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Friday, May 10, 2013

Kelly puts better foot forward at UNH

George Scione

Anybody who witnessed a healthy Mike Kelly on the gridiron at Bishop Guertin knows why University of New Hampshire head coach Sean McDonnell is salivating over the 5-foot-9, 194-pound burner from Merrimack.

Yes, burner. The Mike Kelly that high school football fans remember helping Bishop Guertin to three straight titles before Sept. 10, 2010, is back. At least that’s what McDonnell seems to believe. Anybody taking in UNH’s annual Blue-White Spring Game on May 4 also got a glimpse of the Kelly Factor. ...

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Anybody who witnessed a healthy Mike Kelly on the gridiron at Bishop Guertin knows why University of New Hampshire head coach Sean McDonnell is salivating over the 5-foot-9, 194-pound burner from Merrimack.

Yes, burner. The Mike Kelly that high school football fans remember helping Bishop Guertin to three straight titles before Sept. 10, 2010, is back. At least that’s what McDonnell seems to believe. Anybody taking in UNH’s annual Blue-White Spring Game on May 4 also got a glimpse of the Kelly Factor.

Sure, it was only a spring scrimmage between teammates. Sure, he’s not even listed as a No. 2 at any of the three receiver spots on the preseason roster. Sure, he’s only two years removed from Game 2 of the 2010 high school season – when just a few plays into the Cardinals’ 21-6 win over Timberlane Regional of Plaistow he was carted off in an ambulance with a severe foot injury that ended his high school football career.

But there was always something special about Mike Kelly. It’s that something that just doesn’t fade away because of a Lizfranc fracture to his foot.

No way a dislocation of the joints and tendons in the middle of his foot could ever stop his heart, his desire, his fight. Kelly was and will always be a player who shines brightest in the spotlight. That’s what UNH football got when it took him on despite missing 99 percent of his senior season on the gridiron.

In the 2010 season opener against Salem High School, Kelly went off for five touchdowns (four on the ground), 193 rushing yards and 117 receiving yards in the Cardinals’ 41-21 win over the Blue Devils.

His former coach, Tony Johnson, said it best right after the diagnosis was official.

“I said look, ‘Here’s what’s going to happen – you will not play high school football again,’ “ said Johnson in January of 2011 when breaking the news to Kelly after the official diagnosis was handed down. “I just got it on the table. His high school career was over.

“But what I didn’t want to have happen was people speculating that he was going to come back after the 12th week, in time for the playoffs, etc. His health was more important.

“That’s what I tried to tell him. I said, ‘You can have a great college career. If you try to rush it, it’s going to hurt you, and it’s going to severely affect you in the future. So your high school career is over, and we’re going to make sure you prepare for college.”

Fast forward to 2013, and that college career is about to take off. Just ask his current coach.

“Mike Kelly is having a hell of a spring,” said McDonnell, after Kelly’s team-leading two catches for 69 yards and a touchdown in the spring game. “From Day 1 we’ve seen what he can do. He’s healthy. And when he’s healthy you have a talented athlete that can play so many roles for you – flanker, slot, running back – and he’ll be a big contributor on special teams.

“He’s starting to climb back up to where he was. Just got to keep building on what he’s accomplished. I’m really pleased with his progress. He’s got to keep battling. I expect big things from Mike Kelly.”

So do his loyal followers from Merrimack and BG. Heck, Greater Nashua football fans in general can only wish the best for this kid. A player feared for the ability to score from anywhere on the field, whenever he touched the football. Kelly was always fun to watch in high school. Now, on a Football Championship Subdivision – 1-AA for traditionalists – roster, not much has changed. Just a spring scrimmage, and he was already turning heads.

“I love competing” said Kelly after the scrimmage. “It feels good to go out there and show the coaches what I can do. It’s an opportunity to prove you belong on the field on game day. That’s why I’m here. It’s a big adrenalin rush.”

Opening day, Sept. 7 at Central Michigan seems so far away. Then again, it most likely felt like a lifetime between Sept. 10, 2010 and the first time he took the field in game action last season for the Wildcats.

With a season under his belt, maybe his old high school coach was right on the money.

“I know he can play 1-AA,” Johnson said back in early 2011. “I know that, because he can do multiple things: punt return, kick return; he can play the slot, corner, free (safety). He can play a lot of positions, and he’s got the speed to play at that level.”

Oh, UNH has a hidden jewel on its roster. One that remembers all too well what it felt like sitting in the back of an ambulance three years ago. What it took to recover. And what it means to be on the field with his teammates celebrating in the end zone.

Mike Kelly is quick, he’s versatile and by season’s end, he’s going to be one of those standout players that put the wild in Wildcats at UNH.

George Scione can be reached at 594-6520 or gscione@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow Scione on Twitter (@Telegraph_BigG).