Mike Kelly was a solid contributor for the Pilgrim freshman team four years ago, but as a sophomore and junior, he hardly stepped onto the field for the varsity squad.
These days, players don’t always come out the other side of situations like that. By their senior years, they’re done with football.
But when summer practice started this year, Kelly was there. And when Pilgrim needed a running back to step up later in the season, Kelly was there again, asking what he had to do to get the chance.
“He’s the kind of player who doesn’t exist anymore,” O’Connor said. “His freshman year, he played a lot on offense and defense. His sophomore and junior year, he didn’t see the field. Normally, kids quit and hang up their cleats at that point. He came to me halfway through his senior year and said, ‘What do I need to do to get better?’ There wasn’t any blame, there wasn’t any pointing any fingers. He just took it upon himself. I said, ‘Once you learn the plays, you’ll get some time. You get time, you prove it and you’ll stay on the field.’”
And Kelly has certainly done that.
The senior running back started getting more and more carries as the year went on, and he emerged in Pilgrim’s last few games as the team’s top offensive option. The late-season surge has been a welcome reward for Kelly’s hard work.
“This year, I told myself it was going to be the biggest season since it’s my senior year and everything,” Kelly said. “All summer, I worked out and I made sure I was in shape.”
Kelly didn’t get an opportunity right off the bat, but when he did, he ran with it.
“I talked to my coach and asked him to give me a chance,” Kelly said. “He gave me a chance in practice and I ran good. The next day, I came to practice and they said, ‘You’re starting.’”
Kelly has been an important addition to the Pilgrim attack, which needed some playmakers. He’s a straight-ahead runner, and if there’s a hole, he can do some damage.
Kelly doesn’t fit the mold of past Pilgrim running backs. In each of the previous two years, the Pats moved a lineman to running back and ran with a bruising style. Kelly isn’t a big back but he has the mindset to fit right in.
“When I’m running, I just think it’s me and the other person,” Kelly said. “I don’t think, ‘I’m going to get stopped’ or ‘Oh, he’s really big.’ I just think I’m going to run through them hard no matter what.”
It’s working. Against Rogers, Kelly rushed for 105 yards and a touchdown. He led all rushers in the regular-season finale against Toll Gate, rushing for 89 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries. He also returned a kickoff for a touchdown.
“The more looks he gets, the better he gets,” O’Connor said.
Kelly will try to keep the improvement going on Thanksgiving.
Whatever happens, he’s just happy to have the chance.
“Nowadays, you see a lot of kids quit,” O’Connor said. “They don’t realize you have to earn your time on the field. He earned his time.”