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Tennessee signee John Kelly finds challenges and relief in skateboarding while building a life aroun

Oak Park high school graduate John Kelly rides his skateboard at Modern Skate Park in Royal Oak days before he leaves for college. Kelly will be playing football for the University of Tennessee Volunteers this fall. (Elaine Cromie | MLive Detroit)

ROYAL OAK -- As much as John Kelly loves to play football, it is not his only passion.

Of course, the sport of football has been good to Kelly. Getting ready to head off to the University of Tennessee to continue being a running back in the fall, the now former Oak Park running back was one of the top football recruits to come out of the 2015 class in the state of Michigan.

With thoughts about moving south and all of the possibilities his future holds on his mind more and more, Kelly needs an outlet to clear his head. For Kelly, relaxing in football pads and a helmet is not the best way to get his mind off of things.

That is why Kelly is a skateboarder.

Kelly loves to board whenever he gets the chance. Lately, he's been getting out around four or five times a week.

"Every time I get a chance to jump on my board, I take advantage of it," Kelly said while taking a break from testing a new board out at Modern Skate & Surf indoor skate park in Royal Oak, Mich. "I've been definitely been skating a lot."

Kelly doesn't mind testing his skills at a skate park and does so whenever he gets a chance. However, there is nothing better for Kelly than going out on his board with no particular destination in mind.

"I like to cruise, man," Kelly said. "It's relaxing, really. I like to skate around in areas. I don't like to stick myself on a ramp and stay on the ramp the whole time."

Kelly may not be joining the X-Games anytime soon but he loves and understands skateboarding as much as football. In both football and skateboarding, a level of fearlessness is required. For anyone who has ever known Kelly, he has never been one to back down from a challenge.

In fact, Kelly is not afraid to admit which sport is more challenging.

"Skateboarding is definitely a lot more difficult," Kelly said. "You don't really have to remember too much but it's like, it's all about hand-eye coordination, with your feet and everything. Then on top of that, you've got to have balance. You've got to have tremendous balance.

"You can't be scared. You can't be scared at all."

Big man on campus

Kelly is anxiously excited for his future at Tennessee. During the car ride to Modern Skate & Surf, a lot of conversation surrounded him leaving for Tennessee soon and how the coaches are looking forward to having Kelly officially join the ranks.

"We're going to be good," Kelly said, as he rattled off names of future teammates.

He had just attended his last day of classes at Oak Park where, indeed, he was the "big man on campus," so to speak. A highly sought-after recruit, Kelly finished his senior football season with 1,321 rushing yards and 21 touchdowns on 124 carries (10.65 yards per carry). He also has an interception return for a score and a punt return for a score and a kickoff return for a score.

Throughout his success on the football field, Oak Park football coach Greg Carter made sure to let his feelings of Kelly's skating adventures be known.

"Coach Carter always tells me to get off my board," Kelly said with a grin. "He knows how I am about skateboarding though. He kinds of trusts me with it. My college coaches, they know that I'd be skateboarding a little bit. They'd be like, 'Are you sure you really want to skateboard? Do you need a skateboard?'"

Sorry, football coaches. You can't pry away a skateboard from Kelly.

Kelly understands where the concerns from the coaches are coming from but, in the end, Kelly knows that skating is too much a part of him to give up.

"I'm like, 'Well coach, I'm bringing my skateboard. You know I am,'" Kelly said.

At the skate park, Kelly is the big man in the house as well. However, being the "big man" at the skate park refers to Kelly's physical stature instead of his credentials with a board.

Looking around a skate park, it is not hard for Kelly to stand out among the more slimmer guys skating around. At 5-foot-10, Kelly doesn't really tower over anyone at the skate park. However, being close to 200 pounds of muscle, Kelly's football physique is a noticeable contrast to his fellow boarding mates.

"There's a lot of smaller guys that skate," Kelly said while scanning the large, obstacle filled park. "It a lot more difficult for me to get in the air but I definitely make it happen as much as I can."

Still, it is easy for Kelly to strike up a conversation with others at the park. With his outgoing and laid-back personality, Kelly feels that he mixes in well with the skateboarding enthusiasts.

"You're not going to meet nothing but cool people," Kelly said. "Everybody is chilling. Everybody's just really just trying to get on that board and chill, man."

An outlet for a perfectionist

Having developed a great interest in skateboarding when he was just nine years old, it predated Kelly's real interest in football, which did not start blossoming until he was 12 years old.

Now idolizing professional skateboarders Chris Haslem and Terry Kennedy, Kelly has been hooked from the first time he saw the sport being performed.

"I just love everything about skating, honestly," Kelly said. "Everything about it. It's just cool, man. It just looks appealing. When a kids sees someone skateboarding that actually knows what they are doing, it just looks good every time."

Since Kelly describes himself as somebody who is willing to compete with anyone, he has always driven to do his best in both sports.

However, football ended up taking up most of his time. Although football has suited him better than skateboarding, skating gave Kelly something that would permeate in football and everything else he does: The will to keep trying.

For as many tricks as Kelly can pull off, he's capable of taking as many spills and falls. As entertaining as he is on the football field, Kelly can sure milk everything he can out of a wipeout.

Whether at the skate park or on the gridiron, every time he falls, he makes sure to get back up.

Skateboarding is where Kelly first found an outlet for his competitive nature. It helped him grow into who he is today.

"I'm one of those type of skaters like, if I'm going to try and do a trick, I'm not going to leave until I land it," Kelly said. "It definitely helped me be a lot more competitive. It just makes you want to perfect your craft. I definitely take that to the field every day."

By Jared Purcell

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