Jackson Christian quarterback Austin Kelley is off to a solid start for the Eagles.
In the Eagles’ two wins, he’s completed 29 of 40 passes for 518 yards and seven touchdowns with one interception. He also carried the ball one time for a touchdown last week.
“This team is full of guys that are good at doing their job,” Kelley said. “And I get to be the one throwing the ball to them.
“That’s one thing we talk a lot about in the locker room is everybody doing their job on every play and trusting each other to do their job. When we’re each taking care of what we’re supposed to do on each play, then good things should happen.”
Good things are happening, but Kelley came dangerously close this past spring to not being involved in football at all.
On May 5, Kelley – who also plays on Jackson Christian’s baseball team – was preparing for a region tournament game against Trinity Christian. He was set to pitch that day. As he was looking down at his bat just outside the batting cage while one of his teammates was taking batting practice, Kelley became a victim of a fluke.
“I remember sitting there looking down at my bat sitting on a bucket and starting to stand up,” Kelley said. “And I started to stand up and look up at the batting cage, and then in a split second a white blur came toward me and got bigger and bigger. I didn’t have time to react.”
The pitching machine in the batting cage was set to throw the ball at more than 90 miles per hour, and the player in the batting cage made contact, but it wasn’t a direct hit. The ball fouled off and made its way through a thin opening in the wall of the cage and headed directly toward Kelley’s face.
Since he was standing less than 15 feet away from the batter, and the ball leaves the bat traveling at the same velocity it was traveling when the bat makes contact, the ball hit Kelley just under his right eye going at least 90 miles an hour.
“It all happened so fast that I didn’t have time to see where it was coming from,” said Kelley, who never lost consciousness. “I hit the ground and jumped right back up and said, ‘I’m OK. I’m OK.’”
Some of his teammates and coaches who were nearby immediately got to him to check on him.
“I was running on adrenaline and wasn’t feeling any pain, and I guess it was swelling up pretty quickly, but I couldn’t see it,” Kelley said. “We got me to the dugout, and I was still telling them, ‘I’m OK. I’m pitching tonight.’”
In addition to feeling no pain, there was no outward bleeding. But Kelley’s mother, Autumn wasn’t taking any chances.
“My mom works at the hospital, and she was helping in the concession stand when it happened,” Kelley said. “They got her to me quickly, and she got me to the emergency room pretty quickly.”
Austin had suffered 13 bone fractures on the right side of his face around his eye. The damage and placement of the injury required treatment that’s not available in Jackson, so he was put in an ambulance for Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital in Memphis, with Kelley still not feeling any pain.
He stayed distracted by watching the game on his phone in the emergency room between consultations and examinations from medical personnel and looking for tendencies.
“I remember he called me during the game so I could relay some stuff he’d seen while watching,” said Jackson Christian football coach Darby Palmer, who’d been called to the incident from the football field when it happened.
But while he was watching baseball and scouting for his teammates, the situation was more serious than he would know until sometime later.
“My parents told me later that the doctors were afraid with all the broken bones around my eye that if I moved the wrong way my eyeball would fall out of the socket,” Kelley said.
Kelley was carefully transported to Le Bonheur, and specialists examined him there. His eyeball had turned red from being bloodshot. But there was no structural damage past the broken bones.
“It’s truly a miracle that he didn’t have damage to his optic nerve or have a detached retina,” said his parents, Adam and Autumn.
“The way it was told to me, to take the hit he took and the damage and everything, it’s pretty much a medical marvel that nothing was damaged inside or outside his eye,” Palmer said.
Austin took a pain pill that night when the adrenaline and shock wore off, and he took another half a pill the next day. But after that, he said he didn’t take anymore pain medication.
When he saw a specialist the next week in Jackson, x-rays showed then bones were already ahead of schedule in healing. But the initial prognosis wasn’t one he wanted to hear.
“They told me then that it would be six months before I could play baseball or football again, and I wasn’t having that,” Kelley said.
He plays travel ball and was preparing to be on a good team that won a lot of games throughout the month of June, but he didn’t get to play. He didn’t get to practice football or work out in June. When he did watch the team work in June, he had to stay in the press box with the air conditioning on.
“I couldn’t get hot or do anything that would raise my blood pressure,” Kelley said. “Because until the bones around my eye healed and were strong enough to keep it in place, it was a legit concern that my eye could fall out.
“When I sneezed, my mom told me to keep my eye closed. I felt like I looked weird whenever I sneezed because of that.”
Kelley’s healing was significantly ahead of schedule. So much so that he returned to limited football activity in July when the team returned from dead period. He couldn’t take contact at all in preseason and wouldn’t until the opening game against Northpoint Christian in Week 1.
It was during preseason camp that he earned a couple of nicknames.
“I had to wear a protective mask that made me look like a bird, so they called me ‘Angry Bird,’” Kelley said laughing. “And I had to wear the yellow no contact jersey all the time, so everybody was calling me ‘Mustard.’”
But he was OK with the good-natured ridicule from his teammates because a lot of them stayed in constant contact with him while he was away from the team.
“Austin received many phone calls, texts and visits from students, coaches and faculty from JCS,” his parents said. “Our family also got cards in the mail and was contacted by other schools and students praying for Austin.
“We are so thankful for everyone that had Austin in their thoughts and prayers.”
Palmer and the rest of the Eagles coaching staff – and everyone else associated with the program – were cautiously optimistic about him being able to play against Northpoint.
“They were going to have to keep me from going out there,” Kelley said.
Then gameday came, and it was time to play.
It didn’t take long for the Northpoint defense to get into the backfield and put pressure on Kelley. He made a read, waiting for the receiver to get downfield and made the throw as the defense got to him.
“I wasn’t really nervous going in because I felt good, and I’d stayed with my recovery schedule and trusted my body to heal,” Kelley said. “I feel like I would’ve been OK weeks before that game if I’d gotten hit, so at that point, I was just playing football and taking a hit.
“But I also trust my line to protect me, and they’ve done a good job of that too. I’m blessed with good blocking, but I was really blessed that day that situation wasn’t a lot worse than it could’ve been.”
Kelley says he feels great and normal now.
“I’m playing and taking hits and exerting myself with no problems,” Kelley said. “I’m set to get back to pitching here in a couple weeks, and I’m looking forward to doing that too.”
Palmer said watching Kelley go through the ordeal has shown him more about the passer than he already knew.
“I knew Austin was a competitor who loves to get out on the field and get after it, no matter the sport,” Palmer said. “And when he told me they’d said no football for six months [which would’ve put him not getting on the field until November], he had a look in his eye that said, ‘Watch me.’
“And that’s how he is with any challenge. He’s a great teammate to have in our program, and I was proud of how the rest of the team rallied around him all summer.”
Kelley and the Eagles travel to Goodpasture Friday.
Brandon Shields, email@example.com