INDIANAPOLIS — If this was a Disney movie, Chad Kelly’s 33-yard touchdown run two weeks ago at Buffalo would have been the happy ending.
Just a few months earlier, the Niagara Falls native was living in his parents’ basement in Western New York and wondering if he’d ever get a shot at pro football again.
Now he was back in his hometown celebrating in the end zone with his Indianapolis Colts teammates.
Neat, simple and ready for Hollywood.
Except Kelly’s life never has resembled a Disney movie, and happy endings in real life never come so simply.
If quarterbacks were movies, Kelly would be “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” The critically panned 1975 sci-fi comedy became a cult classic by touching a nerve with outcasts. Nearly 45 years later, it can still pack theaters for outlaw midnight showings.
Kelly became a cult hero on his own after his vagabond collegiate journey landed at Ole Miss.
Few quarterbacks can boast they’ve shredded the Alabama defense during the Nick Saban era. Kelly did it twice.
He threw for 762 yards and six touchdowns with no interceptions in two career games against the Crimson Tide, including a 43-37 upset victory in 2015 that was just the Rebels’ second victory in Tuscaloosa.
Kelly broke Archie Manning’s single-game school record with 465 passing yards against a good Auburn team in 2016, and he led Ole Miss to the Sugar Bowl the year before.
But his career with the Rebels ended unceremoniously with a knee injury during a game against Georgia Southern in November 2016.
He’s been fighting his way back to the spotlight ever since, and the road has been filled with obstacles often of his own making.
So as Kelly shines for the Colts as the fourth-string quarterback this preseason, he keeps an extremely humble disposition.
“All of us are fighting for a job every single day, every single rep,” he said Thursday at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center as music from his teammates’ lockers pulsated in the background. “We want to be the best. That’s what makes us professional athletes, is our mindset. And we’re gonna keep on working hard, extremely hard, every single day to know everything we can and just keep on learning.”
There have been hard lessons every step of the way for Kelly.
He was kicked off the team at Clemson during the spring of 2014 for “conduct detrimental to the team” and was arrested at a Buffalo nightclub that December after a fight with bouncers.
Controversy followed him through a redemptive national championship season at East Mississippi Community College and his glory days at Ole Miss.
Lingering doubts about his character and the knee injury combined to push him down to the 253rd — and final — pick of the 2017 NFL Draft.
The spot with the Denver Broncos was supposed to be his last shot. And he blew it.
Kelly won a training-camp battle with 2016 first-round pick Paxton Lynch for the backup job in August of last year but kept it for just two months.
In October, he was arrested on suspicion of criminal trespassing following a Halloween party at teammate Von Miller’s house and was released.
That’s why he was living with his parents and trying again to rebuild his image when the Colts came calling this spring.
His troubled past thus far has not made the trip to Indy.
Kelly earned a spot on the 90-man roster through a tryout at the team’s rookie mini-camp in May, and he’s almost always the first man onto the practice field and the last to leave.
His uncle, former Bills Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly, has a very close relationship with Indianapolis head coach Frank Reich that helped the 25-year-old quarterback get a foot in the door.
But there’s been no favors asked or given since Kelly first stepped onto the practice field.
“I mean, he’s been (a model citizen) A to Z in every way,” Reich said. “And he’s worked hard. As far as a player, I always knew Chad had that kind of playmaker in him. You can see that in his college tape. He can ad-lib, and he just has a way and a knack of making plays. But, can you consistently learn and grow in an offense? And I think he’s shown some progress there as well.”
The question is where this path will lead.
The touchdown run against the Bills introduced Kelly to the Colts’ fan base, and he’s been solid in two preseason appearances. He’s completed a team-high 69.4 percent of his passes for 236 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions while rushing five times for 53 yards and another score.
With Andrew Luck still sitting out of practice while rehabbing a lower leg injury, the chances are increasing Indianapolis will keep a third quarterback on the 53-man roster to start the season.
Kelly’s play certainly has him well positioned for the job, but he can’t accept it. He’ll start the season with a two-game suspension as a result of the incident in Denver.
So he enters Saturday’s third preseason game against Chicago with a singular goal in mind. After a pair of close losses to Buffalo and Cleveland, find a way to finish the game with a win.
“You gotta always have a chance to win the game,” Kelly said. “That’s what it’s about. Whether you’re up going into the fourth (quarter) or down, you’ve gotta have a chance to win the game. And, ultimately, it comes down to heart, having a great work ethic in practice to be prepared for that fourth quarter.”
Maybe Kelly’s happy ending still is out there.
He’s got two more preseason chances to convince the Colts to keep him around past the suspension or to convince someone else he’s worth the risk.
But job security doesn’t seem to be weighing on his mind.
If he hasn’t quite found a home in Indianapolis yet, he’s found a level of comfort.
All those extra reps before and after practice are paying off, and Kelly’s gaining a solid knowledge of the Colts’ offense.
He’s made plays on the field and avoided trouble off it.
And when he talks about his goals for the remaining exhibition games, he’s simple and direct. It’s all about the team.
“I think just execute better,” Kelly said. “Knowing where I need to go with the football. Don’t be late. Be on time. Anticipate. Lead the team, and just show my talent. All of these guys have great talent, so just put the ball in those guys’ hands and they’ll make plays.”
George Bremer is the executive editor of CNHI Sports Indiana and covers the Indianapolis Colts for The Herald Bulletin, a CNHI newspaper in Anderson, Indiana.