FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — When New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick was discussing the challenge ahead against tight end Hunter Henry and the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday (CBS, 4:25 p.m. ET), he surprised by referencing Henry’s high school career at Pulaski Academy in Little Rock, Arkansas under coach Kevin Kelley.
It wasn’t a coincidence, with Belichick referring to Kelley as “probably the top high school coach in the country.”
“Certainly one of the great coaches in Arkansas high school football history,” Belichick added. “I’ve followed him. He’s a little unconventional, but he’s had great success.”
Kelley, 51, has been recognized as an innovative coach — in addition to a consistent winner — because he seldom punts and usually does onside kicks instead of kickoffs. He’s an outside-the-box thinker who also travels the country as a motivational speaker.
As it turns out, it was on a 2015 trip that Kelley first met Belichick. Kelley was speaking at Notre Dame on Sunday morning, and with the Patriots visiting the Indianapolis Colts that night, he reached out to someone he knew had a connection with Belichick. Maybe I could get some tickets for the game?
The request was granted.
“Got to chit-chat with coach after that game and he was super nice to me and my son, [Zack],” Kelley told ESPN on Wednesday following Belichick’s remarks. “He said, ‘Hey, if you’re ever in the area, just reach out to me’ and the relationship kind of started there.”
They have kept in touch, with Belichick, as one would expect, taking interest in Kelley’s unique approach to coaching, in addition to Zack’s quick recovery from an ACL tear.
But Kelley said he has been the true beneficiary of the connection — just two top football coaches talking ball.
“Words don’t begin to describe how much I love talking to him about it. It’s two reasons. One, I think he has an extremely intellectual approach to the game that you don’t usually see. Two, I pride myself on the reward of winning. I coach high school kids and it’s a year-round deal now, everywhere at every level. If they’re going to put in all that time and commitment, and do the things I ask them to do, I want them to have the reward of winning.
“In the NFL, your reward is to make money, and hopefully winning. But in high school, it’s the reward of winning. These are life lessons we teach, and being a part of something, those are rewards, too. But they need to feel that Friday night win to keep them coming back really hard on Saturday and Sunday and Monday.
“So if you believe in that, you find people that win. I’m a big believer in ‘winners win’ and ‘find a way to win.’ So to be able to be in a situation with a guy like Coach Belichick, who is the best who has ever coached the game of football, it’s an honor. And it’s really ‘what can I learn from this guy?’
“Every time we talk any football, I learn something new. What he does is constantly remind me there’s always new ways, and better ways to do things.”