As a senior at Berea High in 1995, Jermale Kelly was not entirely sure what it meant to be Mr. Football, but he did not think he was it.
“I didn’t know the award existed, I didn’t know what it was about, my coach just told me it was something that was going to take place at the end of the season. I didn’t think about it,” Kelly said. “With the guys that were nominated with me — Antwon Black, Courtney Brown, Shaun Ellis, Justin Hill — I certainly didn’t think I was going to win.”
“I had no idea how big it was going to be,” Kelly said. “It was just something tremendous. Words can’t even explain how all of us felt, just to be nominated. To be thought of as one of the great players in the state.”
Kelly went on to play in the Shrine Bowl along with several of his fellow finalists. At South Carolina, he etched himself into school lore as the receiver who caught Erik Kimrey’s renowned “Fade” pass. He then went on to play in NFL Europe.
Now, in addition to working as a marketing representative for a corporate relocation service, Kelly is the wide receivers coach and co-offensive coordinator for the Southside Tigers.
“As I get older, now I see what this accomplishment really means, and it’s really a special accomplishment that I achieved,” Kelly said. “It’s about being a student-athlete. It’s just not about being a great athlete.”
Kelly remarked on the significance of the past four Mr. Football winners — Stephon Gilmore, Jadeveon Clowney, Marcus Lattimore and Shaq Roland — attending his alma mater.
“It’s a great accomplishment that we keep those athletes in state. Marcus Lattimore, we all know what type of guy he is, and those other guys, we haven’t seen anything negative about them,” he said.
“I’m glad the board is choosing these types of young men.”
Dutiful, respectful, humble, intelligent young men, Kelly is proud to have been among the first in their number.
Though many of the young men have been described by the same words, Kelly said there is no fraternity of former Mr. Football winners. Although he has followed several of the recent winners, especially three who are now with the Gamecocks, Kelly has not met any of his successors.
“I’ve never even been invited to come back to the Mr. Football (ceremony), which seems kind of strange,” he said.
But, as a football coach and father of a high school senior, Kelly is not short on advice for this year’s finalists.
“Work as hard as you can work, always be a student before an athlete, and even if you’re fortunate enough to make it (in football), make sure you get your degree. Get that education,” he said. “We try to instill that in all of our kids on my team now, not to quit in anything they try, the sky is the limit.”