The Seattle Seahawks senior director of player development was on the sideline while Seattle overwhelmed the Denver Broncos 43-8 in last week’s not-so-super NFL championship game. It concluded a year which began with Kelly learning that ETSU was reviving its football program, which hasn’t fielded a team since the 2003 season.
“You take your hat off to all the people doing the hard work behind the scenes to put all of it back together at ETSU,” Kelly said. “I’m just ecstatic, as are all of the guys that I’ve spoken to, just to be able to say we’ll be able to come back and watch these guys go to battle. I just think it’s awesome.”
A hard-hitting 6-foot-2 190-pounder from football-rich Orangeburg, S.C., Kelly played defensive back for Don Riley and Mike Cavan at ETSU (1990-93). He spent eight seasons in the Canadian Football League (Las Vegas, Toronto, Winnipeg, British Columbia) and played two for the Seahawks (2001-02).
After concluding his CFL career, he returned to Seattle for his current position in 2005. He helps integrate young men/instant millionaires into a high-pressure world laden with pitfalls. He’s been part psychologist, part big brother, though the 41-year-old is fast approaching father figure, too.
The personable Kelly meets with most players almost immediately after they join the organization. He has often remembered his initial conversation with quarterback Russell Wilson during the past week. In fact, they revisited their first meeting the night before the Super Bowl.
“I remember him through the process – the combine and all that stuff – and we all loved him and thought that he was gonna be a really good player when we decided to draft him and bring him into the office,” Kelly said. “I remember him coming in – ‘How you doing, Mr. Kelly?’ – and shaking my hand. And we had a nice conversation and he said, ‘Hey man, we’re gonna win multiple Super Bowls here.’
“The first thing that came to my mind was here’s this rookie who has no idea. First and foremost, we’d just signed Matt Flynn to a big-time contract. … But I truly believed him when he said that with the confidence he said it with. I was just like, ‘Why am I believing this rookie who has not played one snap in the National Football League.’”
Wilson was just as confident about winning the first one the night before kickoff. Then again, going against Denver’s injury-riddled defense was less of a burden than what Manning faced in the Seahawks. Kelly said he couldn’t appreciate how dominant Seattle’s defense was while watching the game on the sidelines, but multiple viewings of the video have since made it apparent.
“It looked like we had 15 guys on the field on defense,” Kelly said.
Soaring into history’s afterglow has inspired much reflection. Kelly and mammoth defensive lineman Red Bryant – “as country as they come” – recalled the 6-foot-4, 323-pound Texan approaching then-general manager Tim Ruskell on the sideline during a preseason game his rookie season (’08) and asking Ruskell if he was going to cut him.
“The general manager couldn’t do anything but laugh,” Kelly said. “He was like, ‘I have never, ever had somebody just walk up to me and ask me are you going to cut me.’”
Seattle receiver Percy Harvin, who signed with the Seahawks in the offseason, was coached in high school by Kelly’s former ETSU teammate Chris Beatty.
“There was definitely an instant connection with Percy when I told him me and Chris played together,” Kelly said. “He was like, ‘Get out of here.’”
Harvin was injured nearly the entire regular season, but he returned the second-half opening kickoff 87 yards for a touchdown in the Super Bowl and had two receptions for 45 yards.
“It’s a great story,” Kelly said. “You just felt so bad for him. He wanted to play all season, but just couldn’t stay healthy. And just to get a chance to come back. … We knew how explosive he was, and finally being healthy, we were like, ‘I would not be surprised if he won the MVP.’ …
“Even when he was not playing and just trying to get back, we would watch him in practice and we were like, ‘Whoa, he is the fastest guy on the field and he’s not even 100 percent.’ We were still winning but knew he could be the cherry on top.”
Harvin’s high school coach, Beatty, was a pretty good receiver in his own right while teammates with Kelly at ETSU. Beatty left ETSU in ’94 as the Buccaneers’ career leader in receptions (125) and receiving yardage (1,813).
“We had some talent,” said Kelly, whose decision to sign with ETSU was influenced by his Orangeburg brethren in Johnson City. “First and foremost, ETSU had guys from where I was from. Darryl Butler, Rommel Bradley and Malachi (Jamison) were there.
Kelly also knew he’d get a chance to play in 1991 against Clemson, his favorite team growing up, and visit South Carolina in ’93. Columbia was 30 minutes from home.
“South Carolina (’91) and Clemson (’93) were both already on the schedule,” Kelly said. “And it wasn’t like I was heavily recruited. I was recruited by UT-Chattanooga … South Carolina State, Norfolk State, Hampton and, you know, more black colleges. … So when I got the opportunity to play at that level and get a chance to play against some of the best competition, and couple that with having guys from your hometown, it was easy for me. …
“Obviously, we didn’t win those games (at South Carolina and Clemson). But as a kid growing up in South Carolina dreaming of playing for either one of those teams, and to get an opportunity to play at Williams-Brice Stadium and Death Valley, I think those were two of my best games – two of my most inspired games.”
His favorite victory at ETSU was beating nationally ranked Marshall 38-17 in the Mini-Dome his freshman season in ’90. Marshall was led by sophomore quarterback Michael Payton, who won the Walter Payton Award after leading Marshall to an FCS national championship in ’92.
“He was good,” Kelly said. “We beat Marshall and they were nationally ranked. They came to Johnson City and we put a thumping on them. … That was big for me.”
It was the lone Southern Conference win that season for Don Riley’s Bucs. ETSU’s only other victory that season was a 37-22 win against Mike Cavan’s Valdosta State. Another Division II team, Mike Ayers’ Wofford, beat ETSU 64-46 three weeks after the Bucs had routed Marshall.
Kelly, who led ETSU with 135 tackles as a sophomore and made 10 career interceptions, will remind you he isn’t the most accomplished ETSU defensive back from Orangeburg. Donnie Abraham played nine seasons in the NFL, and was selected to the Pro Bowl in 2000 while playing for Tampa Bay.
The number of NFL backs from tiny Orangeburg is astounding. Along with Abraham and Kelly, Dwayne Harper, his brother Deveron and Arturo Freeman all played in the NFL.
“I saw someone who went to my high school playing on TV, and I said, ‘Man, this guy’s from where I’m from and he’s doing what I want to do,’” Kelly said. “It made it real for me when I saw Dwayne Harper playing. He actually played for the Seahawks. He was like a 12th-round draft pick and he made the team and played 14 years in the National Football League.
“He was our mentor. In the offseason he would come back home and work out with us. He would send me and Donnie shoes from the pros. I couldn’t really believe it, like, ‘Man, he gets a chance to play with all the guys you see on TV and he comes back and helps us out.’ Watching him do that inspired us to want to be better. All of the stuff he was learning in the pros he was coming back and teaching us. … Arturo Freeman, Dwayne’s little brother Deveron … and Donnie – it was like an each-one-teach-one type deal.”
Seattle had the most recognizable defensive back in this year’s postseason in trash-talking cornerback Richard Sherman. He set off a social media firestorm by calling out receiver Michael Crabtree after tipping a pass intended for Crabtree to create a game-winning interception against San Francisco in the NFC Championship game. In his pro wrestling-like postgame interview on the field moments after the decisive play Crabtree was referred to as “sorry” by Sherman.
“Sherman’s a very intelligent guy,” Kelly said. “He said some things in the heat of the moment, but that’s to be expected after winning a chance to go to the Super Bowl. … All the guys just knew that’s Sherm. He speaks a big game, but he backs it up constantly.
“Nobody in the organization had any issues. The only issue was that he felt – we all felt – that it took away from the victory. But it wasn’t his doing. The media blew it all out of proportion. He didn’t do that to take the shine away from the team. … There’s a lot of trash-talking that goes on between the lines.”
Sherman hardly went into a shell. In advance of the Super Bowl, he noted Denver quarterback Peyton Manning throws a lot of “ducks.”
Maybe skins have gotten thinner since technology’s made the world smaller. “Broadway” Joe Namath and Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson were the talk of the town after predictions and brash gamesmanship in the 1960s and ‘70s.
Indeed, many Seahawks players seemed happy to see the fur-coat wearing Namath still displaying swagger at the Super Bowl. The woman with him that looked young enough to be his granddaughter – well, she was at least his daughter.
“It’s funny,” Kelly said, “because he was walking on the sideline and the guys were like, ‘Okay Mo, is that his daughter or is that his wife?’”
Manning and the Broncos didn’t make Sherman eat his words. In fact, Manning capped a season for the ages by looking old. But it’s funny how quickly naysayers surface after Manning’s record-setting season.
“He’s a great quarterback – period, point-blank,” Kelly said while chuckling at the thought of Manning having skeptics. “I mean, you can just look at the numbers that he’s put up. I think our guys were just in the zone.”
Of course, at this point, Russell Wilson’s prediction of multiple titles is much more likely than Manning winning a second ring. The Seahawks don’t appear headed for a letdown.
“Guys came into the office and it’s like, ‘Okay, what’s next,’” Kelly said. “This is a young group of guys, and the season’s over with, but they want to continue playing. … It was just amazing the whole season watching these guys’ maturation process. They were young pups when they came into the league. And now … capturing a world championship, it’s like watching your younger brother or close friend do something that’s really, really awesome.”