Will Kelly put basketball goals on the side of the crib when his son, Xavier, was born. Trips to the gym included Will lugging a playpen that he put in the corner for Xavier and his younger brother, Elijah.
It’s no wonder basketball became everything to Xavier Kelly, who dreamed of a career in the NBA.
He was so focused, he decided to quit playing football after his freshman season at East.
“I played football starting in kindergarten, always playing a year up,” Kelly said. “But I envisioned myself playing college basketball. I wasn’t too big into football.”
Fast forward three years, and Kelly, a 6-foot-6, 265-pound defensive lineman is one of the best football players in Kansas. He made a non-binding commitment in July to play at Clemson, choosing the Tigers over Alabama, Florida State, Michigan, Georgia, Kansas State, Oregon and TCU.
Clemson fans can credit former East coach Brian Byers with Kelly’s decision to stick with football.
“He said, ‘I need you to come out for football.’ I really wasn’t feeling football,” Kelly said. “He said, ‘Come out for one practice. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to come play. He said to me, even before I got any offers, he said he sees a Division I athlete in me.”
Byers had first talked to Kelly about football when he was in middle school. And after Kelly returned from living with his dad in Georgia during his freshman year, Byers approached him again.
“I think there was a lot of people telling him that he was a big-time basketball player,” Byers said. “I looked at him. ‘You’re 6-foot-5 and a post player. That’s not Division I.… You’re definitely a Division I, big-time football player, though.’”
Kelly’s dad believed the same.
“I told him not to limit himself with just one thing,” Will said. “You don’t know what you’d be good at. I played tennis in high school at one point.”
Kelly listened, and he increased his intensity in the weight room as he got stronger and faster.
“I felt like if I really focused, I could really be somebody,” he said.
As a junior, Kelly had 42 tackles, 10 for loss, and eight sacks.
Many high-profile high school football players graduate early to enroll in college so they can be a part of the spring workouts.
Kelly could do that this winter, but he’s choosing to stay for two reasons — his love for basketball and his devotion to family. He wants to play a final basketball season with Elijah, a junior, and help lead East to a second straight Class 6A title.
Family is vital to Kelly. He visited 15 colleges across the country with his dad and Elijah during the summer. At each stop, he talked about Elijah’s basketball skills, hoping to get him some recruiting attention. Elijah is a 6-2 shooting guard.
“I care about Elijah and I want him to be successful,” Kelly said. “He wasn’t getting that many looks, so I tried to take advantage of my looks to help him.”
The relationship has its moments where they bicker, but they have a tight bond.
“Xavier likes to motivate others and push others and pull out their strengths,” said his mom, Cheree. “He pushes Elijah, and they’re really, really close. They push each other in their different strengths and weaknesses.”
Kelly is naturally athletic, which he showcased in a video he posted on Twitter when he dunked — while wearing jeans — and put his arm up to his elbow in the basket. The morning after East won the 6A basketball title, he drove to Dallas where he ran a 4.55-second 40-yard dash at a Nike regional combine.
“I knew when he did that, that the door would get knocked down by everybody,” Byers said. “He’s so big and athletic. You can’t coach that. God gave him a gift.”
New East coach Bill Coffman, formerly an Aces assistant, agreed.
“I have things flash through my head of what he can do,” Coffman said. “I’m thinking of the (playoff) game we played against Derby. They ran the play to the wide side of the field, away from him. The quarterback kept the ball, and he tackled the quarterback on the opposite side of the field for a five-yard gain.”
East, which also produced NFL players Arthur and Bryce Brown, will rely heavily on Kelly’s play and leadership to return to the 6A playoffs for the second straight year.
Coffman believes Kelly will surprise fans simply because of the work he put in during the offseason.
Kelly “works hard at whatever he’s doing, but this is probably the first summer that it was dominated by football,” Coffman said. “We’re anxious to see where it ends up.”
Kelly has room for growth, specifically in fine-tuning his technique. And when that happens, Coffman thinks his future becomes even brighter.
“If he gets his fundamentals better and then you add his athletic ability and explosiveness to it, that’s what takes him from being a player with great potential to just a great player.… If he takes the right first step, for example, and the first step is faster than the other guy’s, then he’s not one step ahead, he’s two ahead.”