It is great to cross paths with a young person who can identify what he or she wants to do with their life, maps out a plan to achieve those goals and sticks to the plan regardless of the challenges they are confronted with.
In the case of former Neshaminy High School standout offensive lineman Hunter Kelly, he has staked out two plans and has made the commitment to achieve both goals.
The first goal is to find his way onto the playing field for the Penn State Nittany Lions.
After Kelly helped the Redskins win two playoff games his senior season, before losing to North Penn in the PIAA playoffs, he could have found a good college program where he would have had a chance to play right away.
Instead, he followed where his heart told him to go. He made his plan and stuck to it.
“I really chose Penn State because I grew up loving the team, loving Penn State,” Kelly said in a recent phone interview. “So when I had the opportunity to go there and play football there, it almost seemed impossible for me to pass up. It’s a storied program, it’s been built up over the years, it’s been my dream school since I was little.”
Saying Hunter Kelly and the word “little” in the same sentence does not happen very often these days. His senior year at Neshaminy, Kelly was listed at 6 feet 3, 285 pounds. He is now listed at 307 pounds.
He gained that muscle by simply sticking it out in the weight room while on campus, and continuing that regimen back home working with Tony Incollingo at the Speed Pursuit facility in Tullytown, Bucks County.
“I’ve been a hard worker since I was in high school,” Kelly said. “Nothing has changed. I just put in the work and I am finally getting the results.”
Kelly has been working hard for three years with no scholarship. It is the practice at most universities to reward a preferred walk-on with a scholarship once it is obvious to the coach that player can contribute on the playing field.
On April 6, Kelly’s vision, patience and hard work finally paid off. After practice, head coach James Franklin, a Neshaminy grad, pulled the entire team together. He then just belted out “Hunter, you’re on scholarship!”
It is a corny, made-for-TV moment, but works every time. Pandemonium broke out as his teammates mobbed him. His father, Dan, who was at practice just by chance, seemed dazed…not a dry eye in the house or watching at home on television or online.
“I had no idea,” Kelly said. “Nobody knew, I always thought about the day that it would happen, but the fact that it has happened, it’s pretty awesome.”
Kelly then talked about his father being there.
“He comes up sometimes for some of my practices, usually in the spring,” Kelly said. “It was a Saturday practice, so he comes up for them usually to watch me practice. He was just happy to be there. It was kind of a coincidence he was there.”
Kelly said his mother, Dawn, had been up the week before and missed the big announcement. “She didn’t come up that weekend,” Kelly said. “She missed it but I got the FaceTime to show her.”
How did he persevere for three years with no playing time and no scholarship?
“I think there is a different path for everyone,” said Kelly, who said he admired Eagles tackle Jon Runyan while he was growing up. “I knew coming in it wasn’t going to be easy. I knew that it was going to take time, I knew it was going to be tough. But there have been so many stories of people who have broken through. So for me, I knew it was going to be a long wait.”
Kelly said he never lost faith, he just kept grinding. He also excelled in the classroom, making dean’s list as a journalism major and being named to the Big Ten All-Academic Team.
“There were definitely some tough moments in it,” he said. “After a while, you just get into a groove of things, and that’s kind of what happened to me. I just kept working. I didn’t change the way I worked when I got there (Penn State). I just kept true to myself and kept true to how I work. I was very proud to get what I got this semester. I was able to break through that barrier (and get a scholarship).”
Kelly’s high school head coach, Steve Wilmot, did not seem surprised that his former lineman was persevering in Happy Valley.
“Hunter is very focused on contributing every ounce of talent he has to the Penn State football team,” Wilmot said. “He loves the position of offensive line and understands that the productivity of an offense starts there. I guess the No. 1 quality that Hunter has is that he believes in himself and his coaches at Penn State.”
His work is far from over. In fact, it is just starting.
In front of him on the depth chart is Michal Menet, a redshirt junior who started 12 games in 2018. Redshirt sophomore Juice Scruggs has been injured all spring from an unfortunate auto accident that occurred about a week before spring drills. While home for spring break, Scruggs was involved in an accident that left him with a fractured L3 vertebra. His immediate future is unclear, although he is expected to play again.
Zach Simpson, a redshirt senior who had limited playing time during his three seasons on the football team, mostly special teams, decided to give up his senior and last year of eligibility.
According to Kelly, that leaves him as the No. 2 center on the depth chart.
“The way it was working, obviously Juice was out this spring, so we were working basically a two-center rotation,” Kelly said. “Mike was in first, and I was going with the second team. To my knowledge, that is the way it’s going to be going into camp. We obviously have some young guys coming in, too, so we’ll see what happens. Right now, it looks like I’ll be the second center rolling into camp. But who knows what’s going to happen during camp and stuff like that.”
This will be Kelly’s fourth training camp at Penn State. Nerves?
“I’ve always had an edge to me,” said Kelly, who says he likes the way Eagles Pro Bowl center Jason Kelce plays. “I’ve always had a chip on my shoulder, knowing I was wasn’t always the first option. That carried over with me every year. [The chip] got bigger every year. Getting the scholarship has fueled me even more to go in and be the best. There’s no real nerves or anything. I’m excited to get the opportunity that I know I’m going to get. That’s all I’ve been wanting is an opportunity. The fact that they’re giving it to me now, I undoubtedly want to be able to prove to them my worth and prove to them that I deserve to be out there and be a guy who can help this team.”
When all is said and done with football, Kelly said he wants a career in journalism. Sports, right? It would be a natural, one would think.
“I prefer to do regular news,” Kelly said. “I can obviously do sports because I play sports and know sports. But, for me, I like the regular news, even sometimes the politics of it. I am also minoring in political science. Doing the politics side/hard news is what I’m into.”
Kelly was asked if he would have the confidence to walk up to a U.S. senator and ask why he or she voted for a certain piece of controversial legislation.
“I think that’s what’s driven me,” He said. “It’s the parting of the country the last couple of years that is really driving me to do this. Honestly, that excites me to do that kind of stuff.”
Kelly says he watches most news stations but pays attention to CNN more than others and likes Philadelphia-area native and CNN anchor Jake Tapper. CNN evening host Chris Cuomo is on his viewing radar.
“I like TV journalism,” Kelly said. “I’ve done some radio work, too, but TV is what I really like, where I really feel at home.”
This offseason, Kelly is interning for CBS3 in Philadelphia. He has been part of the crew covering the Eagles’ OTAs and minicamps.
Kelly said he found out about CBS3 internship at the beginning of this past semester and decided to apply. From his high school playing days, he said he got to make the acquaintance of CBS3 on-air personality Ukee Washington and producer Steve Lindsay.
“I thought it would be super beneficial for me the way they work with their interns and do a lot of hands-on things,” Kelly said. “That’s what got me interested.”
Sounds like a plan. ••
Follow Al Thompson on Twitter @thompsoniii