Lewis Kelly didn't mind taking out the garbage. Or even wearing it. If that was the vehicle that would keep him in organized football, Kelly had no problems with it at all.
Kelly had wanted to play football since he could remember. But his dad wouldn't allow it. Finally, his dad succumbed to the immense pressure applied by Kelly, and the elder allowed his son to try out for Pop Warner League football.
"I played one year of Pop Warner," Kelly said. "My coach made me play line. I went out for eighth-grade football the next year and they had me play tight end. But I was too heavy, so I had to wear garbage bags and run around the field to keep my weight down."
Kelly weighed about 140 pounds. He needed to make 135 to stay on the team, so his coach wrapped him in a garbage bag and had him run laps to shed the excess baggage. It didn't matter to Kelly. Dropping the pounds was his ticket onto a football team. That was all he ever dreamt about when he played football in the sandlot with his buddies, before he could join Pop Warner.
Looking for Kelly? Just look for the cloud of dust in the vacant lot across the street. Creating the cyclone of dirt and debris was Kelly, who, as a possessor of the pigskin, knew no other directions but north and south. Kelly rarely avoided a tackler. Just the opposite, actually.
Kelly ran at them. And through them. And past them.
"Actually, I was bigger than everyone out there," he said. "I wanted to be a tight end or a fullback. I didn't have any moves, so I used to run people over. They tried to be brave and tackle me … My motto was to never let one person bring me down. So the first person who tried to bring me down would pay."
Even as a sandlot player, Kelly knew he belonged on the football field. But as his friends joined Pop Warner, Kelly was left behind, feeling left out, wondering why he was on the outside looking in.
"I had to beg my father to put me in Pop Warner League," Kelly said. "I never understood why he didn't let me play before. I could've gone out earlier — when I was 85 pounds or 90 or 115 or 135 — but he never let me. I would see all my friends come back from their football games, and I asked my father about it and he never took me until my seventh-grade year.
"I had to beg him all summer and finally he let me play. I was so excited."
It didn't take long for coaches to recognize their teams would be better served with Kelly blocking, rather than running. But they made the transition as gradual as possible. First, they moved Kelly to tight end, where he mainly blocked. They tried to utilize his powerful running skills by occasionally throwing a pass his way, but in practice at least he possessed hands of stone.
The coaches weren't impressed. "I was more of a blocking tight end," Kelly admitted. "In practice, I couldn't catch a throw. But I was money in a game. In practice, I was thinking while the ball was in the air and I'd drop it every time. But in a game situation my mind was blank so I always would catch the ball."
But it still wasn't enough to make varsity. As a junior in high school, Kelly failed to make the team because of academic reasons. In fact, his first varsity experience came during his senior year.
That was all he needed to showcase his talent.
Suggest the potential to play college football after his senior season of high school and Kelly would have laughed. He knew college scouts were attending practices and games, but he assumed they were there for some of his teammates. Certainly, they weren't scouting him.
"I told them I knew they were just talking to me because they felt like they had to because they were there," said Kelly, who thought he had the scouts pegged. "I never thought I'd play college football. I was wondering what they were looking at me for. But then they started talking about scholarships. I was amazed … I was happy. It was an amazing experience."
After hours, days, weeks, then months, of deliberation, Kelly pared down the list of 13 schools to just one, South Carolina State. "I was close enough to home, yet far enough away," Kelly said. "My parents liked what they saw in the academics."
Kelly knows what most think when they hear his story. Here you have a typical high school jock that looks for a free ticket to college so he can play football. He'll live life large — on the college, of course, since his meal ticket is paid for — and if the NFL comes calling four years later, all the better. If not, at least he was able to extend his athletic career four years beyond high school.
It would be difficult not to make the sweeping character generalization of Kelly, considering he was ineligible to play football his junior year of high school because of academic problems. Most failed to resist the urge of stereotyping Kelly as just another mindless muscle that knows nothing but playing football and being pampered.
But Kelly's plans were complex, his goals lofty. As he entered South Carolina State, the notion of someday playing in the NFL was ludicrous. Earning a college degree, though — no matter how tough to obtain — was his primary reason for being a SCSU Bulldog.
Sure, in the back of his mind, the dream of playing professional football was alive. But Kelly had a backup plan. Quite a solid one, actually.
"I always had a backup plan just in case," he said. "My friend (Luther Daniel) that I played high school and college football together needed a backup plan. In his first year of college, he tore up his right knee in training camp. The second year, he tore up his left knee. So he kept his focus on academics."
And even though his athletic career was over, Daniel wasn't backed into a corner. Kelly took notice.
"I thought, that could be me at any time," Kelly said. "I didn't want to go home a failure. I wanted not just to go to college but to graduate."
That's where Kelly's story turns special. His college football playing career was a tad better than ho-hum. He was a four-year letter winner for the Bulldogs. He even got to play in the Heritage Bowl in 1997, when SCSU lost to Southern University by seven. But the highlight of his college career came on graduation day, not bowl day.
Kelly earned a degree in criminal justice. To this day, if his NFL career doesn't work out, he still leans on his backup plan. "I would work with the GBI (Georgia Bureau of Investigation). Then someday the FBI."
Even though Kelly practiced tunnel vision toward a degree in college, the NFL scouts kept hanging around. "I was delighted," Kelly said. "It was unbelievable that they would look at me. I thought there were players on my team more deserving. I never saw that it my future.
"You grow up and realize that a dream is just a dream, and then you see that it might become a reality … I can't really explain it."
Draft day was just as surreal.
Not surprisingly, Saturday came and went on that infamous April weekend just two years ago. Sunday was coming and going, too, when …
"It got to the seventh round and I noticed the picks were going," Kelly said. "I got a phone call and it was one of the Vikings scouts (Roger Jackson). He told me they weren't going to draft me, but they were going to pick me up in free agency. Then Denny (Green) got on the phone and told me to watch the TV. Then he hung up the phone."
Kelly watched his name get called on ESPN. The Vikings had drafted him in the seventh round. "It was unbelievable," Kelly said. "I can't explain it."
A knee injury placed Kelly on the injured reserve for his entire rookie season. He played sparingly last season, dressing for just four games. He found out in January he's going to NFL Europe this spring to hone his skills and show the Vikings his mettle.
He hopes it's the beginning of a long career in purple.
"This is a big year for me," Kelly said. "This is the year I have to prove that I can play in the NFL and prove that I wasn't a wasted pick and that I'm not a bust. This is the year I have to come out and play football."
Otherwise, his backup plan may be forced into action, something he'd rather investigate 10 years from now. VU
First car: Geo Prism
Favorite vehicle: 1964 Chevy Impala
Hobbies: Relaxing, playing video games
Toughest player ever faced: John Randle
Favorite TV show: The Simpsons
Favorite actor: Samuel L. Jackson
First job: Working at a welding plant
Best childhood memory: playing with Tavares, his friend
Offseason residence: Eden Prairie, Minn.
If I weren't playing football: I'd be in Georgia working for the GBI (Georgia Bureau of Investigations), and get experience, and then work for the FBI.
Getting To Know: T Lewis Kelly
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