eschickler@bcnnew.com

Matt Kelly was chosen on Sunday as the Connecticut High School Coaches Association Player of the Year at the All-State banquet. Kelly, a senior for the Staples football team, earned this honor by rushing for 1,232 yards and 16 touchdowns on 132 carries.

"I was definitely surprised and I didn't expect to get it because there were a lot of good people who could have got it but I'm very happy to get it," says Kelly.

He also earned First Team All-FCIAC and First Team All-State honors and felt both selections were very rewarding because the FCIAC and state have great players. Staples won the FCIAC title and was the Class LL runnerup this year with Kelly playing a huge role in this run.

"Matt Kelly is a tremendous football player whenever we needed a spark, he'd give it to us," says Wreckers Coach Marce Petroccio. "What made Matt so great was his tremendous leadership and his mental and physical toughness. He always put the team first. All his awards are well deserved."

He was "Mr. Clutch" down the stretch for Staples and many believe without his efforts in the regular season finale against Greenwich and in the Class LL semifinals against Xavier, the Wreckers would have lost both games, which would have ended their season at those juncture. He rushed for 180 yards on 21 carries in the 30-28 win over Greenwich and 231 yards on 25 carries in the 31-28 victory over Xavier.

"It came from the support of my teammates, especially the captains and other seniors and I wouldn't have done it without them," says Kelly. "I knew the stakes and I really hated to lose, so I did what I could to make sure we had the right outcome."

His contributions weren't limited to carrying the football. He also returned 11 kickoffs for 296 yards, 21 punts for 444 yards and caught 12 passes for 176 yards.

This was his first year as the varsity starting tailback and adjusting to the position wasn't a problem for him.

"I had a shot to prove to myself I could do it," said Kelly. "I don't know how I did it but I saw where to cut and I learned a lot from Jimmy Hughes [Staples '04, University of Rhode Island, '09]. He was my mentor and I looked up to him."

Although he was a tailback by trade since he first put on a helmet and shoulder pads, he didn't have a single carry junior year. He had four catches for 99 yards in his limited role on offense.

"I don't care about playing time," says Kelly. "As long as we win, that's all that matters."

Junior year, he started at cornerback and was All-FCIAC Honorable Mention with two interceptions and six passes broken up.

"It was a great honor to get Honorable Mention as a junior but I wasn't happy because we lost five games [and didn't make States]," says Kelly. "It was a lot of fun and exciting to play in my first varsity season."

Opposing quarterbacks were afraid to throw in his vicinity senior year because he usually kept the receiver at bay. When the ball was thrown his way, he had one interception while breaking up seven passes.

"Working hard and listening to the coaches was key," says Kelly. "They taught me everything I know about playing cornerback. Watching a lot of film also helped a lot but a lot of it is practice and footwork."

Hitting is one of the strengths of the 6-0, 170-pound Kelly.

"I guess I got it from youth football," says Kelly. "I'm not afraid to hit anyone bigger or stronger than me. I don't go in scared."

Life on the gridiron began for him in third grade when his parents signed him up for it. His friends also began to play and he figured to give it a shot and is glad he did.

He was a tailback from the start and played there most of his career.

"I thought it would be the most fun because I'd get the ball," says Kelly.

Even though he was never elected captain, many people want to be like him.

"He's a great role model and I look up to him a lot," says his brother Nick Kelly, a Staples freshman.

In addition to football, he began playing lacrosse in fifth grade and his athleticism helped contribute to the Wreckers when he got to high school. However, his lacrosse career is over because he had shoulder surgery this month and is focused on playing football. He played recreational basketball up until this year and one year of Little League baseball when he was younger but realized baseball wasn't for him.

Next year, he hopes to play for either Catholic University or Ithaca College and major in sports management. He hopes to work in the front office of an NFL or an NBA team after graduation from college. In order to thrive in a collegiate backfield, he knows he'll have to be bigger, faster and stronger.

"I have to get my shoulder in shape," says Kelly. "Lifting and running will help."

Petroccio says, "Whichever college gets him gets a very good football player."