West alum Jeremy Kelley signs with CFL’s Tiger-Cats
Jeremy Kelley has always been a football player. The difference now is that the 2006 West Seneca West graduate gets to pull on a professional jersey and play in front of almost 30,000 fans.
Kelley has taken his skills north of the border after signing a one-year contract to play with the Canadian Football League’s Hamilton Tiger-Cats, after playing four years at Division I-AA University at Maine — where he had 13 catches for 148 yards and one touchdown in his career.
“My mind set has always been that I’ve expected to make it,” said Kelley. “I didn’t have the greatest career at Maine offensively, but I still expected to make it. If you believe in something that strongly then it will happen, and sure enough it did. I’m playing professional football right now. It’s not the NFL, but it’s still professional football.”
Kelley is currently on the practice roster — as of press time — as he gets acclimated to learning Hamilton’s offensive system and playbook. He said that he picked up the playbook quickly and that gives him a better chance at being promoted to the active roster faster.
“I’ve been doing nothing but studying my playbook; I basically picked it up within four days,” Kelley said with a chuckle. “I think I’ve definitely turned some heads with the coaches. They have realized that I have some football savvy and I’m a smart football player, and I pick up on things quickly. I think I’ve done everything I can to accelerate that process.”
With the way that the CFL is played, with only three downs instead of four, the passing game is focused on more heavily than in the NFL, and there are more special teams involved as well. Kelley said that style of game suits his strengths as a football player perfectly.
“It’s actually a perfect situation for me for what I like to do,” Kelley said. “If I have success in both facets of the game, hopefully some (NFL) team will take notice.”
Kelley has also emphasized to his coaches in Hamilton about his ability and passion for playing on special teams. He had many reps in college as a special teamer and he said it makes him more of a “football player, not just a wide receiver.”
“I’ve expressed to the special teams coach multiple times, even if I don’t play a down on offense I would love to be out there on special teams and I know I can help out the team with my abilities,” Kelley said.
At 6-foot-6 and 230 pounds, Kelley is quite a piece of eye candy to scouts and coaches before touching the field. But he really turned some professional scouts’ heads at his Maine Pro Day, where he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.57 seconds, had a 42-inch vertical leap, and completed the 20-yard shuttle in 3.83 seconds. His vertical leap and 20-yard shuttle run would have both been in the top ten at the NFL Combine in February.
“I definitely blew the roof off and turned some heads, which was a good thing,” Kelley said about his production at the pro day. “I expected to. I knew what I was capable of, but it only went so far.”
Kelley also participated in a workout at Sahlen’s Sports Park back in March, with the Hamilton general manager on hand to witness his explosive burst not seen in many players his size. Demeris Johnson, who runs Sahlen’s and is Kelley’s trainer, persuaded him to do a shuttle run even though they were not planning on it. Without much warm up, Kelley ran the shuttle in 3.9 seconds and had the fastest time out of anyone there.
Afterwards, Kelley was able to show off his athletic ability as a receiver in one-one-one drills.
“The Hamilton general manager was standing right there and immediately I had caught his attention,” Kelley said. “I pass the eye test when somebody sees me. I’m a bigger guy and they generally get interested. We then did some one-on-ones and I pretty much dominated, nobody could really cover me. About two or three days later they came back with a contract offer and wanted me to sign, but at the time I just wasn’t ready yet.”
Kelley did not immediately sign the contract offer because he was also garnering interest from several NFL teams. Quite possibly one of the reasons an NFL team did not sign him was because of his lack of offensive statistics at Maine. However, after waiting it out, it did not take much longer for Hamilton to call him back with the offer still on the table.
“I had some buzz about my name and that’s why I decided to hold out about signing a CFL contract at the time,” Kelley said. “As we know it didn’t go through and when they called again it was just perfect timing. I decided to take advantage of the opportunity, and so far, so good.”
Kelley said that the day he received the call from Hamilton was the day that he felt the most down about not getting a call from the NFL.
His contract, however, allows him the option after the season to decide between playing another year in the CFL, or joining an NFL roster if the opportunity arises.
“I’ve never had anything given to me; I’ve never had a straight path, and I’ve always had to work hard,” Kelley said. “I have no right to feel a sense of entitlement. It has been a humbling experience and it adds fuel to the fire. It didn’t happen the first time, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen at all.”
Kelley was also the beneficiary of training over the summer at Sahlen’s with current Buffalo Bills players Ryan Fitzpatrick and Lee Evans. He became connected with those training sessions through another Bills player, Orchard Park native Jon Corto. Since then Kelley and Corto have become close friends.
Kelley said that training with professional players throughout the summer during the NFL lockout gave him extra confidence and a sense of belonging on a professional field.
“Lee was great this offseason helping me with the little intricacies of being a receiver, like how to run routes, how to get leverage and there are certain techniques that you don’t use in the college game,” Kelley said. “Fitz coming from Harvard, he is just a very intelligent dude. He just kind of lets you know what is expected from a receiver from a quarterback’s perspective, as far as timing and things like that and where to be. It was great to catch balls from an NFL quarterback all summer long.”
West Seneca West varsity football head coach Joe Cantafio has seen Kelley as a backup quarterback, who used to “trip over the grass,” turn into an all-star receiver by his senior year of high school. Kelley and Cantafio have remained close since 2006, and when Cantafio received a call from his former player saying he signed a professional contract, admiration set in for a player who always worked his hardest.
“I told Jeremy that I’m proud of where you are, but I am really proud of how you got there,” Cantafio said.