Matt Kelly’s freshman year roommate at Virginia was Max Pomper, a pairing of two football-crazy guys who happened to double as crucial recruits for the Cavaliers’ nationally ranked lacrosse team.
Their discussions would often lead to the perfect situation - the chance to play football again once their lacrosse careers were through.
“I think we followed the football team more than other people did just because of that,” Kelly said. “Going to the games has been interesting, getting to know guys over the last couple years. While you’re watching, you’re thinking, ‘Can I do that? Can I be a part of that?’ ”
Kelly’s about to find out just what he was missing.
Virginia opens camp Thursday, and determining a starting quarterback from among Vic Hall, Jameel Sewell and Marc Verica, and the process of replacing three starting linebackers, will be among the Cavaliers’ priorities coming off a 5-7 season.
Yet Kelly will be there, too, as a walk-on, attempting to etch a niche for himself on special teams more than four years since he last played the sport.
“He recognizes the challenges before him to do it, but we’re very intrigued to see,” coach Al Groh said last month. “We’ll probably give him his initial shot on special teams. There’s a little less in terms of assignments to do there. We’ll see how it goes.
“There’s no way to predict it, but we’re glad he’s out there.”
So is Kelly, a star running back and safety in high school who ran for 1,850 yards and 29 touchdowns as a senior. Baseball was another passion, but a separated shoulder suffered in a football game limited his throwing ability and led him to pursue lacrosse.
He caught the attention of Virginia lacrosse coach Dom Starsia, who often pursues athletic high school football stars and finds a place for them in the Cavaliers’ system. Kelly is the prototype - he started 67 games the last four years, the most ever for a Virginia defenseman.
Of course, there were always thoughts that he could have walked on at a Big Ten school, such as Indiana, Illinois or Purdue. So Kelly approached Starsia last fall to discuss the possibility of using his fifth year of eligibility to play the sport, and Starsia said he’d call some smaller schools.
When they discussed it again in the spring, Kelly surprised him with his hope to remain at Virginia rather than playing a prominent role at a lower level. Soon, he was knocking on Groh’s door.
“It’s probably that his parents’ graduation present is allowing him to spend the fall of his fifth year doing this,” said Starsia, who had several other players - notably Patrick Kerney - play football as well. “For Matt, it will probably leave the piece not quite so unfilled. It won’t be ‘what could that have been like?’ ”
Kelly’s already experienced an eye-opening summer. After spending a week decompressing from the Cavaliers’ loss in the lacrosse final four, he returned to Charlottesville to participate in early-morning summer workouts.
Those were never an issue with lacrosse, a spring sport without quite so punishing a regimen. But Kelly, who has added 10 pounds this summer, soon embraced it as part of a sport he’d missed for years - even if it wasn’t easy.