By Jonathan Okanes
Cal Bear Blog
BERKELEY – When Seamus Kelly’s hometown of Breezy Point, N.Y. was devastated by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, Cal rugby coach Jack Clark immediately reached out to his star player to make sure his family was OK.
“What I got from him was everyone is safe and we’re OK,” Clark said.
Everyone, of course, was not OK. Yes, Kelly’s family was safe. But like so many Breezy Point residents, his home was heavily damaged by the storm. The entire downstairs was flooded and it required a complete renovation.
A number of Kelly’s relatives and friends were also severely affected. Many of their homes were victimized even worse by the storm, and almost everyone was displaced for some time.
But Kelly, true to his tough New York upbringing, dismissed any hardships involved. To him, the aftermath simply required his loved ones and neighborhood to go to work, and demonstrate the tight-knit community that it is.
“My parents worked 15 hours a day for a few weeks to try to get the house back,” Kelly said. “Community wide, people were working day in and day out to help each other. I really just think you take the good out of the bad, and you see how much people really care for each other in the community. It was something special.”
It’s that kind of no-nonsense, roll-up-your-sleeves grittiness that allows Kelly to bring a extra dose of maturity to the Bears – a maturity that has helped make him team captain for the past two seasons.
“He brings a real maturity,” Clark said. “He’s a New York kid. He’s a bit tougher. He brings a little bit of that real world maturity to the team. He’s a baller.”
The New York kid was somewhat of a celebrity in his region of the state – as a football player. He was a star running back at Xavier High School in Manhattan, so much so that the New York Daily News coined him “Famous Seamus.” He rushed for 2,681 yards and a staggering 47 touchdowns as a senior, and in one game alone amassed 291 yards on the ground with five touchdowns, caught a 72-yard TD pass and returned a kickoff 85 yards for another score.
It was after that game that “Famous Seamus” was born.
“It stuck,” Kelly said. “Now it’s more of a way for my family and friends to give me some grief.”
Kelly is pretty famous in rugby circles now. A four-time USA Rugby All-American who has led Cal to a pair of national championships, Kelly was invited to play for the U.S. National Team last year and competed with Team USA in seven international matches. With rugby returning to the Olympic Games in 2016, Kelly has his sights set on representing his country on the world’s biggest stage.
“It’s been tremendous,” Kelly said of his time with the national team. “It’s helped me grow as a player. It’s helped me see the highest level of competition and what it’s like and what it takes to stay at that level and be a real professional when it comes to rugby. It’s helped me mature and really take a look at myself and the skills I need to develop, and help me bring that to the guys here and try to set a standard that everybody can work up to.”
Kelly excelled at rugby as well as football in high school, but he had his sights sets on playing college football. He drew interest from some smaller schools, but his mindset completely changed when he decided to pay a visit to Berkeley for rugby.
“After the visit here, I decided this was the place for me,” Kelly said. “I wasn’t really expecting much on the visit. I just wanted to have one rugby option, and this was the only place I was considering to play rugby. I came out here and was taken aback. That was it. I made up my mind right then and there.”
It appears Kelly made a pretty good decision. He has developed into arguably the top college player in the country and has the Bears in their usual position as a national title contender. Cal could be tested Saturday when it hosts PAC rival UCLA at 3 p.m. on the Pac-12 Networks.
“Seamus is a special guy,” Clark said. “If we could clone him, I’d coach him until I couldn’t coach anymore just because it’s such a pleasure. If there’s a prototype of a Cal rugby player, it’s Seamus. I couldn’t be any more proud of him.”