Terps' Kelley tearing up field

Football: After three ACL injuries, the safety is just happy to be playing with reckless abandon.

College Football

September 09, 2004|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | Kevin Van Valkenburg,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK - The pain was nothing. He could deal with the pain. The knife-stabbing, mind-numbing, oh-so-familiar pain barely even registered with him anymore.

But the disappointment? The mental anguish? The sinking feeling of knowing the game he loved had just been snatched away, yet again? That was devastating. When Chris Kelley tore the anterior cruciate ligament in one of his knees for the third time in 2002, that pain, the kind that runs much deeper than the physical kind, was almost too much to bear.

His older brother, John Kelley, was sitting on the metal bleachers of Byrd Stadium when it happened, watching Chris try to secure his position as Maryland's starting quarterback. Growing up, John and Chris, as well as their older brother Mike, had bloodied each other's noses, broken each other's bones and fought one another over every inch of grass in their back yard in Germantown.

Because Chris was the best athlete of the family, his brothers never went easy on him. He had to get tough just to survive the daily poundings.

The day it happened for the third time - the day Kelley heard his right knee pop after having already experienced the same injury twice to his left knee - John came sprinting down from the stands. No matter how tough Kelley was, it was just too much to ask someone to handle by himself. John put his arm around his little brother, but there wasn't much to say. They both knew. In the training room, the two brothers sat for a few moments and let the tears spill down their faces.

"I knew how hard Chris had worked and how much he wanted to come back after the first two injuries," said John Kelley, who now coaches football at Towson. "We just both sat there for a long time and cried."

Chris Kelley's Maryland career could have ended right there, and everyone would have understood. A lot of players come back from one ACL injury, and a few make it back from two. But three? It not unprecedented, but it's practically unheard of.

But amazingly, there was Kelley on Saturday night against Northern Illinois, flying around the field, talking trash and going nuts when things weren't going well. His position has changed - Kelley is the Terps' starting safety now, not their quarterback - but his mentality hasn't. He's still one of the team's toughest, most intense players, but after so many agonizing disappointments, all his hard work is finally paying off. In his first career start, Kelley made nine tackles (2.5 behind the line of scrimmage) and was a major factor in the Terps' 23-20 victory.

"It felt real good," Kelley said. "It was something I've been waiting for my whole life."

It wasn't so long ago that practically everyone was predicting stardom for Kelley when he signed with Maryland after an outstanding high school career at Seneca Valley High. Rated as one of the nation's top high school quarterbacks, Kelley threw for 1,645 yards and 29 touchdowns his senior year, and ran for 1,278 yards and 16 scores. As a starter, Kelley was 26-0, and with him somewhere in the lineup, Seneca Valley went 39-0. When he spurned more prestigious programs to sign with the Terps, plenty of people considered him a legitimate contender to win the starting job as a true freshman.

But two weeks before the season, that plan was abruptly derailed. In the Super all-star game, where Maryland's high school standouts face off against those from Virginia, Kelley got his left knee twisted trying to squirm free from a defender.

"I thought that I just tweaked it," Kelley said. "I was trying to spin free. I ended up tearing it."

Kelley had surgery and redshirted, hoping to strengthen his knee in time for spring practice. After the season, Maryland coach Ron Vanderlinden was fired and replaced by Ralph Friedgen, who immediately took a liking to Kelley. Junior college transfer Shaun Hill looked like the starter by the end of spring drills, but Kelley was close behind.

But on a family vacation in Ocean City that summer, his knee got twisted while riding a bodyboard. It seemed like nothing to worry about.

"I hurt it, but I didn't even know it," Kelley said. "I went back out and [kept] surfing."

That night, his knee started to swell, and by morning, he knew. He'd have to start all over again. Kelley's second rehab turned out to be twice as hard as the first. But amazingly, he was back practicing with the team by mid-October.

That spring, it seemed like Kelley might finally get the opportunity to put all the frustration behind him. Hill had graduated, and Kelley was No. 1 on the depth chart. He was scrambling for big gains, throwing tight spirals and making plays again, just like he did at Seneca Valley. The cruelest blow of all, however, would come in Maryland's spring game. Kelley slipped on the turf trying to avoid a tackle, and the right knee gave way.

"Of course you think about things not working out," Kelley said. "Three years in a row, you blow out your knee. That definitely [stinks]. But that's the way the cookie crumbles sometimes."

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