He arrived in 2022 with a moderate amount of fanfare. His name was well known by football diehards, but how would he fit into an offence that already featured McLeod Bethel-Thompson?
Argonauts.ca sat down for a casual conversation with Chad Kelly, the Toronto Argonauts starting quarterback this season. During the discussion the quarterback was exactly as he looks on the field; confident, and in total control of the situation.
He was just a lot more relaxed in comparison to his high energy on-field persona.
When Kelly’s rights – along with a draft pick that was used to select Deionte Knight – were acquired from Edmonton in exchange for quarterback Nick Arbuckle, there was always a great deal of speculation about how good he could be. The talent was obvious, but could he lead a professional football team?
That question is about to be answered as Kelly enters the 2023 season as Toronto’s starting quarterback, a position he’s confident he’ll play well enough to live up to some people’s lofty expectations.
He says fans are going to get someone as passionate about the sport as they are about the Argos.
“I just know that you’re going to get a guy who’s super dedicated – not just saying it but living it. This is what I love. I breathe this, I eat this; I do everything in my power to be the best player possible.”
Those aren’t just words spoken casually to make himself look good. Kelly has spent the off-season immersed in the Argos playbook. He spent most of the winter in Toronto, constantly watching video at BMO Field and working out with receivers in the GTA.
When he wasn’t here, he was still working, honing his skills at the Simms Complete QB camp in New Jersey.
His workmanlike approach to the sport should surprise no one who has been around him. If you’re at practice, be prepared to wait a while for Kelly afterward. When the session wraps up, he is either throwing with receivers, working on snaps with centre Peter Nicastro, running sprints, or just doing something else to help him improve his craft.
It’s all a part of his relentless attempt to become a better player. It may be considered by some to be borderline obsessive, but he just want to get better each day.
So what has changed since last year?
“What’s different is probably my mental toughness, my mental capacity; just how hard that’s been over the past seven years. I’ve had the ability to learn so much from so many different people and just using everything that I’ve gained knowledge from.”
His familiarity with the organization is certainly helping him on the field.
“Being around the system for Year Two now and really trying to hone in on the really small details, now I feel comfortable. I know what I’m looking for, I know what I’m seeing. I’m having accelerated vision out there. It makes everything easier.”
There seem to be few, if any topics Kelly would rather discus than football. Since he was a kid growing up in Buffalo he’s wanted to step onto the field as a pro quarterback, much like his uncle Jim did with the Bills, leading them to four consecutive Super Bowl appearances.
But the road from St. Joseph’s Collegiate in Tonawanda to Toronto has not been a straight line, with stops at Clemson, East Mississippi Community College (of Last Chance U fame), Ole Miss, Denver, Indianapolis, then a year on the coaching staff at EMCC before heading to Toronto.
Kelly couldn’t be more sincere when he says he appreciates the situation he finds himself in. In a football career that has presented more potential off-ramps than the 401 collector lanes, he’s continued driving toward his destination of being a starting quarterback.
“I was talking with someone right before the Blue and White game and he said ‘You need to celebrate this moment. A lot of people wrote you off. A lot of people didn’t think you would be in this position ever, let alone where you are right now having the opportunity to lead a professional football team.’ I’m thankful for that situation. I’m thankful for the people that I have now surrounded myself with. I’m thankful for my team around me and a plethora of other things and other people.”
The conversation with Argonauts.ca showed a side of Kelly few fans get to witness. They’re used to seeing an intense, emotional quarterback; constantly encouraging his teammates with a well placed “Let’s go!” or physically celebrating a first down or a touchdown.
He was candid during the discussion, looking at the interviewer directly in the eyes while talking about his past, his present and his future. His answers were straightforward, much like his approach on the football field.
When asked how different he is now at age 29 than he was when he was 21 – with a label of him being immature following him around – he didn’t shy away from the question.
“Oh, completely different,” he said without hesitation. “I just wanted to help too many people in the sense that I wanted to make everyone else happy and myself happy. I really didn’t understand what that meant until I mentally figured out where I was as a person; what I can and can’t do, what I should and shouldn’t do.”
He says he’s learned not only from past situations he’s found himself in, but from other people who have found themselves in circumstances that have shaped who they are. Kelly has found that looking at people through that lens has helped his maturation process as a person.
He’s also grown as a quarterback, saying he had two coming of age moments a year ago.
The first one is obvious, his fourth quarter performance against Winnipeg in the Grey Cup; coming off the bench in relief of an injured Bethel-Thompson and guiding the team to the championship. It was much like his much-heralded win over Alabama in his first year at Ole Miss, the moment was not too big for him.
His other moment of discovery came three weeks earlier at BMO Field when he started the final regular season game against the Alouettes.
“I grew so much,” he recalled. “I had never been in a real game situation where I’m actually playing the full game, that was a growing moment. Being able to throw a touchdown pass in the Eastern Final (on a pass from a short yardage formation) and then being able to go into the Grey Cup and to have a QB sneak in the first half. Just being ready, you never know when your name is called.”
It wasn’t just the championship game itself that helped Kelly, it was the intense period of preparation leading up to it.
“I think just being able to be focused the whole week, the focus really had to be at a top level and that’s what I’ve taken this whole off-season – how can I heighten my focus every single day, every single snap, every single second. If you look at what the great ones do, those are guys so dedicated that they want to be the very best. They’re diligently doing every single day what they preach; they eat right, they sleep right, they put everything in their body the correct way.”
There are few players in the league whose play will be scrutinized more than Kelly’s. It’s not due to a perceived lack of talent; those who are skeptical simply point to his lack of CFL experience.
It will take success in the regular season, then again in the playoffs for Kelly to win over those who are skeptical. He’s doing everything he possibly can to prepare himself to do just that.
Head coach Ryan Dinwiddie shut down practice roughly half-an-hour before it was scheduled to end…Kelly and Kurleigh Gittens Jr.’s chemistry is continuing to improve…Among other receivers to stand out during Wednesday’s practice were DaVaris Daniels, Lonnie Moore IV and Damonte Coxie…As happens in every training camp, several players have been out of the lineup with minor injuries. A handful of them returned to action on Wednesday…Thursday’s practice is scheduled to run 9:45-12:10 at Varsity Stadium in Guelph. There will be only be a light walkthrough on Friday in preparation for Saturday’s pre-season game in Hamilton. Kickoff time against the Ticats is 4:00.