Looking ahead to this year’s Touchdown Dinner celebration, uOttawa is pleased to profile each of its new Football Hall of Fame Inductees. One of just six players in Gee-Gees history to be named to the All-Canadian team three times, Kevin Kelly was the centre on the 2006 Yates Cup Championship team and continues to provide leadership and mentoring in his current capacity as high school teacher and coach.
The Touchdown Dinner returns to the Château Laurier on Saturday, April 29 to honour the accomplishments of Kelly and fellow Ottawa area All-Canadian inductees Gord Weber and Lukas Shaver. Registration is now closed with over 200 people attending the annual celebration.
Kevin Kelly threatens to stand at the microphone and talk for hours. His connections to the Gee-Gees span across two decades as a fan, player, assistant coach, and active alumnus so it would not be unreasonable – he has seen almost every side of the program and now becomes the second youngest member of the Hall of Fame.
To be recognized three times as an All-Canadian speaks to a certain level of consistency – a steady and unwavering commitment to football as a craft. What’s more remarkable for Kelly is the way in which he first arrived on that list in 2005.
Growing up in the west end of Ottawa, Kevin played midget football with and against many of his future Gee-Gees team mates. But for the offensive lineman who admits to a certain amount of bashfulness, it took a chance encounter at Tabaret Hall to get him into the Garnet and Grey uniform. Kelly was already enrolled at uOttawa and was essentially asked to walk-on to tryouts in 2003.
It was a large recruiting class in 2003 for Denis Piché. “It was the end of the 2000 era,” says Kelly, who had followed the Vanier Cup winning squad as a fan after attending the Gee-Gees summer camp and remembers Phil Cote’s cutout in every sports bar in town. “They were rock stars to us and heroes to the city and I felt a big connection to them because of the camp and because a lot of them came from the city.”
“2003 was the changeover,” he continues. “Coach Piché had some tough decisions but he made it clear it was our time now. We had to carve our own identity.”
There was one link that passed on however – the concept of Kaizen that inspired both groups towards continual improvement. In 2005 when Kelly, along with corner back Anthony Plante-Ajah, was named a second team All-Canadian it was a sign of the team’s progress. By 2007, the team would have eight members on the All-Canadian team.
The 2005 season almost saw Kelly starting at guard. After spending the off-season preparing for the position change, some last minute shuffling set up a three-year span of dominance at centre. “It felt really strange to not have the ball in my hand,” remembers Kelly of the guard experiment.
In 2006 Kelly vividly remembers several moments of his All-Canadian selection, starting with learning that he was a first team All-Canadian. He found out while he was still on the field after the Mitchell Bowl. Somehow Saskatchewan had escaped Frank Clair Stadium with a 35-27 victory, despite Ottawa’s offence racking up 478 net yards – more than 200 more than the Huskies. When he attended the banquet in Regina, an event volunteer recognized him as a Gee-Gee and said,” Oh my gosh you should be playing here,” meaning in the Vanier.
“Knowing how close we came there was a bitter taste for sure. But there was a level of respect for our team. People recognized how hard our team fought and how close it really was,” says Kelly.
The next season, Ottawa rolled through the regular season undefeated and with an average of 39 points per game. The Yates Cup favourites were stopped in their tracks in the OUA semifinal. Kelly remembers feeling proud despite the result.
“When I took the helmet off we could see where we came from [3-6 in 2003] and know that the hard work we put in was worth it. To go undefeated in the regular season – we were in pretty good company in Gee-Gees history.”
Peter Hogarth, who joined Ottawa in 2006 after four seasons at McMaster speaks to the opponents’ view of Kelly on the line of scrimmage. “It was just understood by teams across the OUA that he was undoubtedly the best centre we would face and a team leader who could help coordinate his offence against any defensive front we would throw at him.”
“His ability to diagnose defensive fronts and plays combined with his physical dominance on the field were unrivalled,” adds Jethro Constant, a member of the Gee-Gees defensive line from 2002-2007.
More than that, Kelly is remembered as a true team mate. “Kevin went out of his way to welcome me to the team and help build a cohesive offensive line that would go on to absolutely roll over every defence in the OUA,” notes Hogarth. “He is the epitome of what it means to be a Gee-Gees football player.”
“Kevin was an intelligent player, a leader on and off the field, and a tremendous captain for this football program. I consider myself fortunate to have played alongside him for our entire university careers,” says David Crane, a three-time OUA All-Star at receiver.
Kelly attended the CFL combine twice and tested well in 2008 which earned him some talks but nothing more. “I never had the mindset that I would chase it forever,” he says, and was ready to start up his new passion of teaching and coaching. While studying towards his Master’s in Education at uOttawa, he joined the Gee-Gees coaching staff.
“Right away I realized the depth that the coaching staff went to in order to prepare each week. It was intense and something as a player you can’t comprehend. All credit goes to coach Piché for the work that he did.”
Coaching the Gee-Gees in 2009, Kelly remembers a night game against Guelph. It was Brad Sinopoli’s first season as the starting quarterback. “The play call was to give it or keep it and he took off with it. All of a sudden you could see what a special player he was.”
Kelly has since guided the St. Joseph’s senior varsity team to the City Championship and coaches with the Ontario East team at the Fox 40 Prospect Challenge. He has coached offensive tackle prospect Zack Pelehos who just signed with the Gee-Gees.
“He has so much potential and it’s exciting to see players like him follow in your footsteps. I hope he has the same great experience I had and I hope that he gets to go all the way and win the Vanier Cup.”
All of these slices of Gee-Gees life will converge again on Saturday night for his induction. Kelly remembers taking his team mates to buy their first suits in order to attend the Touchdown Dinner.
“The Touchdown Dinner really shows the generations of players and how much passion that everyone still has for the team. For five years you are the show. For the rest of your life, you’re an alum. I’m happy to think I’m breaking the Hall of Fame ice for our era.”