On Nov. 7, 2014, John Kelly played his last game as a running back for the Oak Park High School football. It marked the end of a great season and career as a member of the Knights. However, it was only the end to one chapter in a great football journey that Kelly is on.
This Sunday, Kelly will be dressed as a running back for the Los Angeles Rams, preparing to take on the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LIII. That is just under four years and three months since Kelly’s final high school game.
As the only Michigan high school graduate on either Super Bowl roster, Kelly will have an especially excited Oak Park community cheering him on this Sunday.
“Definitely, we are very proud of John,” said Oak Park football coach and athletic director Greg Carter. “John has always been a hard worker and he’s well deserving of the upcoming Super Bowl. Of course, it doesn’t happen very often but he put in a lot of hard work here as a high school player and student -- and also in college. Then, he wound up being lucky enough to be drafted into an organization that was ready to make that next step. We’re most certainly proud that he’s going to have the opportunity.”
Oak Park's John Kelly is being pursued by Michigan State and Minnesota to play college football, but first he hopes to lead his team to a state title this season. (MLive.com files) MLive
Although Kelly is, at best, the Rams' third option at running back heading into the game, it’s not a bad spot to be in for the 22-year-old rookie. Playing behind three-time Pro Bowl selection Todd Gurley and six-year veteran C.J. Anderson, Kelly has some great players to learn from to start his NFL career.
Besides, Kelly is used to working his way up the ladder. At Oak Park, Kelly started off in the depth chart behind Malik Washington. In his first two years at the University of Tennessee, Kelly competed for carries with various individuals, including New Orleans standout running back Alvin Kamara. Kelly did not take over the starting role until his junior year and he finished the season with over 1,077 yards from scrimmage and nine touchdowns.
Daryl Graham was an assistant coach at Oak Park and a conditioning coach for Kelly before also relocating to Tennessee. According to Graham, Kelly has the patience and experience to make the most of his situation.
“What makes John unique is his whole travel to the NFL is that he played behind somebody,” Graham said. It wasn’t a cultural shock when he got to college and it wasn’t a cultural shock when he got to the NFL. Even at Oak Park, we had Malik Washington starting at running back. He was always prepared for it but it always helped him become a better player. He’s such a great person with absorbing and learning that him playing with Todd Gurley should be nothing but successful for him."
Kelly opted to declare for the NFL draft after his junior season and he was taken in the sixth round, 176th overall, of last year’s draft. Heading into Sunday’s game, Kelly has compiled just 74 yards on 27 carries.
Despite his low rookie season numbers, it does not stop Carter from marveling at what his former player has accomplished in such a short time.
“You think about his high school career here and how special he was for us and what he did for our program,” Carter said. “We think back on his signing day and the opportunity that he had to play for Tennessee. You know, all of the good moments that he brought to us and all of the effort that he put forth to be where he is today is amazing.”
Carter said the atmosphere around the school has been “crazy” and that he and some faculty are hoping to get in contact with Kelly via Skype before the game to wish him luck.
Oak Park high school graduate John Kelly rides his skateboard at Modern Skate Park in Royal Oak days before he leaves for college. Kelly will be playing football for the University of Tennessee Volunteers this fall. (Elaine Cromie | MLive Detroit) Elaine Cromie | [email protected]
Kelly, who moved to Detroit from Minnesota in elementary school, attended middle school for Oak Park and played in the Detroit PAL football program. Kelly, who is also an avid skateboarder, ended up earning MLive Detroit Dream Team honors and was a top 10 pick for Michigan High School Football Player of the Year.
As a senior at Oak Park, Kelly finished his season with 1,321 rushing yards and 21 touchdowns on 124 carries (10.65 yards per carry). He also has an interception return for a score, a punt return for a score and a kickoff return for a score. While working with Graham, Kelly was also offseason training partners and friends with former Cass Tech and current Ohio State running back Mike Weber, who is entering the NFL draft this spring.
“It’s not very often when you know your school has a kid that has made it that far and he’s been very successful,” Carter said. "We know he’s got a long way to go in his career but we are very proud he has an opportunity to play in the Super Bowl.
As both Carter and Graham watch Kelly’s career, they are reminded just how quickly time can fly by.
“It flies very fast,” Graham said. “I can think about when I talked about going to school at UT with him and now going to Atlanta to see him in the Super Bowl, it’s just amazing how fast time flies ... I’m extremely proud of him. I think he deserves it. I think he worked hard enough and I think it’s a blessing."
While Carter is not making the trip to Atlanta for the game, he will be hoping to see Kelly return with some hardware in the near future.
“Everybody in the district is excited for John,” Carter said. “Hopefully he can bring home a championship ring and bring it by the school and let us look at it, you know?”