Helmet in hand and walking with a slight limp out of the locker room Friday night, Fulton senior running back Jordan Kelley sported a pair of red, teary eyes and a contradicting smile on his face.
In his last game played at Robert E. Fisher Stadium and just minutes removed from the Hornets' 49-0 victory over the Missouri Military Academy Colonels in a Class 3, District 6 matchup, Kelley had a hard time summing up his sometimes saddening, mostly maddening senior season.
"Can I sum it up with a phrase?" Jordan Kelley asked. "We never gave up. We always kept fighting .... ."
But in the middle of that sentence a word finally came to Kelley. And if you looked at the Hornets' 0-9 record coming into their season finale, you'd surely be confused. But let him explain.
"Special. He (his father, Fulton head coach Pat Kelley) told us before the first game that he felt we'd be special," Jordan Kelley said. "We stuck together and we pulled it out in the end."
Pat Kelley had the same red eyes as his son when he emerged from the same locker room just seconds later. It's nothing new for him, though. Graduating seniors is a yearly task for Kelley, wrapping up his 14th year at the helm of the Fulton program.
"It gets him every senior class, obviously, but it's a little more special when his son plays," Jordan Kelley said. "I think he feels more bad with how things went this year with me being hurt, and for all of us since we worked so hard all year."
Anyone needing proof of just how tough of a season it has been for the Hornets should look no further than Jordan Kelley. A fixture on both sides of the ball and the team's starting punter, he suffered a high ankle sprain in the Hornets' 42-0 loss at Boonville in the second game of the season.
From that point on, father and son took extra caution in determining when the younger Kelley should return to the field. High ankle sprains are slow in healing when compared to most injuries.
Pat Kelley noted most weeks that bringing Jordan back would mean that if he re-injured his ankle, losing him for the rest of the season would become more and more likely. Injuries come and go on a football team, but when the bumps and bruise are closer to home, it wears on you even more.
"I don't want to single him out, but these kids lift all spring and winter and come in for workouts and camps and 7-on-7, and then we come in for two-a-days and you feel like you're ready to go," Pat Kelley said. "When that gets taken away from you it's tough, and I hate it for any player, but I'd be lying if I said it wasn't tougher when it's your son."
So the father had to feel good when he saw his son step in front of a pass from MMA senior quarterback Derek Kantorski and take it back 20 yards to the Colonels' red zone in the first quarter. And you know both of them let out a sigh of relief when Jordan Kelley lined up and took two fullback dives - the play that injured him in the first place - for a total of 23 yards, and he came up no worse for the wear.
"For him, I'm glad because there's been a lot of tears at home and it has been tough," Pat Kelley said. "He's been good about it at practice and he's been there every day, whether he could practice or not.
"... You can even tell (Friday night) that he was hobbling and he probably would have scored (on the interception) if he were healthy."
Jordan Kelley and most of the senior class set up shop on Fulton's sideline late in the second quarter with the Hornets comfortably ahead 35-0. It was an interesting change of pace for Fulton, which had given up 40 points or more seven times this season, including a season-high 50 last week at Southern Boone.
A young team by all accounts, the Hornets struggled out of the gates, losing their first three games by a combined score of 128-0.
"I told them that if there was a team in the state of Missouri that deserved to win (Friday night), it's them," Pat Kelley said. "It'd be great to have a few more games, but that's just not possible."
So ends an uneven season, one in which the father reiterates that it's far from the worst he's ever had. Pat Kelley, his coaching staff and the returning Hornets get a chance to rectify themselves next August.
For his son, this is it. Sure, he wept. But it was a good one.
"I'm crying obviously, but it's a joyful sadness," Jordan Kelley said. "We wanted to go out with a win and we did, and it beats going out with a loss, but we're just sad it's over."Â