By Jennifer Smith — Herald-Leader Staff Writer

Football camp was not an option for Champ Kelly.

He grew up poor in the Florida panhandle, raised mostly by his grandparents as his young mother battled drug addiction and his father struggled to stay around.

There were no football camps in Campbellton, Fla., population 200, give or take a dozen.

“In order to even go to a camp, you had to travel 50 miles or so and then I couldn’t afford to go to any of those,” said Kelly, who eventually made his way to Lexington where he played football for the University of Kentucky.

Kelly could never go to a youth football camp, so he’s created a few of his own.

Through his non-profit foundation, Heart Power, the UK graduate and his wife, Stephanie, are taking football camps to places that are close to their hearts, including the one they are putting on in Lexington at Henry Clay High School from June 21-22.

It’s one of three non-contact camps Heart Power is making available to children ages 10-17 in Denver (where Kelly now works in the front office of the Broncos), Lexington and Panama City, Fla.

Special-needs children are welcome to attend the camp, Kelly said.

“I always wanted to be able to host a camp that would bring quality coaches and teach football, but also stress life skills and make it affordable,” Kelly said in a recent phone interview.

“This is the first year we’ve been able to offer it completely free. It’s a total blessing and a total testament to the sponsors we have and the staff.”

When Kelly started the camp a couple of years ago near his hometown in Florida, he worried that he wouldn’t get enough support, that he would fall flat.

“Here’s what I found out from the first camp,” said Kelly, assistant director of pro personnel for the Broncos. “The athletes that I know, they want to give back to the community. They want to invest in the community.”

The names Kelly ticks off that likely will be helping at the Lexington based CHAMP Camp this month is a who’s who of former Cats: Garry Williams, John Conner, Jacob Tamme, Gordon Crowe, Dennis Johnson, Derrick Johnson, Guy Morriss, Dusty Bonner, Mark Perry, Anthony White, Derek Homer, Dougie Allen, Derek Abney, Leonard Burress, Warren Wilson and Donte Key.

And those are just a few of the names people might recognize, Kelly said. He also talks about other volunteers who have signed up for the two-day camp, solely to pass out water and snacks.

“You’re talking about people willing to fly or drive in from all over the nation for free to just invest in kids in the area,” Kelly said. “We don’t pay these coaches to come. We hope that different businesses chip in and give us some good food and good places to sleep, but that’s all those people get. Their hearts are what keep us at Heart Power going strong and wanting to do more.”

The camp teaches different football fundamentals, including drills for various age groups and skill levels.

“Just the knowledge coming is amazing,” Kelly said. “Half of those coaches have forgotten more football than I’ll ever know.”

But the camp doesn’t just stop at knowledge acquired between hash marks.

Past camps have featured sports figures and community leaders brought in to discuss topics like bullying, good decision-making, health and nutrition as well as the importance of getting an education.

“We want those kids to know that a lot of us have been where they are right now,” Kelly said. “A lot of us have sat in those seats and walked in their shoes and we’ve found a way to cope and make out successfully and they can do the same things.”

The non-profit, which Stephanie (a UK graduate from Louisville) and Champ started in 2010, also funds scholarships and donates to other charities. Upcoming projects also could include various after-school programs and an all-girls athletic camp.

For information on camp registration and ways to contribute or make donations, go to the website:

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