JASON SHOOT / News Herald Writer

GRACEVILLE — Anthony Kelly learned quickly he was among brothers in arms when he arrived to play football at the University of Kentucky.

He was a little slow to pick up that he had a cousin in arms there, too.

“So I get to UK’s campus, and I was recruited as an athlete but they immediately put me in as a defensive back,” Kelly said. “The leader at that time was Eric Kelly, one of the top corners in the nation. His last name was Kelly, he was from Florida, so he took me under his wing. Wherever we went he said, ‘This is my little cousin,’ and I’d tell everybody, ‘This is my big cousin.’

“We had no idea that was the reality.”

An entire semester had passed before the two Kellys learned they were related, Kelly said. Their fathers were brothers, and it took a phone call from Anthony’s dad to bring it to light.

“My dad called me one day and asked if I had fun playing with my cousin,” said Anthony Kelly, who grew up in Campbellton while Eric Kelly was attending Bay High School in Panama City. “I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ Basically Eric’s dad was my dad’s brother. It’s crazy. And Eric’s brother and I knew each other. It just never really dawned on us we were related. For me, the Kelly side of my family I always thought lived in Alabama and South Florida. It totally blew us away.”

Kelly said the relationship between the two cousins changed immediately.

“Absolutely,” he said. “From that point on we held each other accountable. … It was encouraging to know I had an upstanding family member with the same last name. He shared some of the same struggles I did as a child.”

Kelly said that Eric’s influence was a tremendous help to a young man trying to adjust to life at a college literally 100 times more populated than his hometown of Campbellton (21,000 compared to 210). Kelly said his Christian faith helped him make the transition, too.

“You go from Graceville where talent and athleticism alone keeps you in the game and keeps you in plays and go to a big (NCAA) Division I university and the SEC where the top talent in the nation resides,” Kelly said. “You have to have technique, and you have to compete every day in practice. That was definitely a learning curve. I had to get stronger, bigger, faster.”

Eric Kelly graduated from UK in 2000, and the Minnesota Vikings selected him in the third round of the NFL Draft. Anthony Kelly said his cousin was a leader at Kentucky, and he tried to emulate him when Eric Kelly left for the NFL.

“Eric had passed down the do’s and don’ts to being a successful college athlete,” Kelly said. “When he left it was my time to be the guy to step into the leadership role and help other guys.”

The two Kellys are together again as organizers for The C.H.A.M.P. Camp, a two-day football camp scheduled for June 30 to July 1 at Anthony Kelly’s alma mater, Graceville High School. The camp included 120 athletes in its first year last summer, and they both want it to grow exponentially in the years ahead. In addition to learning fundamental football skills, they want to pass down life skills the kids can apply to their own lives.

“I know (Eric’s) desire to give back to the Panhandle area,” Kelly said. “He hosted a camp in Panama City before I was hosting my camps. … He has the heart to give back, and those kids in the area mean something to him. That’s the most important thing to me. I don’t want to go out and get people who are not invested in kids and the community. I want people who genuinely care about kids’ futures.

“Eric is a living testimony to what kids can do. He grew up in Panama City, had a tough upbringing, goes to UK as a running back, hurts his knee, works his tail off in rehab, stays focused and becomes one of the top cornerbacks in the nation. In Minnesota he covered Randy Moss every day in practice. That’s the kind of guy he was.”