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A few years back, I watched a local kid run for 500 yards in one game. That’s a lot. Statistically, in fact, it was the greatest single-game performance by a running back in the history of high school football in this area. I, like most people there that night, went away assured that this kid was a Sure Thing. After he’s put his Heisman on the mantle and been enshrined in the Hall of Fame, we’ll all be crowing, “I saw him back when he was…”
Well, last I heard, Mr. Sure Thing, Class of ’95, had quit football and dropped out of school, and was spending much of his time smoking cigarettes in a mall arcade.
A lot of Sure Things wind up in mall arcades. More than in the NFL, anyway, let alone Canton. Prep phenoms run into any number of obstacles along the way to actually living out the fantasies others conjure for them: injuries, bad luck, misdiagnoses, and so on. Maybe the can’t-miss tag by itself is burden enough to cause some to flop.
But despite the odds and the hazards associated with it, spotting the next Sure Thing is one thing that makes high school football so much fun. Every season, in every region, somebody new gets anointed.
It’s Chris Kelley’s turn.
Kelley is the quarterback, safety, yell leader, and all-around guiding light behind Seneca Valley High School. This season, he threw 25 touchdown passes (the most in the area), rushed for 18 scores, and even ran a kickoff back 95 yards for another.
But pretty much everybody intimately involved in Montgomery County athletics swears the numbers alone don’t paint the full picture of the 6-foot-2, 195-pound, 17-year-old Kelley, or come close to revealing the impact he can have on a team or a game. Week after week, he’s stood out for the 12-0 Screaming Eagles, seemingly capable of playing not only a faster and tougher brand of football than anybody else on the field, but smiling wider and screaming louder while playing it.
And he’s just a junior.
Already, Kelley’s coaches call him the most dominant player ever put in uniform at the Germantown school. That’s saying a lot. Seneca Valley has become the dominant prep football program in the D.C. area. The school has won an amazing nine state championships in its 25-year historyit’ll go for its 10th this weekend at Byrd Stadiumand in some years more than 100 kids come to tryouts. For the JV team, that is.
“I always try to be real careful about what I say about kids, about how good they are or how good they can be,” says head coach Terry Changuris. “But I’ve never had a player like Chris. I’ve had good onesa lot of good onesand some great leaders, too. Buthow do I say this?he’s, well, he’s special.”
Changuris says he first heard about Kelley years before he enrolled at Seneca Valley, when club football coaches would talk about falling victim to a local Pee Wee superstar. When Kelley finally arrived on campus, it didn’t take him long to begin living up to his reputation.
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By the end of Kelley’s freshman season, Changuris had brought him up to the varsity level. But the team didn’t need a new quarterback. Brian Fleury, the coach’s stepson, had that job, and he thrived in it. Last year, Fleury led the Screaming Eagles to a 13-0 record and another state championship, and nabbed first-team All-Met honors. Nevertheless, some in the Seneca Valley circle still grumble that Kelley got jobbed by not being put behind center. Fleury modestly says he understands, maybe even supports, the pro-Kelley stance.
“When I first met Chris, even as a freshman, he was one of the most physically well-developed athletes I’d ever seen in my life,” says Fleury, now at the University of Maryland on a football scholarship. “And I’ve never seen any one player able to take over a game like he can. Like everybody, I just see great things ahead for him.”
Kelley never whined about not being handed the quarterback slot. He shifted to the other side of the ball and as a sophomore made first-team All-Countyas a linebacker.
Now, it’s his team.
Kelley’s older brother John, a 6-foot-4, 225-pound senior defensive end/tight end for the Screaming Eagles, registered 17 sacks this year and blocked well enough to attract the attention of several Division I recruiters. Look for him to be named All-Met.
But it’s testament to Chris Kelley’s status that the big brother, despite such heroics, gets largely ignored.
“I had one coach come up to me and tell me that, well, it must be really tough to be Chris’ brother, to be related to somebody who is that good and gets that much attention,” says father John Kelley. “The guy was serious, but he’s wrong. John and Chris would tell you playing together was the best thing that ever happened to both of them.” (I’m not the only one who’s interested. In the middle of my phone interview with the father, he says, “Excuse me, but Channel 5 is showing Chris now. I’ll be right back.”)
So it was with some melancholia that the Kelleys traveled to the Seneca Valley campus on Friday, to the stadium beneath the big neon Outback sign, for the state semifinal playoff game against rival Sherwood. It would be John’s last home game and, if Sherwood prevailed, the last time the brothers would ever play together.
On a horrendously cold and damp night, John did his part to extend the pairing for one more week, pummeling Sherwood ball carriers and delivering crunching blocks all game long.
But the kid brother, as he has throughout the season, did even more. Chris Kelley threw for four touchdowns and ran for another score. And over a span of several seconds midway through the fourth quarter, he showed why he’s a Sure Thing.
Facing 4th and goal from the 2-yard line, Kelley called a play, clapped to break the huddle, and watched his teammates get into their three-point stances. He surveyed the defense and started toward the line of scrimmage. But rather than merely go behind center and bark his signals, he abruptly stopped and turned to face the home grandstand. With the game and a berth in the state championship hanging in the balance, he began waving his arms up and down, wildly motioning for the tense Screaming Eagles fans to cut loose, in a sort of “Don’t worry, be happy!” gesture.
Kelley’s bold wish was their command. A roar came up immediately.
Amid the ensuing cacophony, Kelley took the snap, then quickly wheeled left and drilled a perfect spiral into the belly of a cutting wide receiver. Touchdown. Game over. Oh, there was still some time on the clock to kill, but Kelley’s brash display and flawless execution had sucked the life out of the opposition.
“We’re going to Byrd!” Kelley screamed as teammates mobbed him on the sidelines. “I knew it! I told you!”
Reporters mobbed him in similar fashion when the final gun sounded, and he told all comers with touching sincerity that he’d never forget this night. As he finally left the field, a girl came down from the bleachers and stood on her tiptoes to give the star quarterback a quick peck on the cheek, and they walked away together. From the looks on their faces, life couldn’t possibly get any better than this.Dave McKenna