Jaclyn Kelly still remembers the day she dropped her son off at Ball State University.
She remembers asking Kiael if he was sure that he was okay. She asked him if he could handle the cold of Muncie, Indiana, compared to the consistently warm temperatures of their hometown of Tampa, Florida.
She said she and his younger brother, Jai, cried on the plane ride home, more than 1,000 miles away. Kiael may have attended three different high schools, but he had never moved away from Florida.
Having left one of her sons far from home to pursue his dreams of making the NFL, it frustrated Jaclyn to see Kiael in a backup quarterback role for his first two full seasons and at the start of his third. She still went to every game she could until Kiael told her in week three of the 2023 campaign that she didn’t have to keep coming to games if he wasn’t playing.
Sure, he was seeing some action as a wide receiver or a handful of plays at quarterback, but never enough to justify the consistent trips from Tampa, at least not from Kiael’s perspective. Having consistently played quarterback since high school, Kiael took the mindset of “be the best dishwasher you can be” when asked to play in some different packages than he was used to.
Jaclyn just wanted her son to get a chance. That chance finally came before the Cardinals’ contest against Toledo in week seven; Ball State was 1-5 and in the midst of a three-game losing streak while graduate student Layne Hatcher and freshman Kadin Semonza had each started at least two games under center.
When Kiael broke the news to Jaclyn, she let out every emotion that came with months of prayer for her son.
“I screamed, I yelled and I think I cried when he told me, ‘Mom, I’m going to start,’” Jaclyn said. “I said, ‘Alright, I’m booking my flight.’”
She hasn’t missed a game since.
“We’re all that we have,” Jaclyn said. “I just have to be there.”
When Kiael and his older brother, Kijah, were growing up, Jaclyn said she called the three of them “The Three Musketeers.” Even with her nine-year-old son Jai now in the picture, the three will always have that unique bond.
Whether it be through her constant support on social media, making day trips from Florida to Indiana to watch his games in person or paying for personal trainers to develop Kiael into the best athlete he could be leading up to college, Jaclyn never thought twice about making sacrifices for her children.
“If my kids say, ‘Mom, I want to learn how to walk on the moon,’ if I can't show them, I'm going to put them in a situation or try to research and get the help to get them there,” Jaclyn said.
With older, more mature eyes to help put things into perspective, Kiael said he and his mother’s relationship has strengthened even more since he moved to Muncie.
“Nobody’s gonna care for you like family does,” Kiael said.
Football and family
When Kiael told his older brother he earned the starting spot at Ball State, Kijah cried too.
“This is something that we planned forever since we were little, spending countless nights when we had to stay after and practice hard,” Kijah said.
Kiael and Kijah each said they’ve always been best friends. From sleeping in the same room together until Kijah’s junior year of high school to playing football together for a season in high school, the two were always attached at the hip.
Kijah tore his ACL during his junior season of high school, but eventually made it back to the field for his senior season. Kiael mostly played at the junior varsity level that season, but near the end of the year, he was called up to varsity and was able to play alongside Kijah.
However, in the final game of the season, Kijah tore the same ACL again, and his chance to play college football at UAB was flushed down the drain. Kiael said this moment taught him not to take his opportunity to play at the Division I level for granted.
“I can sense his football career lives through me,” Kiael said.
Kijah knows his brother’s admiration for him, and it’s reciprocated in the way Kijah speaks about Kiael. Few people know the dedication and sacrifices Kiael had to make to get to where he is now more than Kijah.
“It's always been like this,” Kijah said. “We always support each other through the back end, no matter what it costs.”
Deeper than blood
Kiael still remembers the first time he ever met Seth Ravenna. It was the first day of fifth grade basketball practice with Ravenna as his new coach, and while Ravenna was instructing the group, Kiael was spinning a basketball on his finger.
Ravenna took him off the court and had him sit out the next drill. Kiael stood on the sideline, mad and confused because he had never been taken out of practice.
“How are you gonna be my best player and you’re spinning the ball while I'm talking?” Ravenna asked Kiael.
Kiael was taken aback, but he thought, ‘You don't even know me, how are you gonna assume I'm gonna be the best player?’ In that moment, Ravenna earned Kiael’s respect and Kiael decided then that he would follow Ravenna’s lead.
Ravenna remembers the day Kiael was named the starter at Ball State just as well as Kiael’s own family. He said the text he received from Kiael simply read, “I did it.”
Ravenna was confused and called Kiael.
“Hey, I don't understand what you’re saying,” Ravenna said.
“Coach, I’m starting,” he said.
Ravenna smiled and grew with excitement.
“Wow, that’s incredible. How do you feel? That’s amazing,” Ravenna said.
Although Kiael shed tears that day, his voice didn’t change inflection in the moment.
“Yeah, I’m excited; but I really have to prove to the coaches that they made the right decision. I don't want to let them down,” Kiael said.
Ravenna said he and Kiael talked about earning this role for years before the day of the announcement, and while Kiael was eagerly waiting for it, Ravenna said he was never negative towards the Ball State coaching staff or his teammates. Instead, Kiael told Ravenna he was trying to perfect his game in the best way possible so the staff had no choice but to run with him under center.
“He doesn't want to go out and say, ‘I'm Michael Jordan or Joe Montana,’ or whatever quarterback he's not; He's just trying to be Kiael Kelly,” Ravenna said.
Over the following years, Kiael said Ravenna became closer than an uncle; more like a father. Kiael said Ravenna took him and Kijah to a local mall to help buy Jaclyn Mother’s Day gifts and even bought the Kelly family Christmas gifts every year.
Ravenna has a son, Cai, the same age as Kiael. Over their 10-plus-year friendship, the two have attended birthday parties, holiday gatherings and countless sporting events together, including many as teammates. Ravenna said he and Kiael still speak over the phone, either call or text, around three times per week.
Why football? Why quarterback?
Kiael competed in football, basketball, baseball, and track and field growing up, excelling in each, which Ravenna said came down to Kiael’s “sports-oriented mind” and his athletic background; Kiael’s father, Kenny, is a former MLB player.
“There was nobody that was out working him,” Ravenna said. “He'd come to basketball practice in his baseball uniform, and then he'd leave basketball and go to football.”
Despite participating in four sports, Kiael said wanted to take football to the next level simply because he felt that was his best sport. He received his first scholarship offer for football during his freshman year and never looked back.
While he had offers from Power-5 schools like Illinois and Wake Forest, Kelly chose Ball State because of the relationships he quickly formed during the recruitment process; former teammates Yo’Heinz Tyler and Amechi Uzodinma II hit it off with Kelly immediately.
“I want to go down in history at this place,” Kelly said. “I want to look back on my career with people talking about me with Willie Snead, Nate Davis and Justin Hall. I approach every day trying to be great.”
Kiael said he’s always putting in extra work, any chance he gets. If that means doing push-ups during commercial breaks while he’s watching a football game, he’s going to do it. If that means using the posts on a bed frame to do bandwork, he’s going to do it.
While he hasn’t always been this way, Kiael has turned into a film junkie since starting at Ball State. Even outside of his required film study, he can’t help but analyze any football game he’s watching. If he sees a play that catches his eye, he’ll rewind the game, go over the play multiple times and then reach out to the rest of the quarterback room and the coaching staff.
Even though Kiael is mostly operating under an “all football all the time” mindset, he admitted he dedicates time toward taking breaks so he doesn’t burn out. To get away from football, he’ll play his PlayStation5, walk his golden retriever, Lou, or watch other sports on TV.
However, he said it’s hard to fully unplug. When he’s playing Madden or watching a football game on TV, he said he always gets an “itch.” That’s why he ends every day with at least 30 minutes of football. Sometimes his passion for football even carries over into his sleep.
“I like the feeling of all eyes on you,” Kiael said. “Even dreaming about football or basketball games, it’s me putting the team on my shoulders.”
Kiael’s thirst for leadership in athletics is something Ravenna said he saw in Kiael the day they met.
“He wanted to guard the other team's best player; He wanted that spotlight to be in front of him,” Ravenna said. “Although he was always humble, never arrogant, never cocky, he wanted to show who he was in between the lines.”
Ravenna praised Kiael’s work ethic and lead-by-example approach, citing his quiet, yet confident demeanor as one he has consistently seen Kiael’s teammates rally around.
Ravenna remembered watching Kiael during Ball State’s last-second win over Northern Illinois. Although freshman kicker Jackson Courville made the game-winning kick, Kiael could be seen celebrating perhaps more than anyone.
“It’s cool to know that you did good, but did you win or not?” Kiael said. “People judge quarterbacks off their record. It doesn’t matter if you had seven touchdowns in a loss. You lost, and that’s what matters.”
Even though Kiael said he would rather take the blame for losses than his teammates doing so, he recognized that he can be too hard on himself sometimes. That said, he knows his limits and what he can handle, never letting his thoughts on his performance bog him down.
The man behind the helmet
Kiael and the rest of his family write down goals at the beginning of each year, something they’ve done since childhood. This year, Kiael wrote that he wanted to become a prolific passer, be named the starting quarterback for Ball State, and start and finish every game.
While he accomplished his goal of being named the starter and failed to check off his main goal, he said he feels like he has improved and become more comfortable passing, but promised there is more to come.
“People will be shocked. They don’t know,” Kiael said, grinning.
Kiael recognized that although not much has changed offensively, he does feel like the Cardinals are more comfortable with him under center. In that respect, he said moving into the starting role was “like clockwork.”
In part, that boils down to Kiael living with running backs Vaughn Pemberton and Rico Barfield and wide receiver Qian Magwood, providing an added advantage for the four offensive threats to develop chemistry that will translate on the field.
Speaking on Muncie and the people he’s been able to meet during his three years in the 765, Kiael said even though he’s soft-spoken, he loves meeting new people in the community.
“I love the city of Muncie. They brought me in,” Kiael said.
One way Kiael has been able to consistently meet new people outside of football is in his community service work. Kiael has volunteered for as long as he can remember, even providing the homeless with meals on Christmas Eve back home in Tampa, but he said the way he’s most been able to give back to Muncie is through his offseason job at local YMCA locations.
Whether it’s someone who comes in for a workout and leaves or someone who stays almost the entire day, he knows the kids who come in know who he is and look up to him as a public figure, so he tries to be the best role model possible.
“If you do good, good comes to you,” Kiael said. “Never forget who you are.
“There's gonna be times where you can get degraded, and people might have their opinion on who you are, but just always remember what you can do and then just know that whatever people have to say, it doesn't define you because people are gonna have their opinions. It’s your life, you gotta live it.”
While the news that changed Kiael’s life was more than a month ago and he has started four games since, Kiael still remembers walking through the Ron and Joan Venderly Football Center with tears in his eyes that morning.
“I still can't put it into words,” Kiael said. “I have to do well while I'm here because it can be gone tomorrow. Everybody knew it was time.”