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Against the odds, NFL fan Daniel Kelly fought his way to become a scout with the New York Jets

No one thought Daniel Kelly would one day work in the NFL. But against the odds, Kelly fought through numerous obstacles, including cancer, to become a scout with the New York Jets.

As a teenager, Daniel Kelly was that kid, the one obsessed with sports who woke up early to watch SportsCenter before school and sneak the sports page into his math book before geometry. He was told that he would never work in professional sports, let alone the NFL.

Turns out, Kelly turned a lifelong passion for football into becoming an NFL scout. He did so with virtually no background in football but merely a desire to be involved in the sport he loves. In the process, he has printed out tens of thousands of pages of college player evaluations, so he'd be ready to fulfill his dream of working in the league.

It is a story born of determination and belief that through an unrelenting work ethic, he could someday work for an NFL team.

Born about 20 miles west of Minneapolis, Kelly was always sports mad, in particular he was in love with football. And while he never got to play linebacker for Penn State as he wished—“No matter how many large pizzas I ate, I couldn't get much past 130 pounds with my metabolism”—he wouldn’t let playing just a single year of high school football as a junior (he was the only player on the team to not earn a letter) keep him away from the sport.

As a 17-year old, he asked his parents to buy him the book Secrets of an NFL Scout by Tony Razzano for his birthday. He devoured the book, reading it multiple times. He began taping college football games on his parents VCR and did his own scouting evaluations on the top players.

The idea of becoming a scout began to resonate with him at a time when most of his classmates were preoccupied with getting their license or prom. He’d go around school, telling people that he wanted to work in the NFL as a scout. In typing class his senior year, he took his evaluations from the dozens of college games he taped and typed them into a 75-page report.

Kelly working on his draft evaluations as a senior in high school.

Kelly working on his draft evaluations as a senior in high school.

A fan of Washington’s NFL team, his high school yearbook was filled with the signatures of people telling him his team “sucked.” A fair number of messages also told him, point-blank, that he’d never be a scout in the NFL.

“I'll never forget when my parents came in for parent-teacher conferences and a teacher told my parents, ‘If Dan spent even a 10th of his time on schoolwork as he does on [Washington], he'd be a straight-A student,’ which infuriated my Dad,” Kelly said.

“I was the kid in math class that sat there with the sports page underneath my math book, looking at the NFL schedules and standings whenever the teacher turned away to write something on the chalkboard.”

He believed, however, that he was meant to be a scout. His senior year of high school, Kelly sent that scouting report he compiled in typing class, all 75 pages, to then Washington general manager Charley Casserly who promptly wrote back complimenting his work and telling him to stay in touch.

Kelly’s parents, though, weren’t quite as complimentary, telling their son he had a choice to go to college or join the military. He went the route of a local junior college.

There his obsession with football continued and he failed out, landing him in a series of entry-level jobs in fields like insurance where he worked in a call center. He would daydream about working in sports.

Mock drafts and free agent signings became his version of doodling during meetings.

One night in the early spring of 1995 while listening to Minneapolis sports radio, Kelly, by now in his early 20s, heard an ad for a promotion being run by the Minnesota Vikings. He remembers the radio announcers booming voice asking for fans to come to the facility and participate in a mock NFL Draft. The ad promised that fans could make a pick representing an NFL team and that Vikings management would be there.

Using all nine phone lines at his disposal at the call center, Kelly got through quickly. Days later, he showed up at the Vikings facility where he learned he would represent the Jacksonville Jaguars, who were picking second overall in the draft.

He called in sick to work so he could attend the event with his friend.

Terrified at the idea of public speaking, it didn’t get any easier when Kelly noticed that Vikings defensive coordinator Tony Dungy was in the audience.

But he took to the podium and selected offensive lineman Tony Boselli, who the Jaguars did in fact select with the No. 2 pick.

After the draft, Kelly approached Dungy and presented him with a copy of the very same report that he had given to Casserly several years earlier.

“He spent several minutes looking at it before looking at me and saying ‘You know, this stuff is pretty good, how would you feel about coming to my office next week, we can go through your scouting reports? I can pull out my old scouting reports from Kansas City and BLESTO and we can spend some time comparing them. How would that sound!?’ Holy smokes,” Kelly said. “How would that sound? My answer was a quick and resounding yes.”

That next meeting turned into a six-month unpaid internship with the Vikings where he got to work closely with Dungy.

After Dungy left for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Kelly’s relationship with Minnesota ended. He worked a series of jobs in the real world, from selling vacuum cleaners to being a mortgage loan officer. It was at this last job that he realized that his passion wasn’t in home loans and reverse mortgages but was in fact still in scouting.

One night, watching ESPN, he saw the story of Wayne Chrebet, then an unknown college football player at Hofstra. His father had essentially been cold-calling NFL teams, sending out copies of his son’s game film with the hopes that he might get drafted or signed. Anything to get his son noticed and on the radar of the league.

Chrebet, of course, would latch on with the Jets as an undrafted rookie free agent and become a fan favorite during his 11 years with the team.

The story of Chrebet inspired Kelly. He decided that if he was going to become a scout, he needed to start pounding the pavement. He needed to become the Chrebet of scouts. He took some time over the next few days to map out a plan.

The best route, he finally decided, was to self-publish his scouting report and mail three copies to each NFL team. He evaluated hundreds of players, taking time away from work and even writing evaluations on Christmas Day so that he could get everything in the mail. The goal was to get his evaluations to the teams a couple of weeks before the NFL Draft.

He paid for the printing, at the cost of $2,300 for what would total 85,000 sheets of paper—the equivalent of three trees. 

After the book published, he splurged a bit. Kelly spent an additional $1,300 to overnight the books to every NFL team. Each team’s general manager, head coach and director of player personnel got their own box. Inside was a note from Kelly, his book as well as all of his hand-written notes with each scouting report “to prove I actually did the work.”

Kelly's shipment of his draft evaluations prior to being mailed.

Kelly's shipment of his draft evaluations prior to being mailed.

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Days after he mailed out his boxes, his pager went off, with a number to call from the New Orleans Saints. On the ensuing call, Kelly spoke with Bruce Lemmerman, head of college scouting in New Orleans. He liked the young man’s spirit and thought there might be a fit.

Days later, Kelly got a call saying that one of the scouts disagreed with his assessments and there would be no job offer.

Kelly was crushed but knew that all it took was one of the remaining 31 teams to fall in love with his work.

Another message on his pager came a few days later, this time from the Jets. The message said to call Scott Pioli, the team’s director of pro personnel.

After a brief conversation and a personality test, Kelly received another call. Pioli wanted to meet with Kelly. Could he get out to New York the next day?

Kelly didn’t even have to think twice. He called out sick from work, flying into LaGuardia Airport to meet with the Jets at their old facility at Hofstra University in Long Island.

He met with Jets management, everyone from Pioli to head coach Bill Parcells to the team’s contract negotiator, a bright rising star named Mike Tannenbaum. He also met with Bill Belichick, then the Jets' defensive coordinator. For what seemed like an interminable period of time, Belichick poured over Kelly’s report “like an attorney would a contract.”

The meeting went well and included dinner with Pioli. The Jets promised only to call him back.

Two weeks later, Pioli called him. Pioli said he had bad news.

The Jets wanted him as a pro personnel scout but they could only offer him $21,000. There were perks, though, that included two season tickets and a meal card for the dining facilities at Hofstra. Would that work?

Kelly didn’t have to think twice. Finally someone believed in him. Finally, a dream born in his high school typing class, writing up his draft reports, had landed him in the NFL.

His first year in the NFL was intense. On top of the 80-hour work week and pressure of the NFL, within the first month on the job he was diagnosed with testicular cancer. Treatment at world-renowned Sloan Kettering resulted in a clean bill of health and a resumption of duties with the Jets.

His doctor had told him he would likely be out the entire season. Kelly ended up missing just one month.

No way he would miss out on this.

In the Jets scouting office at Hofstra.

In the Jets scouting office at Hofstra.

In 1998, the Jets had a tremendous season. They went 12-4 and advanced to the AFC Championship Game where they faced the AFC’s top seed, the Denver Broncos.

“My shining moment of my four years with the team happened that week prior to the big game. An idea came to mind to look into Denver's head coach Mike Shanahan's play scripting of Denver's first 15 plays,” Kelly said. “I thought, ‘There has to be a pattern or some kind of reasoning behind his play scripting.’ After hours of intense study, I was able to crack his code and as it would turn out, accurately predict Denver's first 15 plays in the AFC Championship Game. I made a report and gave it to Eric Mangini prior to them departing for Denver. When the team returned to New York, Mangini called me into his office, flipped me a hundred dollar bill and said, "Bill appreciates your efforts to help’."

The Jets lost to the Broncos but Kelly had proven himself as dependable and a grinder. 

He would go on to spend four years with the Jets. Duties varied, from typing reports to player evaluations. Kelly would attend multiple NFL Combines as well as the combine for the old NFL Europe.

Anything to assess more players. Anything to help the Jets. He even drove agents to and from the airport during free agency.

It was a fast four years with the Jets. After his time with the Jets came to an end, he has been involved in the media hosting his own radio show as well writing his own book entitled Whatever It Takes based on his life experience. He's also been working as a scouting consultant. He hopes to one day to return to the league, perhaps again as a scout or in another role in personnel.

Now, however, Kelly has a different calling. The now born-again Christian is trying to sign others up for a different type of team as an evangelist.

“In 2013, I went into full time preaching ministry. With no back-up plan, no safety net, no credit cards and no savings I stepped into full time preaching trusting only Jesus Christ for all provisions,” Kelly said.  

“I was not working for any organization and only had Jesus Christ as my boss. I sent out emails throughout the Phoenix area, titled, ‘Modern Day Gospel Message’ offering to come and share my testimony, my story. I said I ask for nothing but the opportunity. All told, that year, I ended up preaching at 13 different churches and ended up hosting three different radio shows, including the first Christ-Centered NFL pre-game radio show in the world. It was an incredible year, I even had a chance to be mentored by a pastor who used to travel with Mother Theresa.”

While he is thankful to share his faith, he hopes someday to be back with an NFL team.

Three years ago, he had a dream that he was general manager of the Cleveland Browns. That next day, he wrote to Browns owner Jimmy Haslam, giving his background and saying that he had a plan on how to turn the team around.

Haslam responded to Kelly’s letter and asked for his suggestions.

“That turned into another 166-page GM proposal and my current wife, Samantha and me, flew by faith and faith alone from Phoenix to Cleveland in attempts to meet with Mr. Haslam,” Kelly said.

“We literally walked into the front door of the Cleveland Browns facility and asked the security guard if we could meet with Mr. Haslam. You should have seen the security guard's eyes! You could tell he never got that one in training.”  

Kelly didn’t get a job with the Browns. He remains undeterred. He will get back into the league again somehow, even if 18 years is an eternity in the fast-paced NFL.

There is no reason to doubt that Kelly will be back in the game at some point. After all, no one believed that he would get there in the first place.