On occasion, some Germantown residents refer to Chris Kelley in the past tense. They view his college career at Maryland as a failure, too much hype followed by too many injuries. Once, a local approached Kelley's older brother Mike, not knowing the two were related, and said, "Man, Chris Kelley was a disappointment at Maryland."

It hurts the family because, after all, Kelley never asked for the fading scars below his knees that represent three surgeries in the past four years. He never wanted to struggle at quarterback and initially at safety after each rehabilitation. There were times the coaching staff wondered if Kelley, one of the most heavily recruited players on the team, would ever contribute.

"I just know some people say, 'What's all the fuss about?' " Mike Kelley said. "I hope he puts that all to bed."

For Kelley and his family, Saturday's game against Northern Illinois proved a monumental moment, ultimate relief. Finally, Kelley is healthy, starting and playing well. Said Kelley, "It's something I've been waiting for my whole life."

At strong safety, he registered nine tackles against the Huskies, all while playing with the incessant zeal that those who know him best say defines his life. Even when he played quarterback, he competed with a linebacker's mentality.

With Kelley's comeback an intriguing story line early in the Terps' season, his family granted numerous interviews this week. But the Kelleys are superstitious, said Mike Kelley, who added, "I'm just kind of nervous."

Chris Kelley received similar publicity in April 2002 before Maryland's spring game. At the time, he had risen to No. 1 on the quarterback depth chart. He had battled back from two reconstructive left knee surgeries to repair torn anterior cruciate ligaments.

He entered the 2002 spring game with his primary goal -- "to start for this university" -- within reach. During the game, Kelley cut one way and went another. He heard the familiar pop and knew: this time, his right knee.

His family joined him afterward in the Gossett Team House. They all cried. And there were equally dark moments ahead.

Soon after, Mike called Chris from work and heard sadness in his voice. Chris looked at the long road ahead instead of each incremental step.

He underwent his third surgery on May 8, 2002, and then remained optimistic, engaging in a relentless rehab program in Silver Spring: underwater treadmills, balance beams, trampolines. His father remembers a therapist asking, "Can you do this?"

He never had serious doubt. Kelley, 22, forged his perseverance, his aggression, from daily competitions against his brothers -- John, 23, and Mike, 28. A tattoo festooned to Kelley's bicep signifies family and is not far from his heart.

The brothers weren't ones to sit indoors all day. "Chris and I are terrible video game players," said John Kelley, who played at Towson State and now coaches linebackers at Wesley College.

The brothers played in the Kelley backyard, which is some 40 yards by 30 yards, perfect for tackle football. No one is sure how grass still grew. Chris often played one-on-one football against John in the snow. They sometimes damaged the wooden fence, also known as the end zone, and hammered it back together. Some kids broke noses and bloodied faces.

One time, Chris bloodied his nose and ran in the house. Moments later he returned wearing a Toys 'R' Us Washington Redskins helmet. He was no older than 6 and wasn't about to quit.

They wrestled, bowled, battled at anything. Once, the three brothers nearly had completed a miniature golf outing in Ocean City when one frustrated brother picked up the ball and chucked it into the ocean. Which brother tossed the ball remains subject of debate.

"They'd see who can blow his nose the longest," quipped their father, John, "who can get the trash to the corner the quickest."

The competitiveness fueled Kelley's performances at Seneca Valley High, where the 6-foot-2 player was 39-0 while in the starting lineup, 26-0 as starting quarterback. Kelley, at times, was so juiced with adrenaline that his coach, Terry Changuris, took him out just to settle his emotions. Kelley occasionally also played on the opening kickoff for one reason -- to unleash a hit and expunge excess energy.

"Kids were afraid not to give their all for fear of what he might do," Changuris said. "They didn't want to disappoint him."

After his third surgery, Kelley didn't want to disappoint himself. Most expected him to miss the first half of the 2002 season, but Kelley told doctors he did not want to be sidelined six months, not again.

Within 90 days he was back on the field with Maryland for summer practice. He played in the season-opening loss to Notre Dame and saw action in 11 games as backup to starting quarterback Scott McBrien.

McBrien, though, solidified the spot during that season, so Kelley, who had been recruited by Auburn and Syracuse to play defense, moved to the secondary in 2003. Initially he struggled, saying, "It was like starting all over again." This year, though, Kelley earned most improved defensive player honors in the spring and played even better throughout summer practice, Coach Ralph Friedgen said. And he exhibited the passionate nature that he acquired from his backyard competitions.

He engaged offensive lineman Stephon Heyer, who is four inches taller and 91 pounds heavier than Kelley, in a fight during a summer scrimmage. He hit quarterback Joel Statham during a two-minute drill in practice, a forbidden act in the eyes of Friedgen. And Saturday, in the game's final moments, Kelley screamed and blitzed with abandon, distraught that Maryland twice played with only 10 players on the final drive.

"He's definitely lived up to the hype that he's had," Maryland defensive end Shawne Merriman said. "Everything you heard about him was true, a man among boys."

Terrapins Note: Andrew Crummey is expected to start at right guard, because Russell Bonham is out with a knee injury.

Maryland safety Chris Kelley (Seneca Valley High) has battled through three surgeries in five years. He had nine tackles in the season opener.