps going back to that tape. But he has learned something from the repeat viewings.

“I see that if I’d have just seen the first guy coming, I’d have scored,” he says. “And everything would be different.” —Dave McKenna