Former Marian Catholic Football Standout Kelly Prepares for Senior Year at Purdue
Chicago Heights resident Dennis Kelly has aspirations of making the jump from college ball to the NFL.
He doesn’t cut his hair. His 6-foot-8, 310-pound frame could be the biblical likeness of Samson.
Marian Catholic High School graduate and Chicago Heights resident Dennis Kelly jokes, "Some people have told me, 'Don’t cut your hair, you’ll lose everything.' ”
Kelly plays offensive tackle for the Purdue Boilermakers and earned Academic All-Big Ten honors in 2009. Now a senior, he is preparing for his last hurrah in the collegiate ranks. He carries the same passion for football into fall camp that he had when he was in fourth grade at St. Kieran School.
“I remember when I was talking to a parent after a sixth-grade game," Kelly said. "They told me I played with a lot of passion. They could see something in me. When I went to Marian Catholic, my football really started taking off. I started to grow and get better at the sport. I thought, 'This is an opportunity I can use.' ”
The opportunity has paid off as Kelly has earned his place in the Big Ten. He excels in pass blocking, with a rating of 94 out of 100 in that area, using a formula created by the Boilermaker coaching staff.
Kelly's Football Experience at Purdue
Going into his final year at Purdue, Kelly still thinks back on the excitement of his time with the Boilermakers.
“We have beaten Michigan twice," he said. "Played out at Oregon two years ago, the year before they were in the national championship game. The stadium was incredible."
Oregon's Autzen Stadium isn't the only amazing place where Kelly has played football.
"Looking back, playing at all the famous stadiums such as Notre Dame and Ohio State has been a cool experience," he said. "When you’re on the field and watching 110,000 people go dead silent when the ball is in the air is something I’ll never forget.
“I’ve enjoyed my time at Purdue, it’s gone very well for me. Playing against Oregon has been a favorite for me. Purdue has the atmosphere, the stadium, the fans and the team in general. There is a lot of excitement around the program.
"I’m going to look back and say how much fun I’ve had. The rarity of it, not everyone from Chicago Heights will get to play against teams like Oregon or Ohio State.”
As Kelly spoke about his football life and his excitement for the game, his parents, Mike and Geri, couldn't help but to smile and nod.
“My husband or I, one of us will go to every game," Geri Kelly said. "With a lot of the games being the Big Ten, it’s only three or four hours away. It is fun to see all the pageantry and hoopla that goes on in college ball."
While Dennis Kelly is partial to playing at Oregon, his mom got a kick out of a different game.
"For me, the best game was the Ohio game," she said. "Purdue was not expected to beat them ... Well, they did."
Geri Kelly remembered the jubilance after the game ended.
"Everyone just rushed the field," she said. "The adults in the stands were saying, 'Oh, the kids are going down on the field. One of the adults behind us said, 'We’re going down too.' And, yes, we went down as well. People were hugging each other and the coach was in the middle of it.”
Dennis Kelly has come a long way since his days at Marian Catholic High School. There was a time when his Spartan coaches weren't sure he sure he was strong enough to play on the next level.
"Believe it or not, I was skinny in high school," Kelly said. "I was only 240 pounds. For the offensive line, they didn’t know if I was going to be big enough."
But all that changed. Kelly still remembers being instrumental in a win against Homewood-Flossmoor in the IHSA state playoffs.
"Purdue (had) just told me they were focusing on me," he said. "They sent a coach to the game. I made plays that helped us win that game.”
Two weeks ago, Husker Corner made a prediction about Kelly; he could be the front-runner to win All-Big Ten honors at his position.
"How did I get here?" Kelly asked himself, humbed. "It happened so fast. I went from a grey shirt, to a red-shirt, to playing. There is a reason I’m on the field. Where do I go from here? It was a lot of things racing through my mind."
The news of the Husker prediction was inspiring, and Kelly has had a fire lit under him ever since.
"Now, I have goals to set," he said. "I would like for the team to go to a bowl. I personally have not been to a bowl yet. We got depleted because of injuries last year.
"Then, for myself, I would like to make all-conference. I have a lot of personal goals that I would like to achieve. For (an) offensive line(man) to get noticed, the team has to do well. It’s exciting about NFL prospects coming from Coach Danny Hope.
"When they went to the Rose Bowl in 2001, after that, five of his starters went to the NFL," Kelly said. "Three of them are still playing, one being the left tackle for the Patriots. To hear coach tell me that I can do it, I can be successful.
"But you have to always develop and progress, that’s the mentality that I’m taking. I have to get better. I have to play my way in."
Dedication is the key when you’re on the road to a potential professional career. Kelly gets up at 6 a.m. to workout.
“There are a lot of inconviences that come from it, but the outcome is so much greater," he said. "Having a passion for it, loving what you do. Don’t do it because everyone is playing basketball, football or baseball. Do it because you enjoy it. When it’s real, it’s fun.“
The Bears are one of Kelly’s favorite teams. Growing up, he also rooted for the Tennessee Titans. He wants to get there one day.
“My ultimate goal is the NFL," he said. "Being the best, you make it to the NFL. You start over again. You start as a rookie, going to the starter spot, getting to the All-Stars and All-Pro. I think it would be cool to say I played in the NFL, even if it’s for a few years.
"That’s what I’m working for. Playing for the Bears would be great, the opportunity for my family (to see my play). It would be great to play the Cowboys in their stadium. Another team, the Patriots, would be great to play because they run everything. They are the definition of excellence in the NFL.”
Kelly Decorations Include 'Boiler' Banner
One could find a lot of support for several football teams in the Kelly home. There is a Bears blanket, a Purdue Boilermaker banner across the front porch and Dennis' dad sports a Marian shirt.
“I’m real proud of Dennis, how he has worked through grammar school, through Marian and went on to Purdue," Mike Kelly said. "Everything he’s gotten, he’s deserved.”
Who does Dennis Kelly compare himself to?
“Matt Light, he plays for Miami Dolphins," Kelly said. "He is quick and strong. I look at him and see how I can progress and do better. Going to St. Kieran, going to Marian, they really prepared me to do well. You also have to remember that the academics are important. It is not an afterthought. Academics are No. 1.
"Our coach (Hope) is about academics and character, the part some student-athletes forget. If I can run a 40-yard dash in 4.5 seconds, the team will take me. Well, if you can’t do well in school, they won’t risk it.
"If the NFL doesn’t work out, I’ll still have a Purdue degree to be able to go on with my life. I doubt I’ll be playing like Brett Farve for 21 years. The average career in the NFL is three years. You can’t play until you’re 60. Do the work.”
Purdue’s first game is Sept. 3 against Middle Tennessee State. Kelly will be wearing No. 68. He remains No. 1 in the hearts of many Chicago Heights football fans.
As they say, “Boiler Up.”