Kelley was a senior wide receiver at East Tennessee State last year when the Bucs were playing Jacksonville State in the FCS playoffs. With about 10 minutes left in what would be ETSU’s last game of the season, he suffered a gruesome leg injury, the kind that makes even the toughest players wince.
A run play was called toward Kelley’s side of the field. He was supposed to slant in and block the linebacker. The linebacker blitzed up the middle and Kelley tried to get to him.
In the meantime, somebody inadvertently kicked Kelley’s left leg, causing catastrophic damage. Players from both teams frantically waved to the sidelines, yelling for help.
Kelley said the pain was bad at first, but he really didn’t know how serious the injury was until he saw and heard his teammates and Jacksonville State’s players.
“There were some pretty incredible reactions on the field,” he said. “It split my leg in half.”
Kelly’s tibia and fibula were both broken. They were compound fractures and an artery had been severed.
“It didn’t really hurt too bad until they put it back in place,” Kelley said. “They did it once on the field and again in the hospital.”
Kelley was taken off the field by stretcher and spent several hours in the hospital in Jacksonville, Alabama, before being transported back to Johnson City, a 5 1/2-hour drive. Along the way, complications arose with the severed artery and he lost quite a bit of blood.
“The doctor said I was about 30 minutes away from losing my leg,” said Kelley, who had suffered a broken hand earlier in the game.
Five operations ensued over the next month and through a grueling rehabilitation process, Kelley was able to regain use of the leg.
“There was a two-week period where I could hardly get up out of the bed,” he said. “I had to have a lot of help just to use the walker.”
He spent time at the Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center in Knoxville, his hometown, where “they basically helped me learn to walk again.”
These days, Kelley is walking fine. Nerve damage still makes the bottom of his foot numb, but he’s able to jog.
“There was a time I didn’t think I’d walk again, so it feels incredible,” he said. “I’m super blessed. It’s not disappointing. I think everything happens for a reason. I spent almost 25 days in the hospital thinking.
“Just looking back, it happened for a reason. There’s always a purpose for everything. God has a plan. He did a lot of things in my life that brought me closer to him.”
Kelley, who graduated from ETSU in May and won Southern Conference academic awards all four years of his career, is working in a pharmacy as a technician. He has applied to school to become a physician’s assistant.
The Bucs’ leading receiver his senior year, Kelley is quick to credit his coaches, especially ETSU receivers coach Mike Rader, for his success on the field.
“I can’t thank the people here enough for the career I had,” he said. “Coach Rader was here all four years for me. He’s a shaper of men. He shaped my life in a way, not only on the field, but off the field, that I’ll forever be grateful for. And Coach (Carl) Torbush and Coach (Randy) Sanders too.”