Resilience and competitiveness define Kelly’s career as Owl
Sam Tapper – Sports Writer
Every collegiate athlete’s journey is different. From the sport they play to where they are from, they all have a story. For track star Justin Kelly, a senior, his story is about resiliency and perseverance.
Kelly is originally from Brooklyn, N.Y. where he lived with his parents and his twin brother, Quentin Kelly, both attending high school in Queens before his family picked up and moved to the north end of Hartford. Growing up, Kelly said there was a fair amount of change in his life.
“I used to get reprimanded a lot because I used to do things a lot of people liked to do like go out, talk back, be bad and stuff like that,” Kelly said. “But my parents weren’t trying to have that and I think that’s what molded me to be a pretty good kid — someone that’s just respectful. I know how to talk to people and I know how to not rub people the wrong way. I feel like some people weren’t raised like that.”
As a kid, Kelly was very involved in sports. He participated in volleyball, football, soccer and basketball — not track. Once he moved to Connecticut and started attending Classical Magnet, basketball had taken control as the top sport in his life. It was not until after one of his basketball games his junior year that he made the impulse decision to join the high school track team.
“Honestly, track started for me because I was at a basketball game and the track team was about to have a tryout. They just saw me run up and down the court,” he said. “They were all like ‘Justin swears he’s so fast, you should come tryout for the track team’ and I said, ‘you know what, that’s exactly what I’m going to do.’ And the second I came on I started calling myself elite.”
Once his track career got underway, he was able to contribute with the help of his speed and agility. His senior year, he and his teammates won the conference and state championship for the 4×400 relay — Classical’s first ever state title for track and field. Kelly is also the conference record holder for the 4×400 relay and was the recipient of the Most Improved Player award and the Legend award.
Though Kelly’s high school career was successful by his standards, he never really thought that track would be the college sport he chose. His recruitment process was atypical, according to Owls’ head coach John Wallin, as they did not come into contact until June of Kelly’s senior year, and he was far from ready when he came in as a freshman.
“He was a mediocre athlete at best when he got here physically, and over time I started to realize that once his body caught up with his brain that he was going to be pretty good,” said Wallin. “And that’s what’s happened the last five years. His body has started to develop; he’s very young physically, so he started to climb athletically.”
On the recruiting trail, Wallin noted that Kelly did not blow him away based off of sheer talent, but his mental toughness might have. He said he always saw how competitive he was — it was all a matter of Kelly’s body developing at a rate where we would be able to contribute and compete.
“He just needed to catch up physically,” Wallin said. “So now that his body has caught up to his brain a little bit, we’re starting to see the real man version of Justin Kelly, whereas before when he first got here, he was a little boy.”
Over time at Southern, Kelly has been a key contributor for one of the top track and field programs in the country at the Division II level. He has been a mainstay for them on meet days, won numerous conference championships for both indoor and outdoor and has even come just shy of breaking all-time program records here. Though his career is drawing to a close, he says his track story is one he can always look back positively on.
“I’m going to look back on my Southern track career as inspirational,” Kelly said. “I’ve just been through it all; I’ve been ineligible, I’ve been hurt, and I’ve always just come back.”
The impact Kelly has made has also rubbed off on his teammates. Though they all still have more business to take care of this year, the underclassmen know their time with him is short. The thing they will miss most, they say, is his balance of fun and seriousness.
“Coming into practice every day, he’ll definitely hype you up and get you ready to workout. [Kelly] definitely brings a lot of energy,” said Terrell Patterson, a junior. “I feel like that’s the relationship a lot of people have with Justin. He’s going to make you laugh but at the same time he’s going to keep you serious and hold you accountable.”
Kelly said he was grateful for the opportunity he has had at Southern, adding that if he had never moved to Connecticut he probably would not have been in college, let alone ever started doing track. As he prepares to close out his career, aside from winning, he has just one goal left to achieve.
“My best way to leave right now is to be an All-American, just be somebody that other people can try to be like. Whether it’s through my animosity, my drive or just my resilience,” Kelly said, “if you put your mind to it and put in enough effort and work, there’s no doubt that you can do whatever you want.”
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