By Paul Meadors, Sports Editor
Caleb Kelly thought he was called to another football meeting in the school’s lecture hall at the conclusion of lunch, a day before Winter break. But little did the Clovis West star linebacker know this was no ordinary meeting – a special guest was waiting behind a curtain, bearing a gift way beyond his wildest imagination.
As Kelly entered the room filled with teammates, coaches, administrators and family, he was greeted by a conference call from Dick Butkus, the legendary college and NFL linebacker. Kelly’s face instantly lit up; he knew something special was in the air.
You see, Kelly was a finalist for a prestigious football award, a life-changer. Could this be the moment he finds out if he won?
Dick’s son, Matt, emerged hidden from behind a curtain flanked by Clovis West gold and maroon balloons and held the 2015 Dick Butkus trophy, given to the best high school linebacker in the nation and simply said: “You’re the winner buddy. You’re the winner.”
The room exploded with cheers and tears and Kelly, never one to hide his emotions, embraced Butkus with Kelly’s signature move: A big, gigantic, no-holds-barred, bear-hug.
“It means the world to me,” said Kelly, who is being recruited by such college heavyweights as Oregon, Michigan, Oklahoma and Notre Dame. “I am blessed to be named the best linebacker in America.”
The award was initially supposed to be announced on December 12, with Dick Butkus presenting the award himself, but a medical issue pushed the date to the 17th, forcing Clovis West administrators to keep the secret even longer. Not a problem, especially after members of the Butkus Foundation arrived on campus, helping make it a first class event and celebrating a special player – and an even greater young man.
“It’s huge for not only Clovis West but for Clovis Unified and our community,” said Clovis West principal Dr. Marc Hammock. “I cannot think of a better person and athlete to represent the forty years of Clovis West history. Caleb epitomizes what it is to be a Golden Eagle with class and character.”
The Butkus Award has traditionally been given to the NFL’s best linebacker since 1985, voted upon by a committee of 50 NFL scouts, coaches and administrators and distinguished members of the media, but the past eight years they have added a college and high school winner. Two players have won the award as a high school senior and college senior. And both are from Notre Dame – Manti Te’o and Jaylon Smith.
Kelly, already blessed with a prototypical college and pro body at 6’2” and 220 pounds, was a major impact player all season for the Eagles, scoring 10 touchdowns on offense and on defense registering 115 tackles, 21 sacks and three forced fumbles in 11 games. His enthusiasm on the field was infectious, a player respected by teammates (case in point: Kelly was mobbed by teammates after the announcement) and opponents alike.
Kelly has also been selected to play in the U.S. High School Army All-American Bowl on January 9 at the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas. The game is nationally televised on NBC at 10 a.m. PST.
Clovis West Athletic Director Matt Loggins, who played college football at Cal-Berkeley, was impressed how Kelly handled himself all year with so many eyes on him.
And second year head coach George Petrissans, who was witness to Kelly’s brilliance on the field the past two years, has always been impressed with his character as much as his punishing play.
“Caleb has a viciousness within him,” said Petrissans in a video release by the Butkus Foundation. “The future is his and Caleb Kelly is going to do whatever Caleb Kelly wants to do because he has that mindset. He has a personality that his friends and teammates love; and he cares about people.”
Graciously humble for such an accomplished athlete, Kelly credits his family as being his rock, which includes mom Valerie and eighth-grade brother Jeremiah, who happened to be celebrating his birthday on the same day he received the award. A great day for the Kelly family indeed.
“I thank my family and teammates,” said Kelly. “Without them I wouldn’t have made the plays on the field and without my family I wouldn’t have had the support to get through the hardships that come.”
“I will never forget that moment when Matt Butkus came out with the trophy. I never felt so proud of myself as I did then.”