“I guess I started wrestling when I was about four years old,” Kelly said.
The St. Peter’s Prep senior 126-pounder said that he got his start because of his older brother Alec, currently a sophomore at Columbia University.
“But I just kind of knew that I was going to wrestle,” Kelly said. “I won’t say that I was born to wrestle.”
The younger Kelly carved his teeth in the sport going up against his brother and others who were much older and physically bigger than him.
“I wasn’t the greatest when I started,” Kelly said. “But I got better and better. I’m a lot better now than when I first started out.”
When he was younger, Kelly always felt like he had to outdo his brother.
“I always felt like I was chasing him,” Kelly said. “But around eighth grade, I started to have my own goals instead of just following him.”
Now as a senior, Kelly has had to take on the role of team leader with the Marauders.
“He’s very vocal now as a leader,” Marauders head coach Brian Innis said. “If I need something done, I’ll tell him and he rallies the troops. Everyone then gets together. I think that’s a testament to his work ethic. He trains all year round and competes all year round. That helps.”
Training all year round might have hurt Kelly a little this year.
Kelly, the namesake and nephew of new Jersey City Police Chief Mike Kelly, the former head basketball coach at the Prep, was competing in the offseason without a headgear.
“I never wear it when I’m practicing,” Kelly said. “It’s not very comfortable.”
But because of wrestling without the headgear, Kelly developed a bad case of ear inflation, also known as “cauliflower ear.”
When the high school season began, Kelly battled the pain from the ear injury and could handle only so much.
So after Kelly competed in the prestigious Beast of the East tournament in Delaware, then came back to New Jersey to capture a championship at the famed Mustang Classic at Brick Township High School, Kelly decided to undergo surgery on his ear to correct the injury.
“He’s such a team guy that he didn’t want to miss any team events,” Innis said. “So when his ear blew up, he had to get the surgery. But he vowed he would be back in a week. He missed some time, but he came back in time.”
Kelly put a piece of foam inside the headgear to help with the injured ear.
“I learned my lesson now,” Kelly said. “I’ll always wear the headgear.”
Kelly has learned his lessons well this year on the mat. He’s yet to lose a match inside the state of New Jersey this season. He’s posted a 15-3 record, but those three losses came at out-of-state tournaments (two at the Beast of the East). Kelly is currently ranked third in the 126-pound weight class in the state, a year after finishing eighth in the state overall. Kelly was also eighth as a sophomore two years ago.
For his efforts, Kelly has been selected as The Hudson Reporter Athlete of the Week for the past week. Kelly was also honored last February as Athlete of the Week, as was his older brother Alec in 2016. So it’s keeping the weekly feature in the family.
Kelly said that he used to “butt heads a lot” with his brother when they were younger.
“I think it was all him trying to help me,” Kelly said of his brother. “I didn’t want to listen to him. But it’s all good now. I think we’re both so much more mature than we were. I have a better understanding.”
Kelly has only one thing in mind right now – namely a state championship.
“I think it’s everyone’s goal to win a state title,” Kelly said. “In the back of my mind, I know I only have a month and a half left of high school wrestling. I want to make the most of it all, go out with a bang. I’m training hard every day.”
But there’s a major obstacle in front of Kelly’s pursuit. Pat Glory of Delbarton is the defending state champion in the same weight class that Kelly wrestled at last year, namely 120 pounds. Glory is undefeated over the last two years and lies ahead as a possible opponent to Kelly.
“I want a chance to go against the best,” Kelly said about the possibility of facing Glory. “I want to leave it all on the mat. There’s not a doubt in my mind that I can beat him. It’s not an impossible task. He’s the best in the country for a reason. But I think I deserve to be right up there with him.”
Innis applauds Kelly’s approach.
“He’s accepting the challenge,” Innis said. “Most others would run away from Glory, but that’s not Mike. He’s always said, ‘I’m going after the guy.’ He doesn’t back down to anything. He’s not afraid of anyone. That’s just the kind of kid he is. I think that’s the kind of personality you need to take someone like that on. I also think it would be a really fun match to watch in the state finals. He’s a confident kid who knows his goals.”
Kelly plans on majoring in economics, sociology or psychology at Columbia next year.
“A lot of the pressure is taken off me,” Kelly said. “It’s a lot more relaxing. It’s so much better now since I ended up committing to Columbia.”
Kelly realizes that the end is quickly approaching.
“I want to enjoy every practice I have left,” Kelly said. “Part of me is a little sad. I want to enjoy every last minute of it. I’m trying to take it all in.” – Jim Hague.
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com.