May 1, 2008
He may have gone through a life-threatening illness just over a month ago, but Eastern Washington University football player Ryan Kelley had an ear-to-ear smile this week.
Thanks to quirky spring weather that postponed three practices to this week, the Eagle senior cornerback was able to practice with his teammates for the past three days. On Thursday (May 1), under beautiful blue skies on EWU's practice fields in Cheney, Wash., the Eagles wrapped-up their 15-day spring session under first-year head coach Beau Baldwin.
Kelley, who spent a week in the hospital battling for his life with a bout of bacterial meningitis, felt blessed to be able to wear his No. 3 jersey again after lending it to a teammate for the previous three weeks. He lost 12 pounds after overcoming the sometimes-deadly disease that put him in critical condition in an intensive care unit as well as an induced coma in late March.
"I tried to look at everything that happened as a positive," he said. "You have to smile in the face of adversity. And this is a big part of adversity right here. I could have easily given up and just finished school, or I could continue to compete and give it everything I've got.
"My ambition is greater than anyone can imagine right now."
For Baldwin, who ended his first spring session as head coach at EWU, the sight of Kelley on the field was one of the highlights of the spring.
"It was just great to see him out there," said Baldwin, who spent considerably time at Kelley's hospital bedside. "We didn't know what he was even going to be able to do in the spring after what he went through. We just wanted him to recover, but if it was his choice, he would have been out here a week or two ago."
Baldwin noticed Kelley's ear-to-ear smile too, but said it changed once he got onto the field.
"When he's out there playing it disappears," laughed Baldwin. "He's serious and gets after it. He's excited to be out there and is smiling just to be in full pads and hitting someone again."
"It felt great," said Kelley, who started five games for the Eagles last fall and helped lead EWU to the quarterfinals of the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision Playoffs. "It was good to be back with my teammates and not on the sideline. It felt good to maneuver and get around, especially after the hit my body took. It was good to be a player again and in a player position."
Kelley said the first day of practice was the hardest as he tried to get his body working in conjunction with his mind. He had spend the first three weeks of spring practice helping secondary coach Torey Hunter, but it wasn't quite the same when he put on the pads and starting running around.
"The first day my body wasn't agreeing with it," he said. "My energy was there but I was slow and sluggish. I'm only 22, but I felt like I was an old man. I felt like I was 45 running around with a bunch of eight-year-old kids."
Originally from Los Angeles and a 2004 graduate of Serra High School, Kelley originally attended Montana State University out of high school. He then played one season at College of San Mateo in California before coming to EWU. He finished with 36 tackles, a pair of interceptions and five passes broken up last season, but with a new coaching staff on board at EWU for 2008, this spring was to be his adjustment time to a new defense.
"I learned the defense while I was helping coach," he said of his involvement in the first three weeks of spring practice. "I pretty much knew what I was supposed to do but it was a matter of doing it physically. Mentally I've got it, but I'm still trying to get my body working with my mind."
Kelley said he has some lingering hearing loss in his left ear, and likens it to a constant bell-ringing. "So when Coach Hunter is talking in my right ear, I've got buzzing in both ears," he quipped.
"I try not to let that get me down," Kelley added of the lingering effects. "I just smile every day when I get up out of bed. To be able to run around is a blessing.
"Overall I feel good and have received a lot of support from the team, coaching staff, family and everybody at Eastern. The pats on the back they've given me have given me confidence. This is my third school, but it feels like a home for me. It's a place where God meant for me to be."
Besides having Kelley back in the lineup, Baldwin said the improvement he saw from his team was the highlight of the spring. Spring practice was originally going to end on April 26, but weather helped force four postponements as the NCAA mandates that the 15 practices are completed in a span of 29 days.
The delays were a blessing in disguise, at least for Kelley.
"It's kind of different coming back to practice after Killin Weekend and the Red-White game," said Baldwin. "But it was neat to see Ryan get some practices under his belt. It was definitely a highlight in the spring to have him back out there."
"We saw some growth in a lot of different areas, especially where young players were playing," he continued. "Besides the offensive line, there were a lot of young players at receiver, in the secondary and at linebacker. And they all made a lot of growth in communicating, understanding where they need to be and what they need to do. To see those groups make those kind of strides mentally was a highlight for me."
The lowlight came in the form of a shoulder injury to All-America wide receiver Aaron Boyce during EWU's scrimmage on April 19. The following Wednesday, a MRI revealed a partially torn labrum, and the very next day the 2006 graduate of Kentwood High School in Kent, Wash., underwent successful surgery in Seattle.
"He's in good spirits right now and confident," said Baldwin. "We've been told he's going to come back strong and hopefully not miss a beat come August. We've heard nothing but better news than what we might have thought originally. That is good."
Now, the Eagles will concentrate their time on strength and conditioning gains. Eastern will begin practicing again in early August in preparation for the team's season-opener at Texas Tech on Aug. 30 followed by a visit to Colorado on Sept. 6. Eastern's home openers are Sept. 20 against Western Washington in a non-conference game and Sept. 27 versus Portland State in a Big Sky Conference tilt.
"This time of year -- May, June and July -- is huge in getting ourselves in game shape by running and getting into a four day a week lifting plan," said Baldwin. "It's a lot of time off, but it's really not off for these guys. They will busting their tails like they have all year from a conditioning standpoint.
No matter who we are playing in the opener, we are trying to put ourselves in the best position to succeed," he added. "Our goal is to go out and win the first game and that is our mindset. By no means are we ready -- we still have 29 practices before that first game and we'll use every bit of it."
And so will Ryan Kelley, with an ear-to-ear smile, of course.