The Lexus at the gas station off Highway 231 piqued the interest of the curious 12-year-old riding his bike nearby. When the man stepped out, dressed in business casual, it was clear he didn’t look like the drug dealers around Campbellton, Fla.
The boy on his bike wondered how this man could afford his car, his clothes.
“What do you do?” he asked.
“I work on computers for IBM,” the stranger replied.
Champ Kelly didn’t know what IBM was, nor did he have a computer. His mother was a drug addict and his father, a drug dealer at the time, wasn’t around as much as either would have liked. Nonetheless, Kelly decided that day in 1992 he was going to work at IBM.
“When I make it out of here,” he would think to himself as a high schooler, “I want to make sure I come back and give back.”
Kelly graduated from the University of Kentucky in three-and-a-half years with a degree in computer science. He worked at IBM for four years, but football was his passion.
The current director of pro scouting for the Chicago Bears, Kelly started a charity called “Heart Power Inc.” and runs the C.H.A.M.P. football camps in Kentucky and Florida every June.
Kelly says he didn’t want to become what he saw, and he tells his story to the kids at his camps.
“The lesson for me was if I can model what I want these kids to be, it gives them something tangible that they can touch; that they can see a different flavor from what they’re accustomed to,” he says.
Kelly’s day job is to use his pro scouting to make the Bears better. His personal mission, though, is “to show every child I encounter how to identify a purpose other than money, so they can truly learn their worth.”
The ability to do both began in Campbellton during a challenging childhood that Kelly carries with him every day.
“We made it, didn’t we Champ?”
Marcia Kelly said those words to her son on Nov. 27, 1979, one day after she went into labor on her 20th birthday. Kelly was ‘Champ’ before he was Anthony, the name his mother put on the birth certificate in case he ever ran for president.
The sometimes tumultuous, other times loving, bond between mother and son had begun. For every positive childhood memory, there were also stretches where Marcia’s crack addiction left Kelly without his mother.
“There would be patches where the woman I love was there, the woman who gave birth to me and gave her all to me was there,” Kelly said from Halas Hall in early June. “But there were patches where she was gone, she was lost. Throughout high school, I had a hard time with the fact that she was an addict because I didn’t understand how someone could say they love you but leave you and not be there for you.”
Kelly was raised by his grandparents in the house where his now 79-year old grandmother, Mary, "the stern one" still lives. His grandfather, June, was "loving and kind-hearted" and worked for the same lumber company for 50 years. His father, Michael, moved to nearby Dothan, Ala. after separating from Marcia. He would come in for birthdays or Christmas, or bring his son to spend time with cousins in Alabama.
Surrounded by poverty, drugs and alcohol, Kelly says he was “truly raised by a community.” Those in Campbellton noticed he was different. He was special. That’s how a dealer became the one to teach Kelly to stay away from drugs.
Kelly took bus 41 to school every day in sixth grade and it got the kids to school early. To pass the time, he would join the schoolyard basketball games. Even though he wasn’t very good, one of the players would always pick Kelly for his team. Not wanting to let “the cool guy” down, Kelly would practice at home every day.
One day, the cool guy — who was also a drug dealer — said to Kelly, “Hey, listen, you leave these streets alone. I don’t want you doing none of this stuff. You’re going to be an athlete. You’re going to be good.”
“My identity became wrapped up in sport.” Kelly said.
Rob Armstrong’s uncle and younger brother played baseball in adult summer leagues on Sundays for Campbellton. One day, a 12-year-old athlete caught his eye.
Kelly noticed Armstrong, too, considering the Armstrongs were the only white men at the game in what Champ said the participants called “The Negro League.”
In a game between Campbellton and State Line, Kelly — who had played Little League earlier in the day but was good enough to compete with the adults — came up to bat. The outfield inched in, noticing his small stature, and he launched a double over their heads.
“I knew Champ from umpiring Little League but I was in shock he was playing against these grown folks,” Armstrong recalled. “It’s amazing he remembers how I looked and felt at the time.”
When Kelly crossed home plate later in the inning, he saw “this white guy kind of smirking at me.” That guy became Kelly’s football coach at Graceville High School. Armstrong’s children Kurt and Kase now attend the C.H.A.M.P. Camps.
“He was the kind of kid they don’t have to pay you to coach,” Armstrong said. “… He was a competitor, and you weren’t going to find anybody tougher than him on the field.”
Kelly played quarterback, defensive back, kick returner and sometimes kicker for Graceville, which was playing in the lowest classification in Florida. The team competed with less than 20 players.
When Kelly was a senior, his team made it to the state semifinals. They never lost a district game.
Kelly said that he had close calls growing up, nearly getting caught up in the drugs and alcohol that consumed many. But his grandparents provided stability. “It wasn’t always ideal,” he said, but it made him stronger, and the athleticism helped get him his way out of Campbellton on a football scholarship to Kentucky.
“He was just different. He had ‘it,’ whatever ‘it’ is,” Armstrong said. “… There’s plenty of reasons why to fail, why not to be successful. But Champ never felt like he was going to fall through and let other things become a distraction or change his priorities.”
Six years after the encounter at the gas station, Kelly was at the right place to reach his goal of working for IBM. There was just one problem, and it was kind of a big one — he still didn’t have a computer. He spent so much time working on the computers at the Center for Academic Tutoring Services (CATS) that they gave him a key to the building to use the computers through the night.
During one of those late nights at CATS, an athletic trainer named Stephanie was struggling with a paper. Kelly offered her help, and Stephanie — now Kelly’s wife — admits now she was skeptical that the jock would be of service.
Kelly made a deal with Stephanie: if he helped her get an ‘A’ on her paper, she had to help him catch bugs for an insect biology class. And that was the first date, collecting insects at a park in Lexington.
“Stephanie is special because when you grow up in a childhood like mine, you have some inherent problems, some skeletons,” Champ said. “One of mine is trust. She became the first girl I ever really trusted.”
Stephanie says that Champ doesn’t trust until it’s earned, while she trusts until it’s broken.
“That’s our big difference,” she said. “He did have some pretty difficult situations growing up and it’s definitely not anything to brag about. It’s not fun. But I think that’s what’s made him and he’s used that pedestal he’s been getting to give back and show these other kids in his exact same situation growing up that there’s another way besides living in the streets and selling drugs or making bad choices.”
As graduation neared, Kelly had a girlfriend and a passion, but he still didn’t have a job. That changed after what he calls “the best catch of my life.”
On Nov. 17, 2001, Kentucky lost a heartbreaker to No. 6 Tennessee, 38-35. Trailing by 7 points in the fourth quarter, Kelly caught a 62-yard touchdown pass, the only score of his college career.
Selected to do the post-game press conference, Kelly was still in his full uniform, pads and everything, when he spotted Lee Todd, the university’s president. Before addressing the reporters, Kelly approached Todd.
“Doctor Todd, I don’t know if it speaks well to the university that an engineering major in computer science graduates in three-and-a-half years and doesn’t have a job offer. I don’t know what’s going on,” Kelly told him.
It turned out that Dr. Todd had started DataBeam, which was bought by IBM. He made a few calls, and Kelly ended up working for the same company as the man in the nice car.
In his first four years after college, Kelly worked for IBM, played for the Lexington Horsemen in an indoor league, worked on his master’s degree, coached at Lexington Christian Academy and ran a camp called ‘Skills’ with his college teammate and roommate Dougie Allen, where they worked with kids on speed and conditioning.
On Sundays, Kelly would set up his television and computer so he could watch multiple NFL games at once. He took notes and analyzed the games. Stephanie noticed he would make commentary before the announcers.
At IBM, Kelly would find himself drawing up plays for his high school team. He wanted to work in the NFL, where he could follow his passion and also have the visibility to pursue running a charity.
So he began writing letters. Three times a year for four years, Kelly wrote letters to all 32 NFL teams. He told them he played in college and was “completely passionate about the game of football.” He told them about his work ethic and unique qualifications, having worked for IBM.
“I knew this was what I wanted to do,” he said.
He caught a break after being the victim of layoffs at IBM. He had stopped playing football but wanted to be involved in personnel. The Horsemen serendipitously needed a wide receivers coach and then a general manager. Kelly filled both roles.
That’s how his career in scouting began. He got to meet more NFL personnel evaluators at Pro Days and took his team to Bengals training camp, where he met Duke Tobin and Marvin Lewis.
The scout who finally offered Kelly a job, though, had recruited him to play college football at Rice a decade earlier.
“Champ’s coaches would tell me what a fine young man he was, well respected in the high school as a student, as a person. He had winner written all over him,” said Jim Goodman, who was the Broncos’ director of college scouting at the time.
Kelly got a job as a Northeast area scout, but after a year-and-a-half, he impressed the Broncos enough that they wanted him in Denver to help with the evaluation process.
“He was a guy that left no stone unturned,” said former Broncos head coach Mike Shanahan. “He’s a tireless worker. Great character. It’s hard to find those guys. He had a great feel for players. Everything you look for in a guy.”
He had accomplished another lofty goal, making it into an NFL scouting department, but before Kelly could truly give his all to his job, his family, and his charity, he had to forgive.
“You forgive and let go of all that angers you, all that’s tying you down, that’s holding you back, that’s clenching your fists. You let that go, and now you’re able to truly experience life, where you could give without expecting anything back, and you learn what your true purpose is,” Kelly said.
For him, forgiving his mother began at a gas station in Lexington.
One night in college, Kelly was pumping gas at a Shell station at the intersection of Red Mile Road and Broadway when it started raining. Two women who had walked to the station asked him for a ride. When they got in the car, they asked to be driven to the women’s center at the local Salvation Army.
They were addicts and talked to him about their children.
After sharing with the women that his mother was also an addict, Kelly said, “I don’t understand how you can say you love your child and you want to do all of this for your child, but you obviously don’t love him more than you love your addition.”
“Honestly, the only thing that got your mother coming back was you,” one of the women said in response. “That addiction was such a sickness, such a craving, we can’t even explain it. We love our kids. It’s a true sickness.”
Kelly said it took that insight to help him understand Marcia’s sickness, and “the immense love that she had for me allowed her to come back.”
Marcia was bed ridden for most of her final year of life. She was small in stature, Kelly said, “but she was feisty. … It didn’t take her long to let you know you weren’t going to walk over her. She raised me the same way. Don’t take junk from anybody. This world’s not going to give you anything. You’ve got to be tough.”’
Marcia’s kidneys ultimately failed her, likely a result of a staph infection.
“She couldn’t fight anymore,” Kelly said.
Marcia died at the age of 46. Before she did, she told her son, “Champ, I’m sorry. I wasn’t the mother that you deserved. But I want you to know that I loved you with everything in my body,”
“She owned up to her mistakes,” Kelly said. “She did love me and she showed me strength through her death.”
Kelly said forgiving his mother was “probably the best thing and the hardest thing, but also probably the biggest showing of strength that you could have.”
“[Marcia] really encouraged Champ,” said Allen, Kelly's best friend. “I can see how her memory lives on through him and the type of person he is, and how he tries to influence other people’s lives around him.”
Kelly’s father, Michael, “cleaned up his act” when Kelly was in high school and is a bigger part of his son’s life now.
“I want him to be a grandfather for my three little girls,” he said.
Kelly takes his three daughters Claire (5), Chloe (3) and Carolina (6 months) to Campbellton to stay with his grandmother every year in the house where he grew up. They’ll also take the 20-minute drive to Dothan, Ala. to visit his father and cousins.
“I want [my daughters] to experience and understand that part of their life, their history as well,” Kelly said. “Being in an interracial relationship, you have to be intentional. We live in the suburbs, we don’t even run across many minority people up here sometimes. I have to be intentional about making sure my girls understand this side of where they come from.”
Last week’s C.H.A.M.P. camp took place at Tates Creek High School in Lexington, one mile from Honey Jay Court, where 19-year-old Devontae Edwards was shot and killed on May 28.
Edwards was found in the backyard of a home with multiple gunshot wounds. His death is under investigation and no arrest has been made.
Edwards was Kelly’s cousin, and a former participant in the camps. As challenging as it is for Kelly to talk about his past to kids, this was “extremely difficult.”
“I told the coaches the night before about Devontae to signify the significance of having this camp and having a chance to try to impact the life,” he said. “That’s a tragic, tangible example of what can happen, and it happens so frequently and so often around this country.
“…This situation is a touchy topic for me. I think it’s really imperative that we stop talking and start acting to remedy this,” Kelly continued. “It was my family this time, it could be yours the next, or it may have already been yours. That’s how bad it is now. My childhood wasn’t ideal, but what these kids are facing now is on another level.”
Kelly says that, when he was growing up, kids fought. Now, they shoot.
“I don’t even think they understand mortality,” he said. “They feel that life is not finite, that they will live on forever.”
That’s where Kelly hopes his camps, with football players and coaches volunteering to teach the game and offer an outlet, can show kids the right path.
“This only comes from kids seeing, feeling, witnessing and experiencing authentic love for them, and that’s what we try to provide at our camps,” he said. “We want them to see us celebrate their successes on the field, but we also want them to see us choke up and almost become vulnerable and cry when we talk about our path to where we’ve come.”
Allen said that Kelly “takes whatever the world throws at him and makes the best out of it and survives and thrives through that. … It’s hard for a lot of people to go through life, and he goes through some pretty difficult and tough situations and still smiles and keeps that faith.”
Kelly prepared notes to talk about his life and his camps. The attention-to-detail scout for the Bears didn’t want to leave anything out. He admits feeling vulnerable doing interviews about his personal life, but he knows the impact it could have.
“I talk about my past because I’m hoping there is some kid that is sitting in my situation right now who is looking for hope,” he said, “looking for an example of a way to get out.”
The man at the gas station showed the boy on the bike an example of a way out, a way to avoid becoming what he saw. This weekend, Kelly will return to the dirt roads in the Florida panhandle, and the kids at his camp will be able to see someone they can aspire to be.