An NFL player needs to possess a multitude of qualities that are extremely rare to be a successful football player. They aren't just the physical qualities of strength, endurance and speed. There are non-tangible qualities that an NFL player needs too. Those qualities are integrity, courage and the unwillingness to give in when conventional wisdom says you should. Those three things can be rolled together to form a single word -- character.
Long time Bengals tight end Reggie Kelly has character. He says the Bengals do too.
"The one thing that I can say about the guys is that they never stopped fighting," he said when we spoke on the phone on Thursday afternoon. "I mean every week we practiced hard and we were in every game, to be honest with you, but we have guys that fight to the end, regardless of what their record is. It lets you know that there's character on that team and we have character. I can say that I've been on teams that have had losing records and I've seen guys turn it in early -- I've seen guys throw in the towel -- way before the season was over because they knew they didn't have a chance to have a winning season or have a chance to go into post season play. I'm really happy that the veterans stood up and practiced hard and showed the young guys that even you're having a bad season, you have to fight."
Kelly played college football at Mississppi State University and was drafted by the Atlanta Falcons in the second-round, 42nd overall, in the 1999 draft. After playing four seasons in Atlanta with Michael Vick and Alge Crumpler (the two players whose teams he'll be rooting for in the offseason - the Eagles and the Patriots) he signed with the Bengals in 2003 as a free agent. He has spent three of his best four receiving years as a Bengal and was part of the 2005 division winning team (he was placed on injured reserve before the 2009 division winning season). Coincidentally, Kelly arrived in Cincinnati for the first time in the same year that Marvin Lewis became the head coach and he's very happy that Lewis will remain in Cincinnati. He hopes he does as well.
"I'm definitely happy about that," he said about Lewis being re-signed as the head coach of the Bengals. "I think it was a wise decision. When you think about all that coach Lewis has done for the Bengals and for the community, I think he's a tremendous asset. He's come into the Bengals organization and changed the culture of this team and that's commendable. I think that we really respect him as a coach. We can't let just one season overshadow all he's done for this organization. So I think it was a great thing that the Browns [family] did in bringing him back."
Kelly became a free agent at the end of the 2010 season. Now that the Bengals have settled their head coach situation by re-signing Lewis, he hopes that he and the Bengals will enter into a contract extension negotiation once the playoffs come to an end. Even though he's played one of the toughest positions in the NFL for 12 seasons, he hopes to continue to play for years to come. He knows that Jermaine Gresham is the tight end of the future, though.
"I think the chances for them to stick around as long as I have are great because I think that those guys have tremendous talent and tremendous upsides," Kelly said about Gresham and Chase Coffman. "To speak on Jermaine, it's rare to have that type of talent on any team. He's a guy that can block like an offensive lineman but he's a guy that can also stretch the field like a receiver and he's as mean as any linebacker. When you have those traits, basically that equals a dynamic player for many years. We were fortunate to get him in the draft and we're fortunate to have him on our team. He's going to be an asset on our team for many years."
Kelly also spoke very kindly of Coffman whom he says faced a lot of adversity coming into the league last season with bone spurs in his ankle.
"He battled through that all last year," he said of Coffman. "Then this year he was released after preseason. We brought him back basically on the practice squad and he worked really hard. He had the opportunity to bump up to the 53 man roster and once he got his opportunity, he took advantage of it, as you can see in our last game with three catches and some key blocks against the Baltimore Ravens. So, when you look at those two guys, you know the Bengals are going to have two pro bowl tight ends for a long time. I'm just happy to say that I've had the opportunity to play with those guys and I consider myself a mentor for those guys. Those guys have also helped me because they're so young, they keep me young and energetic. They'll help prolong my career."
Just like many fans and sports writers, Kelly couldn't place a finger on one single factor that caused the Bengals to fall from 10-6 AFC North champions in 2009 to the 4-14 last place team in the division.
"You know, it's kind of hard to say," Kelly said. "In the locker room we've been asking ourselves the same question, to be honest with you. And it's hard because we definitely have the same team and the same coaches and a lot of upgrades in a lot of different positions. It was a big disappointment because we expected to win this year."
He does, however, know how all the problems can be solved. I asked Kelly if he were given the reigns of the Bengals organization and the NFL draft was today, what position would he draft first. After a pause he began to laugh out loud.
"What I would do, I would just re-sign number 82 and I think all the problems would be resolved," he said laughing.
Off the field, Kelly is just as busy as he is on the field. He has been designing his own food chain since 2005 which he named Kyvan, derived from the combination of both of his children's names. He also has written a book named "Prepared" which hit the shelves on December 15.
"The title of the book is Prepared: Body, Mind and Spirit. Basically, it's an inspirational book designed to encourage people to be the best that they can be. I've learned that throughout life that sometimes we go though good things, sometimes we go through bad things, but those bad things can make us better. So, what I'm trying to do with the book is just to encourage people to remember that regardless of what you're going through, those little things are going to get you prepared for bigger and better things."
There aren't many players in the NFL that personify the words class, leadership and character like Reggie Kelly does. For 12 seasons, regardless of who he played for, he has given his all on every play. He may not be the strongest or fastest on the field at any given time but there is no question that Kelly possesses all the intangibles, especially character, to remain an important fixture in a locker room for seasons to come.
Kelly will be at Borders Books on Dixie Highway in Crestview, Ky. on Friday January 7 at 6 p.m. and then he'll be at Joseph-Beth Bookstore on Madison Road in Cincinnati, Ohio at 1 p.m. on Saturday January 8 for book signings.