Nov. 4, 2001
ATLANTA – Georgia Tech’s 28-21 win over North Carolina on Thursday was a Rhino family reunion. There was Granddad being honored as a member of the Jackets’ undefeated 1951 squad. And Dad was recognized as one of Tech’s legendary All-Americans. But the son received the loudest cheers from the partisan crowd.
The youngest Rhino, Kelley, a third-generation Yellow Jacket punt returner, was at his best. He had four returns for a career-high 111 yards and helped provide the Jackets with solid field position for much of the night. His 50-yard return of a Tar Heel pooch punt set up a Luke Manget field goal before the end of the first half, and Rhino’s 34-yard return was followed by a 51-yard touchdown run by Joe Burns on the very next play.
Rhino’s stellar night also gave him 446 yards for the season, which established a Tech record for single-season punt return yards. The old mark was held by Rhino’s father, Randy, Tech’s only three-time first-team All-American. The elder Rhino posted 441 return yards in 1972.
“I couldn’t believe it,” said Kelley, about knocking his dad out of the record books. “I can’t really describe the feeling. That’s just a dream that was a far-fetched dream for me earlier in my career.”
Last season, Kelley became the fourth Rhino to lead the Jackets in punt return yardage for a single season. His grandfather Chappell led Tech in 1950 and ’51, followed by Randy in ’72-74 and his uncle Danny in ’75.
Kelley has done more than hold up his end of the family name, but numbers do not concern the Smyrna, Ga., junior. “A lot of people set yardage goals, but my main goal is just to do my best on every play and just do what the coaches want me to do,” said Rhino. “Whatever happens from there the big man upstairs will handle it. Everything will fall into place.”
And everything has fallen into place for Rhino. A standout fullback and halfback in Marist School’s famed wishbone attack, Rhino was offered a scholarship from Tech head coach George O’Leary as a junior, very early in the recruiting process. He made the brief trip to The Flats and accepted the very next day.
“We had season tickets since I was a little baby,” said Rhino. “I remember coming to all those 1990 games during the national championship season. It was just a dream to play here and it came true, and I’m trying to make the best of it.”
Rhino, who ranks third on the team in all-purpose yardage behind Burns and receiver Kelly Campbell, has become a fan favorite. Tech students are quick to begin chanting “Rhi-no, Rhi-no,” whenever he awaits a kick.
“Whenever they’re chanting my name, it’s just a thrill,” said Rhino. “It’s unbelievable. I get chills out there every time I’m returning a punt. I’m trying not to listen to it and concentrate on the ball but it’s hard not to. It’s extra motivation to do something good but it’s really special.”
And Rhino has provided plenty of special moments, but more are sure to come. Though only a junior, he needs just 131 yards to eclipse his father’s career mark for put return yardage. Kelley currently has 619 career yards, while his dad posted 749 yards.
If the pattern holds, Kelley will have a son and he will don the gold and white in about a quarter century. If this is the case, Rhino would be ecstatic but he would raise his son in the same way Randy raised him.
“I’m definitely not going to put any pressure on him, if I do have a son,” said Rhino. “My dad put absolutely no pressure on me about coming to Tech and following his footsteps. I’m going to do the same thing my dad did and maybe it’ll turn out the same way. If it were to happen that would be something really special.”
The Rhino tradition already is.