Chris Kelley's boyhood dream was to do next weekend what Aaron Rodgers and Alex Smith will do: enter the NFL as one of the celebrated quarterbacks being introduced by the commissioner on the big New York stage. He was on his way toward living that dream when he signed on to attend the University of Maryland as the hotshot local quarterback with the unbeaten record at Seneca Valley High.
Three torn knee ligaments and a position switch later, the NFL dream still exists for Kelley as he awaits next weekend's draft, but in dramatically altered form. His college career at Maryland is over, and he is hoping to be drafted. But he knows his name won't be called in the first round or even on the draft's first day; it will be called late in the day next Sunday as the draft is wrapping up, if at all. He is now a safety with one year of collegiate starting experience, hoping to end up with a team that will give him a decent chance in training camp to earn a roster spot.
"Things change," says Chris Kelley, who has torn knee ligaments 3 times.
(Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)
But that's okay with him, because at least the dream isn't dead.
"Things change," Kelley said late last week, sitting on a ledge outside Cole Field House. "At least I'm still in that position of being in the draft. That's the positive for me right now. At least I know I have a chance."
He wasn't among the more than 300 hopefuls invited to the league's scouting combine in Indianapolis in late February. He didn't even know until early January, he says, that he would be leaving Maryland, since he had hoped the NCAA would approve the school's petition on his behalf for him to be granted another season of eligibility based on medical hardship.
That petition was denied, and Kelley still expresses his displeasure. "It just stinks," he said.
But if his stay in College Park taught him anything, it's to accept what life deals him without moping. So he signed with George Mavrikes, an established NFL agent who is a family friend. He worked out daily with Maryland's strength coach, Dwight Galt. He aimed to catch the eyes of NFL scouts at Maryland's pro-day workout last month, and he may have succeeded. He was timed at 4.46 seconds in his 40-yard dash, faster than before his three knee injuries. He excelled in the three-cone drill that is used by scouts to measure quickness and change-of-direction.
"I think I had a real good season last year and opened a lot of eyes," Kelley said. "All the scouts I talk to, they like me and like my film. I just have to see what happens and see what falls into place."
Kelley attended the Washington Redskins' recent workout at Redskins Park for draft prospects with local ties, and he visited the Atlanta Falcons last week.
Mavrikes said he told his client initially that getting drafted at all was a long shot, but he now thinks the odds are improving. "He's the kind of guy that might not be drafted but might play 10 years in the league, which is a lot better than a guy who gets drafted and plays one year," the Bethesda-based agent said.
Maryland defensive end Shawne Merriman said he is rooting for Kelley.
"You're talking about a guy with a warrior heart," said Merriman, who's likely to be among the first 15 players drafted Saturday. "With the things he's been through, with all those knee surgeries, to come back out and perform the way he did was incredible. I don't think there's enough praise you can give him. He's been through a lot. He went from being a big name in high school to, 'Okay, we don't even know if this guy is going to play ball anymore,' and now he's a possible draft pick in the NFL."
It seems like such a long time ago that he was winning three state titles at Seneca Valley and being named The Washington Post's All-Met Offensive Player of the Year in 1999. He tore anterior cruciate ligaments three times, twice in his left knee and once in his right knee, and the Maryland coaching staff granted his request to move to defense, which he had played -- and played well -- in high school. After a season spent mostly on special teams, Kelley became a starter at safety last season.
"I kind of wondered sometimes after knee injury after knee injury, 'Is it worth it? Should I keep going?' " Kelley said. "But you've got to keep pushing. I got a lot of support from my family and friends. . . . I'm not the kind of person who's going to ever give up, as you can tell. After my third one, I was like, 'I can't do this. My luck is terrible.' But I just had to keep pushing and keep pushing. I knew there was light at the end of the tunnel."
His college career could be viewed as all about disappointment, or all about perseverance. To Kelley, it's a little bit of both, but he says he walks away without regrets.
"I definitely matured a lot," he said. "You come in as a little wise-[guy] 18-year-old, and I'm leaving as a 23-year-old man. I definitely loved the experience. The people were great. It's been a great experience. I know I picked the right place to go to college."