The decisions by running backs Leonard Fournette and Stanford’s Christian McCaffery to skip their schools’ meaningless bowl games may have drawn an ironic chuckle from Chris Kelley. “Who’s Chris Kelley?”, you ask. You might know him as an NFL player were it not for his participation in a meaningless high school all star game.
Montgomery County has hardly been a hotbed for football talent over the years. Mike Curtis went on to an outstanding career as a linebacker with the Colts, Seahawks and Redskins after starring at Richard Montgomery and Anthony Dilweg quarterbacked the Packers for a couple of years after leading Whitman to football prominence and playing alongside our own Kevin Sheehan in basketball. Both Curtis and Dilweg went to Duke about 20 years apart, with Dilweg playing for an up and coming coach by the name of Steve Spurrier. Each is one of the few examples of top notch Montgomery County football talent. Kelley may have been Curtis’ equal as a high school defender and was considerably better than Dilweg as a quarterback. And he might have had a better pro career than either one were it not for something called the “Super 44” game in early June of 2000 at WT Woodson in Fairfax matching high school football stars from Maryland and Virginia.
Kelley had already signed up to play at the University of Maryland, where his goal was to lead the Terrapins to their first ever win against ACC foe Florida State. The previous fall, he had completed what has to be considered the best high school football career in the history of Montgomery County and one of the best in the state of Maryland. In four years at Seneca Valley, Kelley had gone 26-0 as the Screamin Eagles starting quarterback and 39-0 in games he was somewhere in the starting lineup. As a quarterback, he threw for 3,657 yards and ran for 2,111. As a senior, after throwing for 29 touchdowns and running for another 16, he was the Washington Post’s All Met player of the year, USA Today’s Maryland state player of the year and the Associated Press’ state offensive player of the year.
Ron Vanderlinden was the coach at Maryland when Kelley signed up and the quarterback spot up for grabs. But any thoughts of claiming the job as a true freshman went out the window in that Super 44 game. Kelley tore his left ACL in the game and would spend his freshman year rehabbing and redshirting while Vanderlinden suffered through a fourth straight losing season and was fired.
Ralph Friedgen replaced Vanderlinden. New coach, new opportunity. More heartbreak. Kelley re injured the knee before the season started. While it wasn’t severe enough to warrant another redshirt year, he spent most of the 2001 season on the bench as Shaun Hill, who’s still in the NFL with Minnesota, had a great year and took the Terps to the Orange Bowl.
Finally the spring of 2002 arrived and Kelley had the job he signed up for – starting quarterback. I remember going to the spring game with my son that year just to see Kelley play. Montgomery County is our home and we wanted to see our homeboy. Exactly what we didn’t want to see, happened. On what was wet grass at then Byrd Stadium, now Maryland Stadium, Kelley slipped and tore his right ACL – the other knee. Three years, three knee surgeries. Since it was only April and he’d twice rehabbed the other knee, he knew what he had to do and vowed to be ready for the start of the season in less than five months.
The son of a Navy Seal worked his butt off and was cleared to practice and play by the start of the 2002 season. Problem was, somebody more experienced had moved ahead of him on the depth chart. Scott McBrien, who’d starred at DeMatha and later started at the University of West Virginia before transferring to Maryland, had seized control of the job. And like Hill the year before, McBrien had a great year. The Terps had another 10 win season and crushed Tennessee in the Peach Bowl 30-3.
Since McBrien had another year of eligibility and Kelley’s eligibility clock was now down to two years, the Maryland coaches weren’t going to waste another year of this great athlete sitting on the bench. Kelley was switched to safety. It didn’t quite work out the way Kelley or his coaches hoped. Though he played hard, his playing time in the secondary was limited. Kelley most of the season learning a new position and playing special teams.
Finally, five years after his eye popping senior year at Seneca Valley, Kelley was a starting football player at Maryland. Though the team struggled through a losing season, Kelley showed enough promise that with a little more college experience at safety, his NFL dreams could come true. Though he’d already taken his redshirt year as a freshman, in special cases the NCAA will grant a player a sixth year of eligibility if there are extenuating medical circumstances. During this time, Oklahoma quarterback and Heisman trophy winner Jason White had gone through a similar history of knee problems and got the sixth year. But the NCAA said no to Maryland and Kelley and said they weren’t required to give a reason why.
Despite all the knee surgeries, Kelley still had enough speed left to get a look from the Redskins and the Ravens, who signed him as an un drafted free agent. He lasted until the final cuts in Baltimore and with maybe a little more college experience at safety, he might have made the team. You can drive yourself crazy with the “what if” game. The first knee injury that Kelley suffered in that Super 44 game could have happened during his first Maryland game or even first practice. But it happened in an all star game that meant nothing, especially to a player who’d proved all he needed to prove against high schoolers. The injury not only dampened his college career, it may have cost him a shot at the pros.
The football world watches as Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith attempts to play in the NFL after tearing up his knee in Notre Dame’s meaningless bowl game last winter. The injury dropped him from a possible top five pick in the draft to the second round and loss of nearly $20 million in guaranteed money. There was nerve damage that came with Smith’s injury which may cause him to never play another down.
Football coaches always tell players to treat each play as if it’s their last. Fournette and McCaffrey would like their last play to be in the NFL, not a meaningless bowl game. Ask Chris Kelley if he can blame them.