Three years ago, Johnny Kelly ’03 lined up across from Wesleyan’s star wide receiver Matt Perceval. Kelly, a first-year seeing serious playing time for the first time in college, was completely overmatched. In the first 20 minutes of play, Perceval had scored three consecutive touchdowns – he would end the day with four and 162 yards receiving. Wesleyan won the game 33-28.
Looking back, Kelly admits he was intimidated by Perceval, who still holds the NESCAC record for receptions and yards receiving in a season with 77 and 1,137, respectively. “I played really soft and they used that against me,” Kelly said. “As a cornerback, if you [question whether you can keep up with a receiver], you’re beat before the play starts. The only time I’ve been beat was freshman year, and I know those two things are related.”
Nowadays, it’s pretty much a given that the opposing receiver Kelly’s lined up against is in for a long day. Since that freshman campaign, he has 11 interceptions to his credit to go along with 48 passes defended. Lining up each week against the NESCAC’s top receivers, Kelly has consistently shut each of them down.
Kelly’s dominance over the last three seasons can only be matched by the efforts of the team itself, which has posted a record of 20-3 â€“ an impressive .870 winning percentage. This dominance was best on display Saturday when the Ephs overpowered a Wesleyan team that had come into the day 5-1 on the season.
While the 41-7 score might have been shocking to those watching the game from the stands, Kelly said the team was not all that surprised. “We were a little suspicious that something like that could happen because we knew we hadn’t played our best game all year,” he said. “We knew if we came out and played our best game offensively, defensively and on special teams, we could do something like that.”
All the Ephs’ success this season â€“ and at 7-0 they have already clinched the 2002 NESCAC crown â€“ would be for naught, however, without the final piece of the puzzle: a win against Amherst this weekend.
Indeed, this week’s game will have added meaning (if that is possible for a game already billed each year as the “biggest little game in America”) as it is the Ephs’ first chance to get back at Amherst on their field for a loss suffered in 2000.
That game, a 20-12 victory for the Lord Jeffs, was the culmination of a disappointing â€“ by Williams standards â€“ 5-3 campaign. Kelly said the taste that game left in the team’s mouth is one that will never be forgotten.
“One of the biggest things was seeing not just how much it affected our team, but seeing how much it affected the senior class,” he said. “Seeing how it affected someone who’s 80 years old and graduated 60 years ago, really put it all in perspective.”
Kelly said there is no way this year’s seniors are going to allow themselves regret this weekend’s game. “I haven’t even played that scenario through my head because it’s so unthinkable,” he said.
You’ll also have to forgive Kelly if the Williams-Amherst rivalry means a little bit more to him â€“ his sister, after all, is a sophomore at Amherst and a member of their field hockey team. With Williams and Amherst squaring off last Sunday in the first round of the NESCAC tournament, Kelly admitted to having mixed feelings.
Despite giving the first “Let’s Go ’Herst” cheer of his life (a joke, he insists), Kelly said there was no doubt as to who he was rooting for. “I wanted my sister to have a great game, but I’ve never wanted to see the Lord Jeffs beat the Ephs,” he said.
In addition to his dominance on the defensive side of the ball, Kelly has seen his playing time increase this year as he’s taken snaps on the offensive side of the ball due to early-season injuries to the team’s receiving corps.
On the season, he has eight receptions for 111 yards and a touchdown. While he’s hauled in a number of crucial catches for the Ephs this year, playing both sides of the ball often takes its toll on him by the end of a game. “There were a couple of games where I was just exhausted,” Kelly said. “I was trying to think back to high school and wondering if I was just in better shape.”
Kelly’s also been paired with Scott Farley ’03 on the punt return team â€“ a facet of the game that has been dismal for the Ephs this year. Due primarily to their defensive dominance, the Ephs have received a remarkable 36 punts, but have done very little with them â€“ averaging a paltry 5.8 yards per return.
Kelly said the job of a punt returner in the NESCAC is complicated because it’s difficult to judge ahead of time where a punt will go. “Punters in this league are so inconsistent and erratic that one punt could go 20 yards and the next 50,” he said. “One could spray right; the next, left.”
Despite the team’s special team struggles, its defense that wins games and that’s where Kelly excels. For a long time, however, it appeared Kelly would end up playing football at Princeton â€“ where he applied early decision â€“ and not Williams. After being deferred by Princeton, Kelly started looking at smaller schools like Amherst and Williams.
Upon visiting Williams, Kelly realized this was the place for him. “There’s something here that you can’t put in words, a mystique or something â€“ it’s just incredible,” he said.
Some would argue the Williams mystique is the primary reason why Amherst has beaten Williams only once since 1986. This Saturday, Kelly and the rest of the Ephs will look to add to that mystique by exorcising the demons of that 2000 loss.