In My Place

Once a High School Football Star, Seamus Kelly Now Thrives on The Rugby Field

Summer Dunsmore/Staff

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Seamus Kelly is being interviewed after the Cal rugby team decimated Stanford, 74-0, a few weeks ago. Asked about his two tries in the first half, the sophomore instead comments on the team's lackluster performance in the second.

"Seamus, quit being so cocky. Be humble for a change," former roommate Brendan Daly hollers from a couple yards away.

Kelly chuckles and continues. When asked more directly about his tries, he again deflects attention.

"Blaine (Scully) made a great run, sucked in tons of defenders, put me through," Kelly says. "I'd say that was a full team try."

The questions, the answers, the heckling from teammates - it's like a flashback to scenes from just over two years ago, but in a different sport on a different coast.

Kelly had been a highly touted running back for Xavier High School in Manhattan, N.Y. He attracted greater attention when he amassed seven touchdowns and 488 all-purpose yards - on 11 touches. That may have been a year's worth of statistics for most. For Kelly, it was all in a day's work.

All of a sudden, the press began swarming around him, looking for a self-glorifying quote. He might have had every reason to give one, but they were talking to the wrong guy. And he still doesn't want to talk about it much.

"I don't even look to that game as one of my better games in high school," Kelly says. "It was so much a part of a team effort, the offensive lineman. All I had to do was run."

The tailback from a Queens neighborhood called Breezy Point was awarded ESPN's East Regional player of the week and branded by the local media as "Famous Seamus."

But this overnight celebrity would not make his name on the football field.

While he did garner some offers to play Division I-AA football, the fit just wasn't right, the opportunities too limited. He decided to hang up the pads, but hang on to the mouth guard and the sheer toughness to join coach Jack Clark's legendary battalion, due in large part to its resemblance to the football program he wanted but couldn't have.

"The only rugby program I thought of was Cal because they're the only program that treats it like a Division I football program, where it's all year round, it's a lot of structure," Kelly says.

While he could have been going through spring camp for football last year, Kelly was instead reaching the collegiate pinnacle of his sport.

Though his seven-touchdown day may have looked like the best sporting moment of his life, he reserves that distinction for the Bears' national title game. A year removed from a loss to BYU on the same stage, Cal reclaimed its crown in a hard-fought match.

He had won titles in football before, but Kelly says nothing compares to the satisfaction of winning that title - and he didn't even play in the final game.

It was likely the last championship in which he'll patrol the sidelines. Now as a sophomore, Kelly has earned his place among the starting fifteen, and Clark has given him the distinction of "both the current and future of our team."

Coming to Cal wasn't about the glory of potentially making it big on collegiate rugby's biggest stage. It would offer him some reprieve from the frenzy around him - he received much more attention as a football player than as a rugby player in high school, though he was a four-year starter, and a captain and MVP his senior year.

It was about the journey rugby could take him on, and the professional opportunities - both on and off the pitch - it would afford him. Even if it would cost him out-of-state tuition and take him thousands of miles away from home, coming to Cal would greatly increase his opportunity to continue playing after graduation and equip him for the working world.

"I figured getting a degree from this school and graduating from here with the alumni network from rugby and the school itself would be more beneficial to paying off loans," Kelly says.

Despite all of these more personal benefits, Kelly's real aim was to contribute to something greater than himself. The center may not like to talk about his own accomplishments, but he readily discusses those of his team.

And he is even more comfortable talking about his country.

A boy that went to high school about two miles from Ground Zero and saw kids he knew grieve the loss of their parents on Sept. 11, Kelly has a deep attachment to America and a desire to serve his nation in one capacity or another. He swelled with pride when he donned the red, white and blue as a member of the U-17 national team in high school and now as a member of the U-20 team.

"Singing the national anthem before a game is something that really sticks with me," Kelly says. "I guess that was definitely a big part (of my decision to choose rugby over football) - the opportunity to represent my country."

Kelly certainly isn't shy about his patriotism, as his Cal teammates have come to know. He seems to revel in it even more given the highly international flavor of the rugby team.

"He definitely, definitely loves America," says senior James Bailes, a native of South Africa and a mentor to Kelly. "I think it just comes in almost everything he does. He always likes to do the right thing."

Americans may be stereotypically known for their arrogance, but Kelly dispels that notion. September 11 not only stirred his national pride, but instilled in him a desire to better understand the Middle East. Despite his concern about his ability to pick up languages, the political economy major is planning on studying Arabic or Farsi.

A yearning to learn carries over onto the pitch too. Kelly calls Bailes the best rugby mind on the team, and constantly asks questions to try to absorb as much from him as he can.

If his freshman campaign is any indication, Kelly may soon be known on the team as having the best head for the sport. He already earned Clark's title as one of the top incoming freshmen in the program's history, according to Bailes. In his first start last year, nerves wracked his stomach to the point where they needed to be expelled come halftime, but you would've never known by his performance - the freshman earned a hat trick against Stanford and his coach's trust to play in big games.

But unlike in high school, there wasn't one day that defined his season.

"He was good every time out, really," Clark says. "I don't know if there was any one game that we saw as his breakout He never put a foot wrong."

Kelly may emerge as one of the Bears' best players in the program's illustrious history. But you won't hear it from him.


Christina Jones covers rugby. Contact her at [email protected]

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