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Cumberlands' Brendan Kelly running on perseverance, prayer

Brendan Kelly
Brendan Kelly

Just as he had done many times throughout his football career, Brendan Kelly was trying to make a play.

"It was the eighth game of the season and I was returning a punt," he said. "I went to juke and kind of rolled my ankle almost. I thought I tweaked a muscle in my (right) calf, and it hurt a little bit. But I was like, 'OK, I can play.' I had enough adrenaline going."

Kelly played on in the game, last Oct. 30, even returning a second-quarter kickoff 88 yards for a touchdown.

A safety for the University of the Cumberlands, Kelly didn't know that "tweak" — later found to be acute compartment syndrome — would end his season, possibly his career.

According to The Doctors of USC Web site, "When you have acute compartment syndrome (ACS), pressure builds up inside the enclosed spaces that hold muscles, nerves, and blood vessels. This prevents the muscles from getting oxygen. ACS can affect the arms, hands, legs, feet, and buttocks."

Kelly, now 21, reported to Henry Clay High School as an athletic but very small — 97 pounds — freshman. His father, Pat, supplied him with a 500-pound set of weights, and Brendan took advantage.

He became an able contributor at Henry Clay and moved on to the University of Kentucky. He redshirted his freshman year, when he tore a medial collateral ligament.

Kelly transferred to Cumberlands and became a starting receiver as a second-year freshman.

The Patriots didn't throw the ball often, though, out of a triple-option offense. So Kelly moved to defense last year.

He led the team in solo tackles (46) despite his season being cut short by three games when he was injured at Belhaven University.

"He played a whole game with a hurt leg, and he didn't want to take himself out," Coach John Bland said. "The doctors told me (acute compartment syndrome) is very uncommon. It's really an extremely bad pain, and he was able to tough it out. I knew he was tough, but I just didn't realize he was that tough."

Through eight games, Kelly returned 16 punts for 287 yards, including two touchdowns, and returned five kickoffs for 195 yards, including one TD. That works out to 17.9 yards a punt return and 39.0 on kickoffs, both NAIA leaders if he had enough kick returns to qualify for that distinction.

He wound up earning all-Mid-South Conference and second-team All-America honors at safety, and all-conference as a kick returner.

Kelly recalls that when Cumberlands finished its game against Belhaven, "all the adrenaline ran out. I could barely walk."

By the time the Patriots made the bus ride from Jackson, Miss., to Williamsburg — about nine hours — his calf had swollen to near the size of his thigh and cut circulation.

Unable to sleep, Kelly says it was about 4 in the morning when he realized his leg was going numb.

He drove himself to the hospital in nearby Jellico, Tenn.

A doctor recognized that Kelly's blood flow was weak.

Another doctor came to draw blood from the leg, but had no success.

Kelly was rushed to surgery.

"First, (the surgeon) cut about a three-inch cut at the top of my calf, and it was just supposed to release some of the fluid," Kelly said. "The next day they came to check on it and my leg had blood-clotted up and become hard again, so they were like 'that's not good.'

"From there — they didn't put me to sleep for this one — they just cut down the entire side of my leg for about 14 inches."

That was the second of what would be five surgeries over a 12-day period.

Watching the surgery was Brendan's mother, Sandy. Pat Kelly arrived soon after.

The parents, "just like we do in all circumstances, started saying 'OK, what do we need to say here? What do we want?' " Pat recalled. "Because ... it's kind of like the move The Matrix — there's a spiritual reality here that supersedes things that we see, and that's what we rely on."

Brendan became a local curiosity.

"I could tell it was kind of rare because doctors kept coming in just to look at my leg," he said. "That was a weird thing. 'We've never seen anything like this.' "

Kelly was transferred to Central Baptist Hospital in Lexington for the last three surgeries.

During the first, it appeared that one of his calf muscles was dying. The next surgery, the muscle was removed.

"I think it was called the (peroneus) brevis longus. It controls the foot from moving in and out," Kelly said. "So, after the surgery, he was kind of hesitant to say if I could ever play football again because most of my skills are agility and moving in and out."

A fifth surgery closed the wound.

Kelly's expected recovery time of five months would knock him out of his other sport, track and field.

"But my family and me just stayed strong in my faith. That's just the way I was raised," he said. "So I'd always confess daily, saying that 'this injury isn't going to affect me, that I'll still be able to do what I want in track.' "

That things worked out so, he credits his church (Family Worship Center), Sandy's prayer group, friends, family and teammates.

"I know I had like thousands of people praying for me and stuff, and prayer numbers helps a lot," he said. " ... It was pretty cool to be around friends and family that are just that supportive."

"Our big thing for Brendan," Pat said, "was to make sure that he didn't really attempt it all on his own. My thinking was 'yes, you've got to put forth the effort, but you've also got to have faith that things are going to be well.' "

Instead of five months, Brendan resumed athletic pursuits in 1½ months.

Soon, he contracted mononucleosis. Kelly loaded up on vitamin B-12 and folic acid.

He lowered his personal best for 800 meters by a second to 1 minute, 53.82 seconds.

He qualified for the 33-deep field in the NAIA National Championships at Marion, Ind., where he placed 24th.

"If this had happened to somebody else, it might have just totally destroyed them," said Patriots Coach Floyd Stroud, who thinks a healthy Kelly may have dipped under 1:51 this season. "But he kept his faith and he got through it, and he's doing a great job. He was a little out of shape this year from all the physical problems he had, but I think he's going to have a great year next year."

The Real Winning Edge, which airs on Fox and other networks around the nation, followed Kelly for a day at Cumberlands and was on site at Indiana University for his fastest 800 meters of the season. He will be featured on the show this fall.

At 5-foot-10, he runs about 50 miles a week and competes at about 158 pounds on the track. He bulks up during the summer, playing football at between 170 and 175 pounds.

Since returning to competition, he has had several medical exams. Some of the feeling has been slow to return to the top of his foot and ankle, he said.

"Other than that, not really any (aftereffects). My scar even healed up so well that you can't really see it."

He says he still has the ability to juke and that the muscles in his calf "have grown so much and overcompensated for not having (one) muscle that, basically, you can't really tell that I've ever had one removed."

A fourth-year junior, his goal is to play well enough in the coming football season to be listed among the "Super Six" — a pre-season list of the top six players in NAIA football — going into the 2012 season. He sees that as a way to add name recognition in his pursuit of a professional football career.

"I know I can play in a Canadian league or Arena league right away, but eventually the goal is to play at the (NFL) level," Kelly said. "But you always have to have a backup plan. That's why I'm majoring in sports management."

With a minor in business, Kelly finished the school year with his best grade-point average yet, 3.75. His dream for post-competition days is to operate an athletic training center.

If some of that seems a tall order, well, Kelly knows all about those.

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