"FULFILLING A DREAM" FOR ARMED FORCES MERIT AWARD NOMINEE MICHAEL KELLEY

    

EDITOR’S NOTE - This is the second in a series of articles about nominees for the second annual Armed Forces Merit Award presented by the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA).  Articles from the Alpine Daily Planet and El Paso Times contributed to the article on Michael Kelley.
 

Michael Kelley, a senior linebacker at UTEP, has been nominated for the 2013 Armed Forces Merit Award presented by the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA).

Coordinated by the staff at the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl, the Armed Forces Merit Award presented by the FWAA was created in June 2012 “to honor an individual and/or a group within the realm of the sport of football.”  The second recipient of the Armed Forces Merit Award presented by the FWAA will be announced on Veteran's Day, November 11.  Bronze Star winning Green Beret solider Nate Boyer, a member of the University of Texas football team, was the first recipient last November of the Armed Forces Merit Award presented by the FWAA.

A California native, the 27-year old Kelley has played in four games this season for the Miners for new coach Sean Kugler after spending his first year with the Miners on the scout team for coach Mike Price.  He recorded two assisted tackles in UTEP’s last game Saturday against Tulsa.

After eight years of active duty and three tours overseas, Kelley found his way to El Paso in order to fulfill a dream he had of playing college football.  Prior to the 2012 season, Kelley walked into the UTEP coach's office and asked them what it would take to join the football team.

"He came up and talked to us and said, 'Hey I'm in school, I always wanted to continue to play football,'" said former UTEP defensive coordinator Andre Patterson. "We had the walk-on tryouts and he ran well so I said, 'Come play defensive end."

Kelley did not see action in 2012 as a defensive end, but was honored as the most valuable player on the defensive scout team last season.  He merited placement on the C-USA Commissioner's Honor Roll (minimum 3.0 cumulative GPA) in the spring of 2013.  Prior to the start of pre-season practices this past summer, Kelly then received both some good news and bad news.

The bad news was that the Iraq war veteran was suddenly declared a senior instead of a redshirt freshman despite just enrolling full-time at UTEP last year as the NCAA ruled that courses Kelley took while he was in the Army started his eligibility clock.

The good news was that "exasperated" Kugler awarded Kelley a scholarship. “That was great, one of my primary goals was getting a scholarship,” said Kelley, who is married with two children. “That meant a lot to me and my family, it helped financially.”

Kelley was “extremely disappointing” with the NCAA decision.  “It was something that came down to a decision made in regards to my transcript. There was some disagreement. An attempt was made (to appeal), but now it’s out of my hands. “There’s a little more pressure. This is my last year, so everything is amped up.”

A staff sergeant when he left the Army, Kelley's nickname on the team is “Sarge.”  During this "hot days" of pre-season drills this past August in Alpine, Texas, Kelley told his teammates stories that probably put a hot day in perspective. “They were asking me what Iraq was like and I said, ‘First of all, it’s 130 degrees,’” Kelley said. “It feels like your face is melting off.”

Kelley said he was "used to 130 degrees.  I have been through so much worse."  A multidisciplinary Studies major at UTEP, Kelley was referring to his three tours with the U.S. Army to Kuwait, Qatar and Iraq that "that trivialize football practice" according to Bret Bloomquist in his article last season in the El Paso Times about the Army veteran. 
 
"We saw small arms fire outside the wire, and you get incoming mortars sometimes," Kelley told Bloomquist said about his tour in Baghdad. "It is about watching the next man behind you. It's a hazardous area, but we looked out for each other."

Prior to joining the Army in 2003, Kelley had high school in New York, Arizona and Michigan as the stepson of a Marine.  A prep defensive back, Kelley joined the Army in hopes of getting his college education through the GI Bill. With Fort Bliss near El Paso his final military post, Kelley chose to his family (his wife, a 5-year-old and a 10-month old) in El Paso and approached Patterson about walking-on at UTEP.

"He's a great man, he's served his country, he's a hard worker," Patterson told Bloomquist. "He gives you everything he's got.  "You talk about desire, appreciating the opportunity, he understands that.  "He has a lot of work to do, but he'll get it done."

Senior Marcus Bagley, UTEP's starting nose tackle, told Bloomquist that Kelley "commands a lot of respect.  He might be young in the sense of football, but he knows a lot about life. We'll be complaining about the heat, and he's been through 10 times hotter than this."

German Reid, who starts alongside Bagley on the Miner defensive line at tackle, noted his “respect" for Kelley in the Bloomquist article.  "He's been through a lot of things off the field. I look up to him, I ask him questions about things he's done.  He really wants to be out here. Him getting to come back and play football is really special."

After eight years in the military, Kelley told Bloomquist about "adjusting to life as a civilian.  The military has set standards, a very repetitive routine and discipline.  Coming into the civilian sector, it was a transition.  There is more freedom.  But in the military, they take care of you.  On this side, you have to take care of yourself."