Through the pain, Oklahoma LB Caleb Kelly pours himself into another comeback

After back-to-back knee injuries, Sooners' sixth-year senior is using this spring to round back into playmaking shape
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Before Jason White won his Heisman Trophy in 2003, he endured a lot of dark days rehabbing those busted knees.

While his teammates were at practice, running drills, working out or even leaving the Switzer Center to go enjoy their lives as college students, White was frequently all by himself, grinding away in the athletic training room, the physical therapy center, pouring as much pain into his knees as his body could stand.

Caleb Kelly knows the feeling all too well.

“You could categorize it as depressing,” Kelly said Tuesday during a video press conference.

Kelly, who suffered a knee injury in spring practice in 2019 and then suffered another one in preseason camp in 2020, said he understands why stacking injuries like that can force some athletes to walk away from the sport they love. He said he personally never considered it, even though the rehab process can exact a heavy toll — physically, yes, but also mentally and emotionally. Even socially.

“It is hard. It is very hard,” Kelly said. “Every single day you get up, everybody goes to practice, everybody's making plays, getting their production. You're never on any film, but you have to watch every single film cut-up. You're never in any of the groups laughing because half the time you don't get to go to meetings because you're doing something with rehab or seeing a doctor here.

Caleb Kelly

Caleb Kelly

“So then you're out of the loop with that. Guys will even forget you sometimes, like in the group message, or texting you, especially when you're like the sixth-year senior. And so yeah, it's really sad.”

Kelly is back for his sixth season. The one-time 5-star prospect and big-time playmaking linebacker is going through spring practice per usual, and is hoping this year — his third senior year — will be a big one.

“I’ve never thought about walking away from football. Definitely no,” Kelly said. “The only time it's ever come up is when people have asked me. Like, I'd be like, ‘Hmm, I guess that's something I could think about.’ ”

That’s not how he wants to leave the game, he said. He is motivated by the fact that he was starting and making big plays both times he was injured.

He missed all of last season after playing in just four games in 2019 — his first senior season.

Kelly — who got to OU in 2016 and graduated in May 2019 with a degree in communications and now has been pursuing his master’s degree — seemed on the verge of a massive breakout that year in 2019. He finished 2018 on a major upward surge, with a career-high 14 tackles in the November win at West Virginia as well as a strip-sack and fumble recovery that he turned into a 10-yard touchdown return. He also had seven tackles in the Big 12 Championship Game win over Texas and seven more in the College Football Playoff semifinal in the Orange Bowl loss to Alabama.

In all, 40 of Kelly’s 61 tackles in 2018 came in his last five games — all starts.

Caleb Kelly

Caleb Kelly

That season had begun with such promise, too, as he made the prestigious 11-man Allstate AFCA Good Works team for his commitment and contributions to schools, charities and organizations in Norman, Haiti and beyond.

Kelly was named honorable mention All-Big 12 in 2017, when he made 13 starts and ranked seventh on the team with 56 tackles. It was Kelly’s forced fumble that Steven Parker returned for a touchdown late in the Sooners’ College Football Playoff loss in the Rose Bowl against Georgia. Kelly also returned a TCU fumble for a touchdown on the opening play of the 2017 Big 12 Championship Game.

The former Rivals 5-star recruit (ESPN and 247 Sports both rated him a 4-star) even played in 11 games (six starts) as a true freshman out of Fresno, CA, including the Sugar Bowl victory over Auburn, in which he had 12 tackles.

“I’m making plays getting interceptions, getting forced fumbles, getting tackles for losses,” Kelly said. “… I’m conducting myself as the starter and doing everything I need to do. I just got hurt again.”

“He’s a guy of very, very deep faith,” said OU linebackers coach Brian Odom. “And add to that his maturity level. You know if there is one guy that's going to come back from two injuries like that, it's going to be Caleb.”

Kelly’s comeback continues. He said when he sees himself on video making plays in practice, he understands that it’s possible to get back to that. It’s an uphill climb, though, with repeated and unexpected setbacks.

“If I were to be 100 percent, honest,” Kelly said, “my mind is going faster than my knee. There are a lot of times where I, because I've seen everything so many times and done so many practices — ‘Oh, let's go, let's go.’ And actually, at this point today, was the first day where my body kind of caught up. And it's weird how with the knee, some practices you'll be fast, and then some practices you'll be really slow and you'll be like, ‘I was just good.’ And so there's a lot of up and down with it.”

When Kelly wasn’t rehabbing, Odom said he did everything he could to make Kelly feel more a part of the team.

“I wanted him in the room to be, you know, just another set eyes, another set of ears, another guy that's seen a lot, experienced a lot and (would) be able to hear that,” Odom said, “because, believe me, that adds value within the room, for sure.”

Kelly said even at his lowest low, quitting football after his second injury — with a degree in hand and a charisma and charm and knowledge of the game that’s made for TV — was something he refused to consider.

“That's a weakness, to me … when I see other people give into it,” he said. “Everybody has their own their own opportunities, their own decisions to make as their lives, but when I see people give in to the hurt, give in and don't work as hard, don't want to do the little things that you did before, it’s just kind of like a weakness to me. And so that's what drives me. Like, I don't I don't want to be weak. I don't want to be somebody who gave into something that was hard, just because it was hard. And I don't want to stop playing football — because I love it and I'm still good at it.”

That doesn’t mean it was ever easy.

Kelly recounted how there were lots of times — because of the isolation, because of the lack of common interaction with his teammates — he and others in his rehab room felt like they were “joining the outcast group. … “You’re on the team, but you're not on the team. It is what it is.

“So it is very depressing. But when you do get the opportunity to come back. It's such a relief.”

Caleb Kelly

Caleb Kelly

Odom said when Kelly injured his knee last spring and realized he’d miss the entire 2020 season, his immediate response was inspiring.

“The same day that he did it in the afternoon,” Odom said, “ … he was in a position meeting later on that day like nothing that happened, taking notes and not being the ‘Poor pitiful me,’ you know, blame, complain or defend any kind of action. So he was playing the hand that he's dealt.”

Kelly said after his first injury, he had a nice support system — fellow “outcasts” — around him in Jordan Kelley, Kenneth Mann, Tre Norwood and Jon-Michael Terry. But the second time, his only company was newcomer Justin Harrington. So Kelly recognized that he’d better grow his rehab network.

Caleb Kelly

Caleb Kelly and Koa

“I actually got a dog this time,” he said. “That took my mind off in a lot. I got a little Australian shepherd. So I added to my little family. And I was living alone the second time. So I was like, ‘Yeah I got to do something — I don't even have a roommate.”

As dogs tend to do, Koa the Australian shepherd made those dark, quiet times just a little bit brighter.

“(Koa) means brave,” Kelly said, “and she's a very brave dog, for sure.”