By Jourdan Rodrigue, Digital Communications Intern
It was fall of 2012; football season in Tempe, Ariz. The entire city was buzzing about a new head coach with a Texas twang and his decision for starting quarterback. Arizona State had just trounced Northern Arizona 63-6 in a stunning offensive explosion.
Taylor Kelly was partially responsible for that score. It was his first start at quarterback for ASU, and he performed admirably under thousands of curious eyes in the home crowd. When the game was over, he headed first to the locker room, then to the press conference theater on the newly renovated third floor of the Sun Devil Athletics Department.
It was packed with reporters. They all wanted a quote from the sophomore quarterback. Because the decision regarding the starting spot had been up in the air until right before the game, his responses to their questioning would show them and the rest of Sun Devil Nation what kind of a person would be leading their team and the restructuring of the program.
So Taylor Kelly walked into the room, and slid into an empty chair behind the gaggle of media. He folded his hands in his lap and sat quietly, still in his sweat-soaked compression shirt, pants, and cleats. He didn’t realize that he was the star of the conference; the long-awaited guest to which the press was itching to speak. He sat in that chair behind all the fuss at the front of the room until a media relations staff member saw him and quietly told him that he was the person for which everyone was waiting.
Without him realizing it, that simple misunderstanding was the first real showing of Kelly’s humble, approachable persona—which the fans outside that media room would soon see for themselves.
A year and a 10-win season later, Kelly wrapped up his second season as the starting quarterback for ASU. His calm demeanor and presence in the pocket made him a favorite of local reporters, and his quick feet and toughness after a hard hit continuously caused a swell of noise inside Sun Devil Stadium. But it’s his presence off the field that has solidified him in the hearts of ASU students and alumni.
“I just want to be who I am,” Kelly said. “The way my parents raised me, they did a great job of teaching me to be humble and to treat others with respect. These kids wearing my jersey, I was once in their shoes looking up to the big quarterback. And so I want to prove that I’m a good role model for them.”
Perhaps the best example of Kelly’s character came by way of a story sent in to Arizona State’s Athletic Department from a young father and classmate of Kelly named Kris Brown.
“During this past spring semester, I found myself in a class sitting next to Taylor,” Brown wrote. “He was quiet and polite, but after a couple of weeks, I couldn't help myself, and I mentioned that all of my boys play football. He was immediately interested, and asked me to invite them all to campus for a little meet and greet. Honestly, I was surprised, but I agreed. I hate to say this, but I guess I'm a bit leery about a lot of "kids" (college age) these days and athletes in particular. But, when my wife brought them up, he took pictures with them and signed some autographs and talked to each of them about the positions they played, the teams they played on, school, being respectful to their parents, friends, teammates, etc. He was genuinely interested, and spent probably 30-40 minutes talking to my children. My sons (aged 16, 12, 11 & 5) were ALL thrilled--even the oldest one, who rarely thinks anything that the entire family is involved in is cool. Taylor even exchanged phone numbers with him so they could keep in touch and talk football.”
Brown then went on to describe how Kelly attended some of his sons’ practices and games and would stand on the sidelines playing catch with them.
“I don't want to embarrass him,” Brown wrote. “Maybe it's weird that I'm sending this. But I did want to tell someone that this guy is not only a fantastic player, but also an even better person. He's a role model in every sense of the word.”
Kelly had no idea Brown had contacted the Athletic Department, nor was he ever told to reach out to Brown and his family of young football fans. And it’s little things Kelly does automatically, like staying the latest of any player to sign autographs and talk to fans or spending extra time working with young players during Sun Devil Kids Camps, that fans have noticed and responded to.
“I just feel really appreciated by the fans,” Kelly said. “I feel blessed to get the opportunity to help in any way I can whether it’s signing autographs or going to schools and talking to kids or to community events…those are the things I love to do, anything that can brighten kids’ futures.”
Head coach Todd Graham knew what he had in Kelly immediately upon meeting him: A young man upon whom he could begin building a program.
“I’ve been doing this for 28 years and I don’t know if I’ve ever had a better man to lead our team,” coach Graham said. “When you have a guy that’s the hardest-working guy on the field with the type of discipline and character he has, he gets respect…and he’s a giver of respect.”
And perhaps the greatest compliment comes from a joke Graham likes to make.
“I tell everyone I’d want him to marry my daughter,” he said, chuckling softly.
It was the last full practice before the Sun Devils headed to San Diego to play in the Holiday Bowl. Fans and Sun Devil Club members were in attendance, scattered in small groups across the fields to watch their favorite players. Young boys ran through the grass, pretending they were Kelly and his teammates.
Brian McEntire, a longtime ASU fan, stood with his 9-year-old son, whose ASU jersey’s baggy sleeves went all the way down to his wrists.
They were waiting for No. 10, because McEntire’s son wants to be a quarterback and Kelly is his favorite player.
“I like that he’s a good football player with good character,” he said solemnly, eyes wide. “And I like when he runs. He’s fast.” He pumped his little legs in place to demonstrate his point, jersey sleeves flapping.
After practice, Kelly jogged toward the fans that eagerly awaited him, like he always does. He took picture after picture, and then signed jerseys, footballs, posters and even a fan’s yellow Jeep. Again, he was the last to leave the field, making sure he spoke to every single person who wanted to talk to him or take their picture with him.
And in that time after practice, when he’s kneeling to speak to a star struck 6-year-old, it’s both hard to remember that Kelly is only a junior in college and hard to forget the impact he’s had on his community. Tempe has become Taylor Kelly’s town, and its happiness to have him back for his senior season is much bigger than football.