In the early morning hours of Dec. 21, 2014, less than a week after signing with Ole Miss as the top JUCO quarterback in the country, Chad Kelly was arrested for tussling with bouncers outside a bar in Buffalo, N.Y. Exactly 342 days later, Kelly was grinning his sheepish grin and raising the Egg Bowl trophy above his head on the turf of Scott Field, the latest spoil among a collection that now includes the Ole Miss single-season records for passing yards and total touchdowns.
It was the moment in which Hugh Freeze collected the metaphorical chips for his high-stakes gamble to give Kelly one more chance.
Kelly was brilliant against Mississippi State, accounting for 310 total yards, three touchdowns and, most significantly, zero turnovers. It was the third interception-free game in a row for a guy who's been knocked as a gunslinger, a streak that effectively nullifies perhaps the only argument against him being named first team All-SEC after leading the conference in passing yards and total touchdowns.
Looking back through the prism of all the yards and touchdowns and wins, it's easy to view Chad's ascension to the SEC's best quarterback as somewhat inevitable. But back when news of his December arrest first broke, it looked like his stay in Oxford was over before it had begun. This was a guy who'd been kicked off Clemson's team for a string of emotional outbursts, who's egotistical attitude had manifested itself in a rap song in which he repeated his own name 32 times, who had only thrown 17 passes as a D1 quarterback. Most folks, including myself, figured the risk of keeping him around outweighed any potential reward, even if that meant starting Ryan Buchanan all season.
If he can't make it through a weekend in fucking Buffalo, we postulated, how the hell is he gonna stay out of trouble for an entire year on a party school campus?
Freeze came close to booting him, even as the legal issue was tidied up in court. "I thought it was all over when [the arrest] happened," Kelly said on ESPN.
"We made one last phone call and said, ‘Coach, am I coming here?'" Kelly told The Clarion-Ledger. "He said, ‘Yeah, come on down.' I packed my bags and came here."
Freeze was well aware of the risk. "I'm sure hoping and pray like heck that he doesn't embarrass our team, our university and myself," he told ESPN in February. "But that is a possibility. That is certainly something I recognize and I will have to own."
Sure, there would have been a bit of a PR hit had Kelly wasted his second chance in Oxford, but the real risk was on the field. If Chad had gone out and done something stupid during fall practice, or even worse, after the first game, Freeze would have squandered first-team reps and coaching time that could have gone towards preparing Buchanan as the starter. Abrupt turmoil at the most important position on the team immediately before or during the season would have been disastrous.
I'm not going to shape this into a story of moral redemption. I don't know Chad Kelly personally, and I don't know if he's any better of a human being now than he was while he was driving away from the scene of a bar fight in December. Hell, I don't even know if Chad needed to become a better human being -- college kids do dumb shit, and that doesn't make them ethically corrupt.
But I do know that Chad Kelly has turned out to be the best Ole Miss quarterback since Eli, and I know that it took a ballsy gamble by his head coach to make that happen. No matter how many coachspeak sermons Freeze delivers on the importance of redemption and second chances, at the end of the day, keeping Chad around was a football decision founded on the belief that his potential contribution to the Ole Miss offense outweighed the risk of another drunken stunt.
As it turns out, it was also the correct decision.