From the time that he was four years old, Isaac Kelly knew that he wanted to play a sport at the collegiate level.
And whether it was football, basketball, or baseball, Kelly put everything that he had into becoming a better teammate, a better individual player, and a better person than he had in the last game or practice — a set of qualities that won over his teammates and coaches when Kelly transferred into Portsmouth High School from Vanceburg (Ky.) Lewis County High School.
The result? The fulfillment of a lifelong dream that many can only hope to fulfill during their lifetime.
The 6-3, 200-pound three-sport athlete, who not only started, but played a key role in, all three of the sports that he participated in during his four-year high school career, officially signed to play college football at West Virginia State and obtain a lifelong dream that had, at different points throughout his high school career, seemed so close but yet so far away.
“I would be lying if I said it wasn’t everything to me, because it is,” Kelly said. “It’s huge. I’ve been dreaming of this opportunity since I was three years old, and I’ve always loved the game of football. I’ve always imagined myself going somewhere to play. To be able to do that and get my college education paid for, as well, is a blessing. It really is.”
However, Aaron Duncan and Bruce Kalb know that Kelly more than deserves the opportunity — especially considering that the senior continues to show off the qualities that make him such a special three-sport standout.
“Issac’s got great size and great athletic ability, but the things that a lot of people don’t see is the fact that he came in and learned a new system on both sides of the football, both offensively and defensively, at the quarterback and free safety position, which are vocal areas,” Duncan said. “You have to know what everybody is doing. He’s got the mental side of it, where he worked awfully hard, and was voted as a team captain by his peers even though he hadn’t been here the last three years. When you put all of those things together, that says a lot about the young man, and we were blessed and fortunate to have him at the end of the day.”
Before transferring to Portsmouth, Kelly was well on his way to making his own mark as one of the best three-sport athletes in the history of the Lewis County athletic program.
A two-year starter in both football and basketball and an immediate contributor in baseball thanks to his 6-3 frame, Kelly consistently found himself on, or in the conversation of, the prestigious Ashland (Ky.) Daily Independent All-Area teams across all three sports. Kelly threw for 752 yards and seven touchdowns while making 24 tackles in his first season as a varsity starter for the Lions, then really turned up the heat as a junior by accumulating 2,145 yards of total offense and 19 touchdowns as a junior — including 1,567 yards and 14 touchdowns through the air. The three-sport athlete added averages of 11.3 points and 5.1 rebounds per contest on the hardwood and continued to stand out as Lewis County’s top gun on the mound.
But even with the staggering statistics that made Kelly the best quarterback to come out of Vanceburg since Andy Downing laced up the cleats for a prolific air raid attack back in 2007, the senior felt a change was necessary, and with Portsmouth needing a quarterback, a strong fit, and bond, began to be formed.
That bond, and work ethic, has been something that Kalb has seen first-hand from his work over the summer months and during the offseason.
“One intangible that Isaac brings to the table is how hard the young man works in the weight room,” Kalb said. “I can’t speak for past years, but from what I’ve seen, he has to be one of the strongest quarterbacks we’ve ever had here at Portsmouth. It was unreal. When he came in here as a transfer last year, he came down in the weight room and was able to join the 1,000-pound club without being in our system for very long. He just continued to grow in the weight room at an amazing rate. It was truly astounding how well he did in the weight room, especially for a quarterback. He was a weight room warrior. That was the most impressive thing in my eyes — how he attacked everything with 100 percent effort. He continues to do that. He’s still in the weight room working, even through basketball season and during baseball. He’s still working and trying to get better. That’s something that we can’t coach, and that’s something that makes him so special.”
With a welcoming environment around him, however, Kelly knew that he had all the tools around him in order to succeed from a personal standpoint, both on and off of the field of play.
“This community has been very helpful,” Kelly said. “You see guys come in, and normally, it’s a lot of tension and hate between players and things, with guys coming in to take other people’s spots. However, it wasn’t like that at all when I got here. We just went to work, introduced ourselves to each other, and it was off to the races. We all hit the weight room hard, and we hit the weight room hard together. The biggest thing was the off-the-field bonds that we created,” Kelly said. “Every single one of these guys are guys that I’ve hung out with on weekends. It’s been great.”
With the seamless transition complete, Kelly wasted no time executing the offensive gameplan that Aaron Duncan and Bruce Kalb had in place by obtaining 2,320 yards of total offense behind his 1,105 yards through the air and his 1,215 yards on the ground, which ultimately led to No. 14 scoring a total of 21 touchdowns for the Trojans in 2017. Kelly then added 8.2 points, 4.9 rebounds, and 2.8 assists for the Portsmouth basketball unit, which ultimately obtained yet another top-four conference finish in a stacked Ohio Valley Conference realm, and, along with Reese Johnson, has developed into a co-ace for the baseball program as the Trojans have claimed huge conference victories over Ironton (7-4) and Coal Grove (3-2) within the last two weeks.
“Nobody anticipated losing Talyn Parker early in the season, so we had 2,000 yards rushing and 25 touchdowns to try and replace,” Duncan said. “Thank goodness, Isaac was here and was able to pick up a lot of what we lost with Talyn. He provided so much through the air and with his legs.”
“Isaac really embodied the epitome of the kind of quarterback that we wanted here, just like Luke Purdy was,” Kalb said. “He was a warrior. We knew that when the game was on the line, we could count on Isaac to get what we needed. He set a wonderful example for his teammates. To come in here for one year and earn the respect of a group of kids like that who have played together for many years, it speaks volumes to the type of character that the young man has. He’s left some pretty big shoes to fill, and he’s set the example of what a quarterback at Portsmouth needs to be.”
Kelly, however, says that each of the head coaches that he played for at Portsmouth — Duncan, Portsmouth boys basketball coach Gene Collins, and newly-minted Portsmouth baseball hand Josh McGraw — work at an equally tireless rate in order to get their players noticed.
“These coaches have really helped me out,” Kelly said. “Coming from Lewis County, I didn’t really have much help with recruiting, and ever since I got here, there’s been so many different coaches that I’ve met and so many great colleges that I’ve talked to. Portsmouth was the best fit for me. These coaches honestly care about you and treat you as if you are their own son. They take you in with loving arms and give you tough criticism, but you just have to take it all in and just keep going. They’ve really helped me out in every area of my life.”
Kelly, who plans to major in West Virginia State’s business program, wasn’t even sure if his college football dream was going to come to fruition until the middle of March, when the Yellow Jackets, who were looking at Kelly as a tight end, decided to let the hard-throwing hand obtain repetitions at the quarterback position. Liking what they saw, the senior got the approval that he needed from the staff to assure his landing position at the NCAA Division II-based program, which is located in Institute, W. Va. and competes in the Mountain East Conference.
However, the senior standout likes much more than the fact that he’ll be able to continue to play the position that he loves in college. In addition to majoring in his favorite academic area and playing at the spot that he so loves, the senior will also be playing for a football program that achieved its first winning season since obtaining back-to-back 7-3 marks in 2007 and 2008 as West Virginia State went 6-5 under first-year head coach John Pennington. None of the Yellow Jackets’ first losses were by more than 14 points, and after starting 1-3, WVSU went 5-2 to end the year.
With Matt Kinnick — the sole owner of West Virginia State’s single-season and career marks in passing attempts, passing completions, passing yards, passing touchdowns, and passing yards per game — gone due to graduation, the quarterback competition could be open to a guy like Kelly, a natural-born leader, to take over such a spot.
“During basketball season, I was really unsure of what I was going to do,” Kelly said. “My options were a little bit limited, and then West Virginia State really pushed ahead with their coaching staff. I can’t speak enough volumes about their coaching staff. They’ve done a really good job there. Their staff has really turned that program around. That was big for me. I wanted to look at it from a standpoint where they’re not just trying to help me grow as a football player, but as an individual and as a student. That was the biggest thing for me.”
While Isaac Kelly is excited for his next chapter at West Virginia State, his current chapter — a short, but sweet one — is one that he’ll never forget, due to the bonds that he created with the very teammates that accepted him when Kelly transferred into the school system before the start of the school year.
“These aren’t just my teammates, they’re very close friends of mine that I hang out with nearly every day,” Kelly said. “We just hang out and goof off. However, I know that they always have my back, and I’ll always have theirs forever. We built that bond from the start. They’ve been a big help in these process.”
“He’s made a lot of friends here,” Duncan said. “He still has a lot of friends from where he was before (in Lewis County), and that just speaks to the kind of young man that Isaac is. I know that he’ll do great things at West Virginia State. He got an opportunity to go down and throw for him, and they really like him as a quarterback. He was getting recruited as an athlete because of his size and toughness, which they saw on tape. They actually wanted to try and play him at tight end, but after letting him throw in person, they liked what they saw.”
And as a result, Kelly’s created new memories alongside the very people who have been along for the ride with him the entire time.
“My Dad’s been pushing me through this my whole life,” Kelly said. “Without him, none of this is possible. My Mom’s always pushed me to be the best person that I can be, so she’s always been big in that aspect. She doesn’t really have a great mind for sports. She just knows what number I am and cheers me on when I’m on the field. My grandparents are like another Mom and Dad to me. They’ve pushed me and helped me get the right guidance to get to where I’m at today. They’ve all been there. They’re the biggest part of my life. They’ve done so much for me and have been there since Day One.”
Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930 OR on Twitter @KColleyPDT