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Spotlight on Former Athlete: Lance Kelley - Football 2008-2011
Kelley found a niche, bowl trip with Cajuns
By Bruce Brown, Athletic Network
There's a moment in the 1990's movie Remember the Titans.
It's early in the season, and Rev, the starting quarterback, has suffered a broken wrist on a vicious sack.
Recent team addition Ronny “Sunshine” Bass is unsure he wants to step in and run the show – until, that is, he reaches the huddle. He tells the line to let the pass rusher through.
When they do, Sunshine snaps off a pass then lowers his shoulder to send the defender cartwheeling over Bass's back, spinning to the ground, landing with a thud, anguished pain and the rest of the night off.
Denzel Washington's look of surprise is priceless as head coach Herman Boone, while assistant coach Paul “Doc” Hines shouts, 'We got ourselves a football player!'
That's film of course. It usually takes longer than that to make an impact, sometimes years. But, sometimes you still find yourself a football player, one who will make a difference for your program.
When Lance Kelley signed with UL's Ragin Cajuns in 2008, he was a multi-dimensional offensive weapon who had helped produce winning seasons at St. Thomas More as a runner, receiver, passer and kick return ace.
When Kelley left the program after the 2011 season, he was a starting linebacker, leading tackler on the team and a key reason the Cajuns had reached the New Orleans Bowl – the school's first bowl trip since the 1970 Grantland Rice Bowl.
“My friends and I were laughing about how funny it was that I became a linebacker,” said Kelley, an account manager in San Antonio with Trend Services of Lafayette. “I was a little nervous about it. It was a long way away from being a slot receiver.
“But I would rather run at you than away or around you. It was a perfect fit for me.”
Kelley had 64 tackles and 54 assists as a senior in 2011 for a total of 118 stops. All three numbers led the team, while his three pass interceptions tied for the top.
In the New Orleans Bowl, a thrilling 32-30 win over San Diego State in the Superdome, he and Jemarlon Moten had 11 stops apiece. Kelley had five solos and two passes defended.
Long, strange trip
But, what a long strange trip it's been.
Before he landed on defense, Kelley suffered a gruesome leg injury at Illinoiis in 2008 that not only put him on the shelf but required months of physical therapy just to think about football again.
“I broke one of the bones in my lower leg, tore some ligaments and dislocated my thumb,” Kelley recalled. “It was on the first drive, a quick out pattern from Michael Desormeaux, and (future NFL standout) Vontae Davis was waiting for me and made me pay for it.
“They say I fumbled it, but it's tough to hold onto the ball when I got trampled on. That was my welcome to college football.”
Recovery took 9 painful months.
“I was in a boot for three months,” Kelley said. “I had to learn how to get around. I was miserable. You learn to appreciate your limbs. But when I got back, they moved me to strong safety, which was kind of a hybrid linebacker. I was excited to still be part of the team. I wanted to help the team.”
It felt right to be back in action, although not without its challenges.
“I liked the contact, but trying to backpeddle against a guy who runs a 4.4 40 and has moves … it was humbling, to say the least.”
Kelley picked off three passes in 2009, and in 2010 he scooped up a fumble and scored on a 40-yard return – his only visit to the end zone after many such trips at STM.
“One of my friends on the team, Daylon McCoy, got to the quarterback and knocked the ball loose,” Kelley said, “and the ball one-hopped right into my arms. I got to the end zone, and didn't quite know what to do with myself once it happened.
“It was gratifying to do something you used to be able to do.”
But the Cajuns, who had gone 6-6 in 2008 and 2009, dipped to a 3-8 finish in 2010. Gratification is one thing, winning makes the task worthwhile.
“I came close to quitting after my junior year with (coach) Rickey Bustle,” Kelley said. “To give that much of your time, your life, your body, you can only do so much without seeing the benefits.
“I was not sure what I was going to do. I was embarassed to show my face around town. I sat out that spring.”
New leader for Cajuns
As if pre-ordained, UL switched coaches and brought in Mark Hudspeth, who lit a fire under the players in his first year.
“I had heard from members of the team, like Bill Bentley, and he was buying in,” Kelley said. “Things had become a rehash, and we were bored by the memories. But with coach Hudspeth, it was new and exciting every day with him. We played all kind of music during stretching. It was amazing.”
The linebacker role was clearly defined with new things to grasp every day.
“It was a whole learning experience,” Kelley said. “I was never totally comfortble, but I had a knack for getting to the ball.
“I always tried to playing chaotic, especially since I had an amazing defensive line in front of me. They had size and strength.”
And, like most of the revived Cajuns, they had a new attitude.
“We were building competition in the offseason,” Kelley said. “We had chemistry, competition and the desire to turn it around. The talent didn't change much, but we all bought in. The game has so many nuances.”
The Cajuns stumbled in the opener, a 61-34 setback at Oklahoma State, but rebounded with a 20-12 win at Kent State and went on a 6-game winning streak. They posted an 8-4 regular season – the most wins at UL since the 1993 team went 8-3 – and were invited to play San Diego State in the New Orleans Bowl.
“After a pep rally, an old man came up to us with tears in his eyes, he was so happy to see us get to a bowl,” Kelley said. “You'd go out in restaurants, and people were so happy for us. People lined the fences for our Cajun Walk.”
Excitement reached a fever pitch before the game in the Crescent City.
“We were high up in the Merriot Hotel, and I looked down at Canal Street, and thousands of people were down there. It was a sea of red,” said Kelley. “It was so unexpected, so euphoric, that it didn't even seem real.”
The game lived up to the excitement as 42,841 fans witnessed a bowl game that equalled most others that season.
Blaine Gautier threw for 470 yards and three touchdowns for UL, two to Javone Lawson (9-193-2), another to Ladarius Green, and Darryl Sergeant returned a punt 87 yards for a score.
Still, the Aztecs stayed close. Ryan Lindley's third TD pass of the night to Colin Lockett earned a 30-29 lead with 35 seconds to go.
The Cajuns ended the seesaw battle by marching 49 yards in five quick plays to set up Brett Baer's winning 50-yard field goal as time expired in the 32-30 classic.
That victory has since been stricken from the record books, but it will live on for players like Kelley, who put his heart and body on the line for one more chance to play the game he loved.
Sometimes, it takes a while to find that perfect conclusion.
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Click here for Lance Kelley's Athletic Network profile.
Click here for GEAUX (the game day program) article on Lance Kelley.
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Click here for the 2007-present annual/chronological listings of the Spotlight on Former Athletes.
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