From Jim Mitchell to Austin Hooper, the Atlanta Falcons have had some very talented tight ends throughout history. If you started following the Falcons around the time they appeared in their first ever Super Bowl following the 1998 season, you probably remember a tight end by the name of Reggie Kelly.
Kelly spent five seasons in Atlanta, separated by a remarkable length of time. He would play in Atlanta from 1999-2002 and returned in 2011 as a reserve, which means he overlapped with both O.J. Santiago and Tony Gonzalez.
Recently, I spoke with Reggie Kelly and we discussed everything from his NFL career to his post-football career.
Welcome to Atlanta
Kelly was drafted by the Falcons in the second round of the 1999 NFL Draft, a draft class which also had key players such as defensive end Patrick Kerney and center Todd McClure. Kelly attended Mississippi State University, where he would be selected First-team All-SEC in 1998.
“It was a dream come true. Growing up in Mississippi, a small town in Mississippi by the name of Aberdeen. I didn’t really have much, as far as big city living. But we enjoyed the simple things, we enjoyed what meant most to us — family,” Reggie Kelly told The Falcoholic. “So, I always dreamed as a kid of playing in the NFL. I didn’t know how it would come about, I didn’t know if it would someday become a reality. I really did dream, and I worked hard to achieve that dream. Once my name flashed on the screen saying the Falcons selected me, it was a dream come true. I had to pinch myself a couple of times. My agent was Jimmy Sexton at the time, he gave me some indication that I could go anywhere from the first round to the third round. I was on the edge of my seat in the first round, sweating bullets, just waiting for my name to be called. Then the Falcons drafted me with the 42nd overall selection in the 1999 NFL Draft. I was extremely happy, extremely blessed, and extremely thankful to the good lord for allowing me the opportunity to live out my dream.”
When Kelly joined the Falcons in 1999, the team was coming off of their first Super Bowl appearance in franchise history. Although the result of the game was a loss, according to Kelly, excitement still remained throughout the fan-base and locker room.
“There was a lot of energy. There was a lot of energy in the city of Atlanta and on that team, because the team really didn’t lose any key players in free agency,” Kelly said. “The core group of guys who were on the Super Bowl team came back for the 1999 season. We were expected to have a really, really good season. We added some key parts in free agency and some key parts as far as the rookie pool. We were expected to contribute, but sometimes things don’t go according to plan. I know we had an abysmal year, during that 1999 season and had injuries as well. I know we didn’t go above .500 that season, but we played extremely hard and we played like a team. My expectation when I got drafted by the Falcons was “Oh man, we’re going back to the Super Bowl” — but it didn’t quite pan out like that.”
Veterans in the locker room
When Reggie Kelly joined the Falcons in 1999, the roster was loaded with some of the most underrated players in franchise history. Players like fullback Bob Christian, wide receiver Terance Mathis, defensive end Chuck Smith and middle linebacker Jessie Tuggle all remain as some of the best Falcons at their respective positions. Naturally, the younger players looked up to them.
“We had a great group of veterans who brought me in right, and taught me to be a team player and leave the game better than I found it,” Kelly said. “Guys like Bob Chrisitian, Terance Mathis, Jessie Tuggle, Keith Brooking — who was still a younger guy, but he played like a veteran. Chuck Smith and Bob Whitfield as well, guys that took me under their wings. I greatly appreciate them mentoring me.”
“Terance Mathis was one of my all-time favorites,” Kelly said. “As a rookie coming into the NFL and having Terance, who was a big-time player, guide me was big. He was a Pro Bowler, and one of the first wide receivers of that era to have 100+ receptions in a season. Back then, that was unheard of. Now, it’s common place. Him being an established veteran, to come over and talk to a snot-nosed, hard-headed rookie was everything. He gave me a key phrase — “If you do the little things right, the big things will follow.” Me being a rookie, that went in one ear and out the other. He could read my mind, and he said “Listen to me big fella — if you do the little things right, the big things will follow.” What I didn’t realize then was that he was observing me. From the first time I stepped off of the bus, to my first practice, Terance was observing me. He observed my energy and my talents, but he also observed me being a little immature from the standpoint of not really focusing on details. As young players, a lot of us will rely on our talent and that type of immaturity will get you kicked out of the league very, vert fast. You have to be the type of player that doesn’t just rely on your talent, but also your technique. Terance was telling me to pay attention to the techniques, the correct footwork, the correct leverage, using your hands the right way — if you do those things, then the big things will automatically occur. But I was hard-headed, and I got knocked on my butt a few times before that finally rang in. I remembered what Terance told me, “If you do the little things right, the big things will follow” — and then my game took off. That advice really helped me, and even continues in life after football. I live by that motto.”
Redemption at Lambeau Field
If you ask a lot of the former Falcons players from that 2002 team what their favorite moment is, a lot of them will say the NFC Wild Card game against the Green Bay Packers. It was historic, no team in NFL history had defeated the Packers at Lambeau Field during the playoffs. Nobody until that 2002 Falcons team, of course.
“The first game of the 2002 season, we played the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field. To play at Lambeau Field was to play where all the greats played, and to play there I knew the books would show that I had the opportunity to play there as well,” Kelly said. “We went in there on a high, ready to defeat the Packers. We were whipping them up and down the field, we had the game at hand. Then in the third quarter, we drove the ball down the field and were on the one or two yard-line to punch it in for a touchdown. Coach Dan Reeves called the play where I would be the primary receiver. Michael Vick snapped the ball, I ran a corner route. Nobody was on me. Nobody covered me. I thought maybe that the defense had stopped playing. Maybe the referee had blown the whistle and I didn’t hear it. Nobody was around me. Mike knew it too, and Mike threw me a perfect pass, and it slipped right through my fingers. I was so devastated. As the ball was spiraling my way, I was already thinking about making SportsCenter and having a highlight. My name is going to be on the big screen and my family and friends will see me catch this touchdown, oh my goodness. We had the momentum before that play, and it was gone after it happened and the Packers came back and we lost. You can imagine how awful I felt, knowing I had dropped that touchdown pass.”
“We did recover from that game, and had a heck of a season,” Kelly said. “We were pretty much steamrolling everyone that we played and it took us into the playoffs. Who do we face in the first game? The Green Bay Packers. I’m thinking redemption, I can’t have another episode like I had against them the first week of the season. It’s important to remember, nobody was giving us a chance. The first game was in September, ideal football weather. The playoff game was in January, freezing temperatures plus it was at nighttime. We were absolutely cold. So, we went up there and again, whipped them up and down the field to the point where the Green Bay faithful actually booed Brett Favre and the rest of the Packers, believe it or not. We ended up defeating the Green Bay Packers, and we were the first team to ever defeat the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field in a playoff game. Coach Reeves gave every last one of us a game ball with those particular words that we were the first team to ever defeat the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field in a playoff game. That was just a prime example of achieving the impossible.”
Returning to Atlanta
During the 2003 offseason, Reggie Kelly signed with the Cincinatti Bengals as an unrestricted free agent. He went on to spend seven seasons with the Bengals, recording 125 catches for 3 touchdowns. Following the 2010 season, Kelly re-signed with the Falcons and finished his NFL career where it all began.
“It was a terrific opportunity to finish my career where it started,” Kelly said. “They say that sometimes things come full circle, and that was absolutely true with me. Another thing people say is to never burn bridges. The Falcons organization has always treated me quite well. They’ve always been near and dear to my heart. Even to this day I’m still active with the Falcons and doing community efforts. I’m very blessed to have started my career as a Falcon and to also end my career as a Falcon. Not many people get that opportunity to do that.”
From football to food
After retiring from football following the 2011 season, Reggie Kelly decided to start a new career, this one involving food. KYVAN Foods supplies to companies like Sysco, Sodexo, Kroger, Publix, KeHe, Firehouse Subs and more. KYVAN Foods can also be found online at KYVAN82.com, Amazon and Walmart.
“I had some really great veterans who mentored me and told me that football wasn’t going to last forever,” Kelly said. “You have to always prepare for the future. You don’t want your football career to end and then not know the next step. You have to have a plan for life after football, so that when life after football arrives, it doesn’t take you by surprise. Those guys taught me that. So, I started a food company. Everybody likes to eat, I definitely like to eat. I will say this, it wasn’t intentional or on purpose. I had planned to work in an NFL front office. I had laid the preparations and talked to some well-respected coaches who would help guide me in that direction, and that’s really what I wanted to do. But sometimes life takes you in another direction. I used to host free youth football camps in my hometown, and had teammates help out and talk to the kids. After the camps were over, my family and my wife’s family would cook for everyone, and my teammates couldn’t stop raving about it. My teammates wife called my wife and said that we needed to do something with our family recipes. So, we took their compliments and advice to take the recipes to market, and we did it. I named the company after my kids, and that’s how we got KYVAN Foods. It’s an extreme blessing to have an NFL career and then have a career that’s very exciting as well. I’m extremely grateful to everyone who has supported our brand throughout the years.”
“I just want the kids out there to know that they should never let anyone put a box around them. You can achieve what you want to achieve in life. Anything worth having in life is worth working for. You always have to work hard to achieve your dreams, and the sky is the limit. I am proof of that, as a small town country boy from Aberdeen, Mississippi. The good lord has given me a lot and he has blessed me with a lot. So, it’s my job to be an influence to the next generation and I want everybody to know that you can be anything your heart desires if you work hard for it and you always put God first. Then your dreams, like mine, can become a reality.”
Although Reggie Kelly spent a majority of his NFL career elsewhere, he still has roots in Georgia. As he mentioned above, he still does community events for the Falcons, and his Georgia-based KYVAN Foods produces quality products to a growing base of consumers and retailers. My biggest takeaway from our conversation is that Kelly is truly happy, which you can witness for yourself by looking at his Twitter account. He’s managed to not only have a lengthily NFL career, but now owns a company which he is proud of.
Kelly said it best: “I’m extremely thankful to the good lord for allowing me the opportunity to live out my dream.”