Whenever the NFL lockout finally ends… and the Broncos can start signing players, Anthony “Champ” Kelly, their assistant director of pro personnel, will start working the phones.
Alongside the rest of the Broncos’ front-office team, Kelly will recruit free agents — unrestricted, college and the Broncos’ own — in the frenzy expected to follow ratification of a new collective bargaining agreement.
For many of the players on the other end of those calls, the NFL is a land of dreams. But Kelly, 31, knows a little more about dreams than most. He took a decidedly unorthodox path to the Broncos’ front office.
The son of a mother addicted to crack cocaine and a mostly absent father, he was raised by his grandparents in Campbellton, Fla., population 220, just south of the Alabama state line. His mother went into labor with him on her 20th birthday.
“I was actually ‘Champ’ before I was Anthony,” he said in his Dove Valley office last week. “When I was born, my mother said, ‘We made it, didn’t we, champ?’ So everybody called me Champ from that point on. I was named Anthony three days later.”
It would be a while before he understood what his mother meant.
“Before she passed, on her deathbed, she became my best friend,” he said. “She told me about her regrets.”
His mother’s addiction led to heart failure. She spent her final months bedridden, dying a little more than six years ago at age 45.
“As a kid growing up, not understanding addiction, you feel like your parents don’t love you, or that you’re isolated and alone,” Kelly said. “But now, in hindsight, I understand that it wasn’t that she loved me any less, it was that when you’re addicted, you can’t control all of that stuff. Your priorities are out of line.”
Kelly escaped the poverty of Florida’s panhandle through football, earning a scholarship to the University of Kentucky.
“Once I started playing, I gained acceptance,” he said. “I found a group of people who loved me. So possibly, I chased the love and the normalcy of playing sports more so than just doing it because I was good at it.”
You won’t find many front office worker bees with their own charitable foundations, but last year Kelly and his wife, Stephanie, a pediatric physical therapist, founded Heart Power Inc., named for the famous Vince Lombardi quote.
Last summer, it hosted a football camp in Graceville, Fla., where he went to high school, for 120 kids. No kid who wanted to participate was turned away. This summer, Heart Power held camps in Graceville and Lexington, Ky., where he and Stephanie met while attending UK. Next summer, they plan to add their first Colorado camp.
“Those guys in the personnel department don’t have a lot of off time, so to have a guy that spends the off time he does have giving these kids an opportunity, it’s pretty impressive,” said John Elway, the Broncos’ football operations chief.
“Basically, the mission of Heart Power is to support youth and their families who are in search of positive, encouraging influences,” Kelly said. “Giving back is not something that I want to do; it’s something that I have to do. It completes me. I feel like God has blessed me so much to bring me from where I was to where I am now that I’m obligated to give back.”
When he talks to kids, perseverance is a big part of Kelly’s message. After graduating from Kentucky with a degree in computer science, he did not receive an invitation to the NFL combine. He played wide receiver and defensive back for the Lexington Horsemen, the local arena football team, went to work for IBM and got his master’s degree in business. When he was finished playing, he became the team’s general manager and a coach at Lexington Christian Academy.
He sent out e-mails and resumes to all 32 NFL teams for years, receiving enough rejection letters to wallpaper a bedroom. Finally, in 2007, Jim Goodman, the former Broncos personnel chief who had recruited Kelly as a high school player on behalf of Rice University years before, hired him as a scout. Last year, general manager Brian Xanders promoted him to assistant pro personnel director, working underKeith Kidd.
“He’s got a bright, long future in the NFL,” Xanders said. “For how young he is to be where he’s at, he’s on a fast-track career, I believe.”
Maybe, but career advancement is not Kelly’s only goal.
“I want to reach out to kids who are in circumstances similar to mine when I was growing up, or worse, and just show them that you can make it out,” he said. “You can do something great.”