By Paul Meadors, Sports Reporter
The exceptional person
With tears filling her eyes and sitting diagonally across from her teenage son Caleb, Valerie Kelly pauses and gathers herself before saying, “That’s my best friend.” Most high school kids would be embarrassed by such a statement, a teenager too cool to hear such lovey-dovey words, body language suggesting an oh-not-again moment. But Caleb’s not like most high school kids, he simply smiles like he’s heard it a million times before. And he probably has.
Valerie has the epitome of a mother’s love for her son, a forever bond not easily broken. Within the first few seconds of meeting her, the affection for her son pours out like a flood. She begins talking not of Caleb’s God-given athletic ability and his accomplishments on the field, but of his qualities as a person that she admires: his respect for everyone he meets, a role model for his younger brother, putting his own needs aside for the sake of his family, someone who will make a great husband and father someday.
“I’m not gloating because I’m his mom. There’s no one like him, he’s simply a really great kid,” says Valerie. “He does anything for me. Whatever I need done, he’ll do it. When I think of him I think of an upstanding man.”
Valerie speaks the truth. Everyone gushes more about Caleb the person than Caleb the sensational football player, and it’s quickly evident that this is an 18-year-old raised right. A young man mature beyond his years. A believer who understands the blessing God has bestowed upon him. Always positive with a charming yet genuine smile, never once checking his phone during an hour and a half conversation, a rare occurrence for anyone, let alone a teenager.
But behind all the endearing and delightful qualities there’s a predator crouching in the underbrush, another side to Caleb that’s receiving national attention – the Clovis West senior happens to be the No. 1 rated football college recruit on the West Coast and an absolute beast on the field. From Oklahoma to Alabama, Notre Dame to Michigan, Stanford to Oregon, they’ve made Caleb Kelly a top priority and there’s a million reasons why, most of them football related.
The special talent
A physical specimen at 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, Caleb plays outside linebacker, a position that requires speed, the skill to cover wide receivers and tight ends, the ability to tackle, and most of all, instincts, where Caleb thrives. He’s got the full package and rates as a five-star athlete. Hence college coaches flying all the way to Clovis to pitch why Caleb would look best in their school colors.
Heck, he’s so physically gifted some think linebacker might not even be his best position. His hands are so massive and his range of motion so expansive that he gobbles up footballs with relative ease. He’ll score touchdowns this season on offense as a receiver, too. He’s an opposing coach’s nightmare. Clovis West coach George Petrissans points out an even scarier thought: “We still haven’t tapped into everything that he can do.”
Last season, high school coaches admitted to Caleb that they deliberately ran plays away from him.
They didn’t want to mess with No. 19.
Looks like a linebacker, moves like a defensive back they say.
A veteran Clovis West coach raves: “He has some skills that are absolutely the best I’ve ever seen, he has no weakness.”
“His football abilities are vast, that goes without saying” said Edison High School head coach Matt Johnson. “But what makes Caleb historic is his attitude and character.”
Caleb was able to showcase his skills in Beaverton, Oregon, July 7-10 when he played in the prestigious invitation-only showcase The Opening, a Nike sponsored event that featured the top 162 high school players in the nation. Matched up against the best, he more than held his own with a couple of interceptions, one in which he stepped in front of a taller tight end, snatched the ball as if it were intended for him and dashed toward the end zone like Mario after he grabs an invincibility star in Super Mario Brothers.
Greg Biggins of scout.com, one of the leading high school talent evaluators took notice: “He’s a high level athlete who lived up to his lofty expectations. By the end of the event, he showed why he’s so highly thought of with a strong overall performance.”
Just affirming what we already know – our Clovis kid is something special.
The story of how Caleb arrived from relative unknown to No. 1 recruit on the West Coast is filled with tales of determination, hard work, commitment and most of all – a support system that never wavered in its core beliefs. Family is clearly number one in the Kelly household and Mama Valerie makes sure of that. She is the pillar of the family, a strong independent woman who is watchful of her boy, with a strong sense of discernment.
“I’m very protective of my family. My family is very close and I have a great support system,” says Valerie a 1995 graduate of Clovis West. “My mother and sister are I are all three single and my mom raised me. So whatever is missing they fit that piece of the puzzle.”
As a single mother it was difficult at times raising a son who exhibited a gift for football early, like getting her son to football camps. But she persevered like a champion herself, making sacrifices and pouring out her soul for the boy who was born 9 pounds 12 ounces; the makings of a football star already off to a favorable start.
Yes, the Kelly family groomed Caleb to be a football player and he certainly had the genes, but they also planted the seeds of his character early. Aunt Jennifer—who can be seen snapping pictures at all of Clovis West’s games—read the book “A Season of Life” with Caleb during his eighth grade year. The bestseller instills the importance of brotherhood, community, and building a man of honor. Imagine that, an aunt cultivating the important virtues of life and football in her nephew before he reaches high school. This world needs more Aunt Jens.
And as much as his mom adores her oldest son (she even knows what food to order him at restaurants and often picks out his wardrobe), Caleb cherishes his younger brother Jeremiah, an eighth grader at Kastner Intermediate School, in the same manner. During an interview reserved to talk about Caleb the person and athlete, Jeremiah takes notice of a Star Wars t-shirt (mine) and turns the conversation to a galaxy far, far away. Caleb sits calmly and patiently, allowing his brother to talk with a newfound kindred spirit about the plights of Boba Fett and the future of Star Wars movies. Mom chimes in to discuss Jeremiah’s future Star Wars birthday party with as much zeal as the prospect of Caleb playing college football on national TV. That’s the Kelly family in a nutshell – no one is above the other.
When it’s his time to talk about his mom Caleb also gets misty-eyed, reflecting on the sacrifices his mother made for his sake. “Everything I do, I do for my mom because I see her working hard all the time. I give back in my own way. Like when I run out onto the field and point at her and see her smile.” He promises to do that every time he takes the field, which hopefully leads to the ultimate goal – the NFL.
Born and raised in Clovis, Caleb was so far advanced from kids his own age he was suiting up against third and fourth graders as a second grader. Valerie knew her son had the “it” factor when he was a 10-year-old and dragged five Sanger players on his way into the end zone.
Caleb recalls a play in Pop Warner that would foreshadow not only his football prowess but his mother’s fanatical support, and perhaps where he got his speed.
“I got an interception and ran 70 yards and my mom and her friend are running with me all the way down the sideline,” says Caleb, who has a fondness for Hawaiian music. “At the five-yard line I had to dive in because I was so tired and just laid there. They had to pick me up and I remember hearing a dad yelling ‘I got that on tape, it’s going to be on ESPN!’ Then I was like ‘this is what I want to do.’”
Call it what you want – predestination, inevitability, fate – but Valerie prayed that Caleb wouldn’t play football or hockey but when his first words were “ball” that sealed the deal. Football prevailed and five years after that ESPN-worthy touchdown Caleb attended a football camp in Los Angeles, and that’s when everything changed. Oklahoma University first took notice of his skill set. The mighty Sooners played the part of the pied piper and every major college followed suit and joined in the parade. The courting of Caleb Kelly had begun.
Caleb’s father has never been a part of his life so Valerie has made it a priority to place good and positive men in her son’s life. They point out three such men who have impacted Caleb’s life: Art Francis, his junior high coach at Kastner and now linebacker coach at Clovis West; Tony Perry, his 7-7 summer travel team coach; and Clovis West head coach George Petrissans or Coach P as he is affectionately known.
Tony Perry is from the west side, a current Edison coach and 20-year coach and founder of the summer program DB Guru. He saw the potential in Caleb to be a top player in the nation and took him under his wing because with Perry one thing is certain: kids are his No. 1 priority no matter what school they attend. Tony Perry may not be a household name but in the world of coaching he’s pure gold, helping at least 40 kids receive Division 1 scholarships.
Caleb states Perry will be with him wherever his football career path leads him and helps handle all the offers including taking cold calls from coaches wanting information about him, part bodyguard part mentor if you will. “He got me where I’m at with the scholarships,” says Caleb, who adds that Perry has never taken a dime in return for driving him to camps, not even Taco Bell money.
Perry raves about Caleb’s football skills and in all the years being around the game of football he’s seen it all, from the talented player who threw it all away because of poor decisions to those who made it to the big show in the NFL.
“I’ve been around a lot of kids that aren’t grounded but not Caleb,” says Perry who’s accompanied him on trips from Michigan to Notre Dame. “This kid cares so much about his family and friends and that’s rare. He wants everyone around him to succeed.” It’s true, his favorite team to root for is not the 49ers or Cowboys but the successful Clovis West girls basketball program where he frequently riles up the crowd, leading them in cheers and chanting during games.
Art Francis first saw Caleb walking to football practice when he was a sixth grader at Lincoln School and already a half-foot taller than his peers. Those types of kids tend to stand out – especially for a football coach. For the next two seasons they plowed through the competition undefeated, and connected early as coach and player due to their mutual love of football and another common denominator – their strong mothers.
The best way for Francis to sum it up is by a story: “I sat next to Caleb on our bus ride to Turlock last year and as we approached the stadium I noticed that Caleb was whispering on his cell phone. The 20 second conversation ended with Caleb saying ‘I will play hard Mom, and I love you too’. As he got off the phone he looked at me and we smiled at each other and said ‘yep -gotta talk to mom.’”
Francis adds that when past teachers and coaches come up to Caleb they don’t get a chance to shake his hand – Caleb reaches out instead with a big ol’ giant hug. “His genuine kindness is what I feel makes him special as a person. You can see it in his face when he’s around friends and family.” And another adjective is added to the lexicon – kindness.
When Coach Petrissans arrived on the job last season he knew of the talented football player he was inheriting. An impact player who will help him win games, sure, but he quickly learned that Caleb was just one of the guys, an encouraging player who treated his teammates equally no matter their place on the depth chart. Think back to Aunt Jen’s book “A Season of Life.”
“It’s never look at me, I got a letter from Alabama, I got a call from Florida State,” said Petrissans. “He’s so grounded and if you talk to anyone on campus they’ll say the same thing.”
Throughout this entire recruiting experience, one that would wear down most kids, Petrissans sees Caleb’s honesty shine through. “Every coach from Alabama to Cal Poly he’ll look them in the eye and give them the exact same attention he would any other coach. Notre Dame came in here and sat in this office and told him he was their No. 1 outside linebacker in the country on their board. He had this smile on his face that’s always the same Caleb. He’s got Lane Kiffin from Alabama and Bob Stoops from Oklahoma on campus and it’s not phasing him at all.”
Since he’s not making his decision until after the season on National Signing Day in February, will this whole recruiting thing be a distraction for Caleb and the Clovis West team?
“One hundred percent no,” assures Petrissans. The Eagles are on a quest for a Valley championship.
When Caleb finally decides on where he’ll be attending college, after all the wooing, the texting, the phone calls and visits from coaches far and near, who is going to be the first to know? Tony Perry the mentor who unselfishly drove him to camps? Coach Francis the father-figure and one who’s coached him since Junior High? Perhaps Coach Petrissans, his beloved high school coach? If not, then surely his biggest fan – mom. Nope, it’s Jeremiah – the floppy haired kid brother they call Shorty, the Star Wars lovin’, video game playin’, eighth grader and football player. He’ll have the inside scoop, a heaping ice cream sundae of knowledge, a special family moment they’ve been planning for a while.
And here’s how the plan is going down: Caleb drives Jeremiah to school every morning, bonding time for the brothers, and one auspicious morning when calm and peace has seeped into his body and mind, after many hours of thoughtful prayer he’ll simply turn to his brother and say, “Jeremiah, I’m going to play football next year for…….”
I can imagine Valerie Kelly, knowing her sons are sharing this moment, whispering to herself, “That’s my boy.”