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Chad Kelly rises from the depths as Ole Miss heads to the Sugar Bowl

OXFORD, Miss. – Three hundred and sixty-five nights ago, Chad Kelly couldn’t get any lower.

He lay alone on the cold floor of his jail cell in Buffalo City Court’s basement. The pepper spray made his eyes water, but he bawled from the emotion of what had happened.

At that moment, Kelly figured he’d wrecked his future beyond salvation.

He already was on his third or fifth extra chance. Three days earlier, Kelly signed a scholarship offer to play quarterback at the University of Mississippi, a triumphant recovery for a kid who was suspended and later kicked off his first high school team, came back from a knee injury, was ejected from his first college team and then forced to prove himself all over again at a junior college.

Yet there was the hotshot quarterback at central booking, left to contemplate how he nuked himself.

“I thought, ‘There’s no way somebody can take me now,’ ” Kelly said last week. “I thought it was over.”

Kelly shouldn’t have been at the Encore bar on Pearl Street at 3 a.m. He was only 20 years old, but he was inside. His best friend, Brandon Hickey, couldn’t get in. Kelly got belligerent. Bouncers told police Kelly shouted, “I’m going to go to my car and get my AK-47 and spray this place.”

Police said Kelly fought with them after squad cars blitzed to the scene. Police charged Kelly with third-degree assault, second-degree harassment, second-degree menacing, resisting arrest, fourth-degree criminal mischief and second-degree obstructing governmental administration.

His offensive playbook at St. Joe’s wasn’t much thicker than his arrest paperwork.

Kelly insists he never said anything about a gun. Calling in a firearm threat is a popular ploy security guards and bouncers use to get police to respond faster and in greater force.

He pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct and received 50 hours of community service. The original charges were dismissed.

Nevertheless, the damage to Kelly’s reputation had been done. He was ashamed. He dreaded facing his parents and grandparents. He knew his Uncle Jim, the Buffalo Bills’ Hall of Fame quarterback, would be devastated. He feared that Mississippi coach Hugh Freeze would yank the scholarship. He braced for cameras and microphones when he left the courthouse after his arraignment at daylight.

What makes Kelly choke up when recalling that night, however, are not all the adults he disappointed.

His little brother, Casey Kelly, was the freight train.

“It was bad,” Casey sputtered through tears at the kitchen table of his parents’ home in Wheatfield. Casey was in eighth grade when his hero was thrown in jail last Dec. 21. “I told him he needs to stop doing dumb stuff. I told him he has to mature if he wants to do what we know he can do.

“I told him he can’t screw up anymore. If he screws up, he’s done with everything.”

Casey lowered his head to the table, buried it in his forearm and wept some more.

Back in the Ole Miss football meeting room, 825 miles way from home, Chad Kelly cried again last week when recounting that talk with Casey. Chad realized he had been a bad big brother.

“To go through that, to see my brother cry?” Chad said. “Him asking me why you did this, why you did that, was embarrassing. He has to go to school and hear kids say, ‘Oh, we seen your brother last night on the news. He got arrested, huh?’ My brother shouldn’t have to go through that.”

Chad Kelly vowed that night he would change. St. Joe’s reinforced his Catholicism, but he became a more ardent Christian. He made zero-tolerance promises to Ole Miss, which investigated the Encore incident and came away comfortable with Chad’s version of events.

He swore to make his parents, his Uncle Jim, his past and future coaches and – most importantly – his little brother proud of him again.

No, this is not a redemption story about Chad Kelly. One year isn’t enough to prove he has matured, but what a sensational year it has been for him.

Kelly earned the ultimate Oxford testimonial.

“I grew up in Mississippi, and Ole Miss teams were really good in my childhood. Ole Miss quarterbacks were my heroes,” said Archie Manning, a figure so prominent in Oxford the campus speed limit is 18 mph, to match his retired jersey number. His son, New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning, also played there.

“We’re a Southeastern Conference school with a great following,” Archie Manning said. “Our fans and our people are passionate about Ole Miss football. For Chad to come in and learn that position in the spring and to go out and play like he did, he’s really made the Ole Miss family extremely proud.”

The SEC is considered college football’s best conference. Kelly led the SEC in passing and total offense. With a game to play, he already has broken Ole Miss’ records for passing yards, total offense and 300-yard passing games in a season.

For the first time in 46 years, when Archie Manning was the star, the Rebels will play in the Sugar Bowl. They will meet the Oklahoma State Cowboys on Jan. 1.

While Kelly seems inclined to return to Ole Miss for his senior year and those closest to him believe he’ll stay, there’s a chance the Sugar Bowl will be his last college game.

Kelly last week filed paperwork for the NFL’s college advisory committee, which rates underclassmen as potential first- or second-round draft picks, or neither. The evaluations offer guidance for turning pro.

“I have to give all praise to the man above,” Kelly said, “because I never gave up on him, and he never gave up on me. A lot of hard work has been put into this since I was 7, 8 years old.

“I wanted to be in the situation where I could have a chance to go to the NFL and be a great quarterback and take care of my family. It’s just a great feeling, but you have to keep working.”

What’s in a name?

There’s an assumption Chad Kelly’s football future was underwritten by his Hall of Fame uncle, that nepotism provided opportunities ordinary kids couldn’t experience. Jim Kelly’s fame and wealth, many suppose, paved Chad Kelly’s path.

The relationship between Chad’s family and Uncle Jim has been contentious. Uncle Jim has dispensed countless words of advice and warnings he feels have gone unheeded. He has washed his hands of Chad a couple of times already.

“It all hasn’t been great for me, my brother and Chad,” Jim Kelly said last week at his offices in Clarence. “When you’re at a certain age, sometimes he didn’t want to hear it from Uncle Jim. He’d say, ‘Yes, Uncle Jim. Yes, Uncle Jim.’ But it would ...”

Jim pointed a finger at his head like a gun and fired an imaginary shot, making a “pssssssht” sound.

“In one ear and right out the other,” Jim said.

Chad and his parents contend he hasn’t gotten enough credit for what he has accomplished because of the misconception that Jim Kelly has been an unyielding advocate.

“Everything he has now, it was not an easy road,” Chad’s father, Kevin Kelly, said over coffee and pastries at the kitchen table. His wife, Charlene, sat next to him and nodded.

“People think everything has been handed to us, that Jim just hands us money. It’s been paycheck to paycheck for us like everybody else. Trust me, there still are tough times right now.”

Kevin Kelly, the youngest of six Kelly brothers, has been in the supermarket industry for 25 years and has worked for Wegmans the past 11. Many believe he moved his family from Grand Island to Red Lion, Pa., about a decade ago to further Chad’s budding football career, similar to Rob Gronkowski’s father transferring him from Williamsville North as a senior to powerhouse Woodland Hills High in suburban Pittsburgh.

In reality, Kevin had been assigned to a Wegmans in Hunt Valley, Md. The Kellys found an economical residence across the Pennsylvania border.

Had the Kellys actually been school shopping, they might have learned a Red Lion teacher attacked a kindergarten class with a machete in 2001, and a principal was shot to death in a 2003 murder-suicide.

Red Lion is far from a football factory. It hadn’t won a district playoff game since the system was created in 1982. Division I scholarship athletes are uncommon.

Chad Kelly showed up with credentials, and everybody knew it. He’s a four-time Punt, Pass & Kick national champion. No one else had won a national title more than twice. He set national records for total distance in the 8-9, 10-11 and 12-13 age groups. His 70-yard throw remains a record in the 14-15 age group.

But Chad ran afoul of the Red Line coaching staff and administration. The exact reasons never have been made public, but he was suspended as a freshman and booted from the team as a sophomore.

He enrolled at St. Joe’s not because Jim Kelly sent him there. Charlene’s parents, Charles and Peggy Cuzydlo, lived nearby and paid his way.

“People have sacrificed more to make me be happy than I could ever dream of,” Chad said.

As a St. Joe’s junior, Chad became the state’s first quarterback to throw for at least 2,000 yards and run for at least 1,000 yards. He threw for a state-record 3,056 yards as a senior. He was selected The Buffalo News Player of the Year and the New York State Sportswriters Association Class AA Player of the Year.

“Being Jim Kelly’s nephew has been harder for him than it has helped him,” St. Joe’s coach Dennis Gilbert said. “A lot is expected of him because he’s Jim’s nephew.

“He was never just ‘Chad’ or even ‘Kevin Kelly’s son.’ He was always ‘Jim Kelly’s nephew.’ ”

False start

Chad committed to Clemson University and created chaos before he arrived on campus.

He underscored a growing reputation for being arrogant, petulant and entitled with a self-aggrandizing rap song that ended up online while he was a senior at St. Joe’s. Whether “Swag Kelly” was meant to see the light of day didn’t matter. The world could hear it.

He called out Clemson’s incumbent backup and projected starter Cole Stoudt, son of former Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Cliff Stoudt, on Twitter: “Your on the bench for a reason. And i come soon! Just letting you know.”

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney redshirted Kelly as a freshman in 2012. Kelly tore a right knee ligament the following April and missed all but five games, playing as a backup.

Kelly pushed Clemson past the limit in its 2014 spring scrimmage. Kelly erupted on the sideline over a decision to punt on fourth down. Swinney benched him. The next day, Clemson cut Kelly for “a pattern of behavior that is not consistent with the values of our program,” Swinney said.

After Kelly’s dismissal, reports surfaced that a week earlier he was a passenger in a fender-bender involving former Miss America Ali Rogers, a Clemson alum. Kelly reportedly got into an argument with Rogers because she wanted to file a police report.

Kelly revealed last week he twice threatened Swinney that he would go play lacrosse – Kelly’s favorite sport, which he said, money being equal, he’d choose over football – if not named the starting quarterback.

“I think he was ticked off by that,” Kelly said of Swinney. “But I felt if I’m here and not playing quarterback, why can’t I play another sport?”

Swinney declined to speak with The Buffalo News about Kelly.

“Wish him all the best,” Swinney wrote in a text, “but I am only interested in talking about our players.”

Clemson is rated No. 1 in the country and will play No. 4 Oklahoma in a college championship semifinal Dec. 31.

“It comes up every game,” Jim Kelly said. “They have to bring it up. Every. Single. Time. ‘You know, he was booted out of Clemson for doing this, doing that.’

“All right, we’ve heard it 150 times. But that’s the bed you made.”

Chad Kelly enrolled at East Mississippi Community College and dominated. He completed 67 percent of his passes for 3,906 yards, 47 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He ran for 446 yards and four touchdowns. The Lions went 12-0.

Uncle Jim marvels at Chad’s physical tools. “Chad’s got a freaking rocket for an arm,” said Jim, who could only fantasize of loping and juking like his nephew does.

Chad, at 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds, is the embodiment of the son Jim could not have.

Jim always dreamed of having a son to play catch with, to coach and to counsel about life. His only son, Hunter, was born with a nerve disease and died in 2005. Hunter was 8 years old.

Uncle Jim flatly admitted that it has stung to see Chad Kelly make mistakes that jeopardize the glorious future Hunter was cheated out of.

“Without a doubt,” Kelly said. “Athletic ability, Chad has more than I had. Arm strength, close.

“I saw he had great potential, and I saw him pissing it away, not just once, not just twice, a few times. I thought, ‘When is he ever going to get it?’ ”

A home in Oxford

The Grill at 1810 is a dining hall at the Olivia and Archie Manning Performance Center, where the Ole Miss football team practices.

Chad Kelly had nary a clue what 1810 meant last spring, when he grabbed a bite with Archie and Eli Manning. Chad was sitting with 18 (Archie’s number) and 10 (Eli’s number).

Three Ole Miss quarterbacks talked about football and life. Archie played 13 NFL seasons. His middle son, Peyton Manning, will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Eli is a two-time Super Bowl MVP.

Eli needed to leave early, but before he got up, Archie said, “He turned to Chad and gave him about three or four minutes of just what it would have taken me 20 minutes to say. That’s un-Eli-like. That’s not Eli’s thing. Eli is quiet.”

Eli delivered a plain message to Chad Kelly. Eli as a freshman was arrested and thrown in jail for being drunk in public. Eli shamed his family in a town where their name is sacred. He bounced back to break or tie 45 school records and was the first overall selection in the 2004 draft.

“You want to party, or do you want to be a football player?” Archie recalled Eli asking. “He put some good words on Chad about working and watching film and being coached.

“I said, ‘Whoa!’ Eli just laid it on the line.”

What Eli told him couldn’t have been appreciably different than words Uncle Jim had imparted umpteen times. Uncle Jim had been there and done that, lived and learned.

Jim and his brothers partied hard throughout his career. Their pregame tailgates in the stadium parking lot, postgame gatherings at Kelly’s house and Pro Bowl bashes were raucous. Jim’s short-lived Sport City Grill presented myriad more problems.

“I’ve had my struggles, had my problems, a lot of B.S. problems,” Jim Kelly said. “I needed to straighten my life out. So I admitted my faults.

“I humbled myself. I realized ‘If I’m doing wrong I have to face up to the consequences.’ I came clean with my wife and my daughters, and here I am today.”

But sometimes it takes a voice from outside the inner circle to resonate.

Chad said Eli’s blunt talk “took me by storm, understanding ‘You really have to get your life together if you want to be the leader of this university.’ ”

With three-year starter Bo Wallace gone, Chad Kelly competed with sophomores Ryan Buchanan and DeVante Kincade.

Kelly was not atop the QB depth chart when spring practices ended.

Ole Miss co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Dan Werner has worked with a lot of winners. As an assistant with the University of Miami he won three national titles and coached Heisman Trophy winner Gino Torretta, first-overall supplemental draft pick Steve Walsh, Craig Erickson and Ken Dorsey.

Werner said that over the summer, Kelly “just flat-out worked as hard as anybody I’ve ever seen. When he came in for the fall, within a week or so you could see that he’d made huge strides. He was the clear-cut winner of the job.”

Werner said Kelly has been impeccable in the classroom. The football program maintains a “distraction list” for players who skip classes and tutor appointments, are tardy or miss assignments. Blemishes are common even for strong students, Werner said, but Kelly hasn’t been on the list.

Kelly made the dean’s honor roll in the spring. On the day the Rebels left for a spring-break mission to Haiti, Chad learned Peggy Cuzydlo, the grandmother who helped send him through St. Joe’s, had died. Chad went because his grandma would have considered visiting a Third-World country a transformative experience, and he agrees that it was.

Kelly can graduate in May with a bachelor’s degree in general studies and would play next season while working on a master’s degree.

Freeze and Werner tested Kelly in practice, too. The coaches would berate him for mistakes he didn’t make. The hothead kept his cool.

“I want to find out in practice, not on national TV, how you’re going to handle a bad situation,” Werner said. “A lot of guys even without a checkered past would have gone off. He didn’t.”

Kelly was voted second-team All-SEC. He completed 65 percent of his passes for 3,740 yards and 27 touchdowns with 12 interceptions. He ran for 427 yards and a team-high 10 touchdowns.

Pros and cons

Chad Kelly probably isn’t ready for the NFL, but quarterbacks are the sport’s most precious commodity. This year’s quarterback draft class is considered weak.

Kelly’s head tells him he should return to Ole Miss, but the NFL has been his mission. A strong Sugar Bowl performance could sway him to enter the draft.

“I dream big. I think big,” Kelly said. “I try to go out and do it as big as I can. I have the mentality of wanting to be the best quarterback to ever play the game.

“Growing up and seeing what my uncle was able to do gave me so much motivation to support my family. I’ve had this passion.”

Every expert The Buffalo News spoke with about Kelly advised him to stay in school.

ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper, Elite 11 quarterback camp instructor and Super Bowl champ Trent Dilfer, national champion coach and ESPN analyst Mack Brown, Archie Manning, Jim Kelly and two NFL personnel executives who requested anonymity because they might draft him all recommended Chad Kelly return to Ole Miss.

Teams are wary of investing high draft picks and money into quarterbacks with checkered pasts. Immaturity issues have put quarterbacks Johnny Manziel and Ryan Mallett in the headlines this year.

“I think he would be a third- or fourth-round pick,” an NFC general manager told The News. “Ole Miss does not run a pro-style offense, so what he accomplished in one year doesn’t indicate enough for me.

“He should go back, get more SEC experience and continue to show he’s on the right path off the field.”

Also to consider are the coming departures of top Rebels receiver Laquon Treadwell and almost the entire offensive line, including Kelly’s blindside protector, left tackle Laremy Tunsil. Jim Kelly also is concerned that his nephew’s scrambling acumen could tempt an injury that could hurt his 2017 draft stock.

That said, the experts claim Chad Kelly is a legitimate NFL prospect.

Dilfer: “He has all the tools, physically and mentally. He plays a little too reckless right now, but can grow out of that.”

Brown: “He’s so dangerous that if you cover everybody, and even if you keep him in the pocket, he can still run and make athletic plays. He has the innate ability to act like he’s running, pull defenders from the linebacker area or the secondary and then throw the ball over their heads.”

Archie Manning: “I love the way he throws the football. In the last part of the season he showed just uncanny running ability. His speed and his toughness really showed up.”

Jim Kelly: “There’s no doubt he’s got an NFL arm, big-time. Trust me. But he’s got to get his fundamentals down a little better. He can be so much better with his footwork.”

‘What it’s all about’

Nine months after the Encore fiasco, Chad and Casey Kelly cried together again.

This time, elation.

Ole Miss had defeated No. 2 Alabama in front of 101,821 fans in Tuscaloosa, Ala. On national television, Kelly threw for 341 yards and three touchdowns and ran for another touchdown.

After the game, Chad was interested only in an audience of one. He and Casey connected on a video chat.

Chad and Casey have dreamed for years about playing against each other in the Super Bowl. Casey, a St. Joe’s freshman quarterback and linebacker, already is 6-foot-3, 220 pounds and still growing.

“He was so happy,” Chad said. “He was, like, ‘Bro, you did it! You did it, man.’ It brings tears to my eyes because he was so happy. He was so excited.

“I said, ‘This is what it’s all about.’ ”

Chad looked at the carpet in the Ole Miss team meeting room. He let out a nervous laugh as emotions welled up all over again.

“My brother has seen so much and has been through so much already,” Chad said, his voice cracking. “He knew how hard I worked, how hard we’ve worked together.

“He said, ‘It’s all paying off!’ He could see what it takes. He knows what he’s got to do. We’re each other’s biggest fans. I want to do this for him. I want to take care of my little brother.”

Even with the broken school records, even with Ole Miss beating Alabama, Auburn and Louisiana State in the same season for the first time, even with all the praise and grades and serenity of a year without any off-field catastrophes, Chad conceded he deserves no added slack.

“Every day I still think I have little room for error,” Chad said. “If I mess up one time, it’s over with.”

Gilbert, the St. Joe’s coach and a Buffalo Police patrolman, is optimistic Chad has learned enough hard lessons. The problem, though, is avoiding situations that could trip him up.

On a festive night and with his last final exam taken, Chad ventured out into Oxford’s historic Jackson Square with his girlfriend and best friend Brandon Hickey, who enrolled at Ole Miss to be with Chad.

As they walked up South 11th Street, a one-way alley that runs behind several bars, Rebel fans shouted Chad’s name from patios, balconies and open windows. He happily greeted the first few, waved at the next batch and then just kept walking. “Chaaaaaaad!” echoed into the night.

Once inside Funkys Pizza and Daiquiri Bar, rubberneckers hovered, stalked and spied. They asked for photos, tried to buy him shots, took videos from a distance. One jittery fan paced back and forth near Kelly, occasionally asked him a question, walked a few feet away and then came back with enough courage to ask for a selfie.

People merely wanted to be in Chad’s orbit.

“Has he stepped in it a few times? Yeah,” Gilbert said. “But in his heart he’s a good kid. He’s not a bad person.

“But I worry about the attention that he gets. He’s in the spotlight.”

No, this is not a redemption story about Chad Kelly.

An untold number of athletes with unfair amounts of potential have made a cataclysmic mistake, sworn never to make another and testified about a transformation only to fade into regrettable obscurity.

He’s still a work in progress, a young man still learning how to channel all the words that bombard him – the commendations and the critiques – into living and acting properly.

If he truly has sorted himself out, then 2015 will be the most rewarding year of his life.

“I’ve grown more in the past year than the whole other 20 years of being alive,” Chad Kelly said. “It’s just understanding life is about how you react to situations and the decisions you make.”

email: tgraham@buffnews.com