Ten months ago, Chad Kelly stood on a makeshift stage in New Orleans on the field at the Superdome. As a red and blue mist of confetti rained down on the then-junior quarterback and the greatest Ole Miss team in nearly a half century, the booming voice of ESPN’s Joe Tessitore echoed off of the building’s walls.
“I tell you one guy that made the most of his opportunity,” Tessitore said. “As for the most outstanding player, Jay Batt you have the honors, Allstate Sugar Bowl executive committee. The most outstanding player of the Allstate Sugar Bowl is Ole Miss quarterback Chad Kelly.”
(photo by Logan Kirkland)
The remaining Ole Miss crowd of more than 20,000 roared as Kelly raised the trophy with the red and blue celebratory scraps of paper showering down around him. His 302 yards and 4 touchdowns had landed him on this stage. But in the grand scheme of things, Tessitore summed it up perfectly: Kelly had made the most of his opportunity.
He arrived Ole Miss a year prior to that moment lugging a set of baggage behind him and stared at questions in front of him. Who was this kid? A gunslinger with a fiercely competitive drive that often times spurned anger, and had done him more trouble than good to this point.
With stops at Clemson, East Mississippi Community College and most recently a hiccup outside of a bar in his hometown of Buffalo that nearly derailed his college career one final time, Kelly was a guy working with his last chance. He arrived in Oxford skating on thin ice. He said repeatedly that he wanted to rewrite his story. Tack on the fact that he was poised to enter into a three-way quarterback battle with two guys who had been in the program for two years already, Kelly had a full plate.
Ole Miss had built a solid ship with one of the nation’s top defenses and a stable of wide receivers. All it needed was a captain that wouldn’t slam it in gear like a speedboat, but rather avoid hitting an iceberg. That may have been the biggest hesitation amongst the coaching staff with Kelly. No one questioned the ability, but could he man the ship without wrecking it?
After a refreshingly quiet summer off of the field, Kelly separated himself and won the starting job. Three weeks in, he cemented it with 320 yards and three touchdowns in a 43-37 win in Bryant-Denny Stadium, the first time Ole Miss had beaten Alabama there in over 30 years. Ole Miss football was as relevant nationally than it had been since names like John Vaught and Archie Manning roamed the sidelines and the field rather than being plastered on the sides of the stadium to cherish their past accomplishments.
The competitive fire had been harnessed and channeled into a positive force that bred production. Kelly brought it every single time he stepped onto the field.
“I think he will be remembered as one of the best competitors that ever played here. He is the quarterback that helped lead us back to the Sugar Bowl since Archie,” Hugh Freeze said. “The Ole Miss people will remember that for a long time. He will be etched in a memory of everyone that followed our program as one of the greatest competitors to play that position here.”
Even in the defeats, he brought it. Instances the 368 passing yards, 110 rushing yards and six total touchdowns against Arkansas, or the four touchdown performance against Florida State.
“He’s crazy on the field,” Evan Engram said. “Just his drive, his competitiveness. He is so relentless. He wants to go score every play.”
His mistakes came more often than not from trying to do too much. Trying too hard and competing maybe too fiercely. But it is also what made him great.
A low tackle on Saturday against Georgia Southern on an attempted throw saw him gingerly hobble down the sideline and into the locker room. He didn’t know it at the moment, but it was the last time he’d play in Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.
“You don’t imagine your last moments as a college ball player to go out like that,” Engram said. “It is tough, but everything happens for a reason.”
As unfair as it seems, Kelly found out on Sunday following an MRI that his career was cut short.
“Just wondering why us? why him?” Enram said. “I was there for him. I didn’t know until he told me so I was just kind of there for him and making sure he kept his head up and stayed strong for himself and for us.”
Ole Miss lost its leader, and one of the most tenacious competitors the program has ever seen. On Sunday, that competitiveness produced sadness as he learned his college career had come to an end.
“He had a difficult day yesterday, it was tough to hear. Last night he was going much better. Just saying, ‘God has a plan for me and I am going to come back much stronger and work hard to get myself back ready,’” Freeze said. “I know it will be hard, because he is such a competitor, when we start playing these games without him. The team I haven’t been with as we didn’t get the news until after I had finished the team meeting yesterday. They will rally though and they will handle it well. Chad (Kelly), it was difficult for him to hear it, he wanted to finish his journey here, in a different way.”
Kelly may have wanted to write a different ending, but the legacy he etched in stone was anything but short and will last long after he is gone.
“I think the thing I am going to miss the most is his dog mentality and his drive,” Engram said. “The thing I’ll most remember is his attitude and his positivity on the field and wanting to be great.”
The 2016 season didn’t go how most envisioned. It didn’t go how Kelly had envisioned. It won’t end in a cloud of confetti and celebration. But Kelly’s legacy should be celebrated. He had one last chance. He grew up. He made the most of it as Tessitore loudly proclaimed in a moment where his journey had reached its highest point.
The first message Kelly made clear when he got to Oxford was that he wanted to change the direction of his career, and though it ended a way he wouldn’t have scripted. He accomplished just that.
“Chad came here wanting to rewrite his story and I have witnessed him to that to a large extent. It is not the ending we wanted, it’s not the last chapter that we wanted to write, but life has a way of doing that,” Freeze said. “I have watched him, I have been with him daily and he’s changed for the better. We all still have challenges in life, we all still have those things that haunt us and the shortcomings we all have, but man I have watched him do things and make impacts on people and the way he played the game here.”