Sept. 28, 2007
By Bucky Berlin
The transition from collegiate sports to the professional level is often a narrow and difficult ascension. Even for the few elite and worthy, the journey requires constant effort and is often incomplete. But for those willing to work and play their hearts out, glory can be found.
Former Clemson wide receiver J.J. McKelvey will have eternal glory for the touchdown reception he made at #9 Georgia Tech in 2001. On fourth-and-13 with two minutes left in regulation, Woodrow Dantzler connected with the lanky 6’4″ wideout for a 63-yard score. The play, which put the Tigers ahead 41-38 en route to a 47-44 upset victory in overtime and ultimately a bowl game berth, is one of McKelvey’s fondest memories from his days in orange and purple.
He finished his Tiger career with 84 receptions for 1,277 yards and eight scores, including leading the team with 752 yards as a senior in 2002.
These days, he is working hard at making plays in a different color uniform, and on a different kind of field, at that.
After a stint with Tampa Bay in 2003, McKelvey has been leaving his footprints all over the Arena Football League. The AFL, founded in 1987, has grown increasingly in popularity and now features 19 teams. The game is played on an indoor padded surface that is 85-feet wide and 50-yards long with eight-yard endzones. Each team is only allowed eight players on the field, but the football used is the same size and weight as the NFL ball.
The af2, a minor league to the AFL that began in 2000, develops players on 30 different active rosters, providing post-college players with ample opportunity for experience.
“When I first started, it was pretty rough,” replied McKelvey when asked about the transition to Arena football. “I was still running outdoor routes…my posts were too long and my corners were too long. It took me a while to get acclimated to the indoor plays. After a while, it got pretty easy with my size and speed.”
His acclimation would prove to be astounding. In 2005, McKelvey led the af2 in receptions (138) in only his second year with the Manchester (NH) Wolves. He was second in the league in scoring (298), totaling 1,454 yards with 44 touchdowns during the season. He also had three rushing touchdowns and scored five two-point conversions.
As is common with some indoor players, he also took snaps on defense, totaling 21.5 tackles, a sack, interception returned for a touchdown, and two pass breakups. He was no stranger to defense, however, as he played linebacker at Clemson before moving to wide receiver. He also posted 19 interceptions as a safety at Berkeley High School in Moncks Corner, SC. He would use that experience to earn af2 Ironman-of-the-Game four times, in addition to offense player-of-the-game four times.
The next year, McKelvey made the move up to the premier Arena league by joining the Philadelphia Soul roster, and he has felt at home ever since.
“The Philadelphia Soul as a whole is one of the best organizations I’ve ever played for,” said McKelvey. “From the owners on down to the coaches and the training staff, you can’t get a better group of guys to run an organization like that.”
The Soul, an expansion team in 2004, is owned in part by Jon Bon Jovi, Craig Spencer, and Ron “Jaws” Jaworski. Bon Jovi needs no introduction, and Jaworski, a former NFL quarterback with the Eagles, can often be seen as an NFL analyst on ESPN and as a color commentator on Monday Night Football. The Soul plays its home games at the Wachovia Center, also home to the Philadelphia Flyers (NHL) and the Philadelphia 76ers (NBA).
While he greatly misses the atmosphere surrounding Clemson football, McKelvey notes that the fans in Philadelphia live up to their reputation.
“The atmosphere here during gameday is the best,” admitted McKelvey. “They love you whether you win or lose, but they’d rather you win. They back us up just as much as they back the (Philadelphia) Eagles up.”
McKelvey played 11 games for the Soul in 2006, posting 36 receptions for 589 yards and 12 touchdowns along with 21 tackles, a caused fumble, recovered fumble, and pass breakup on defense. An ankle injury suffered late in the season forced him to miss five games, and the Soul lost to the Orlando Predators in the divisional playoff round.
He came back in 2007 with 50 receptions for 544 yards, finding the endzone 19 times. He also collected 19.5 tackles with one interception on defense. The Soul defeated the Predators in a Wild Card playoff rematch, but later lost to the Georgia Force in the divisional matchup.
McKelvey’s ankle injury prevented him from breaking out completely in 2006, and while he fell back from what he wanted to do this year, he is aiming for double in 2008. “I am going to put up bigger numbers than I did this year,” said McKelvey. “That’s a fact!”
In regards to the Soul’s past playoff slips, McKelvey hopes that with a healthier roster, he can help the team get past the second round, and in turn get rid of the “bad taste in his mouth.”
“I know we can go all the way,” he said.
McKelvey found a familiar face dressing out with him in 2007, as former Clemson defensive back Brian Mance joined the Soul after following much of the same path McKelvey took by way of the Manchester Wolves. Recording 67.5 tackles, four interceptions (with one returned for a touchdown), 10 pass breakups, and a recovered fumble for a touchdown in af2, Mance would soon have his old teammate vouching for him.
“That might have been one of the best things, right there,” said McKelvey on Mance joining the Soul organization. “I always wanted to play with my teammates at another level. Brian had a chance to come up to Manchester, and I watched him play a couple of games. I went back and told coach about him, they brought Brian into Philadelphia, and he had a real good year.”
As for the quarterback who threw him that storied pass at Georgia Tech in 2001, McKelvey still keeps in touch with Dantzler, who is currently on the roster of rival AFL team Chicago Rush.
A total of 11 former Tigers are currently listed on AFL rosters. Among them are Jason Gamble, Otis Moore, Tony Plantin, and Khaleed Vaughn.
In his time away from football (the AFL’s season is played from March to July), McKelvey has been living in Manchester to be with his family, and he has kept himself busy by helping out the Wolves’ organization. He has also been putting his Clemson education to good use through involvement with the Easter Seals as a teaching assistant for special-needs children.
He looks forward to the upcoming season with great anticipation, and being the constant competitor that he his, he hopes that he might use his playing abilities to make it back to the NFL.
“If you aren’t making plays, you shouldn’t be playing the game,” explained McKelvey. “I’ve been playing football my whole life, and I’ve been making plays my whole life, so that’s what’s keeping me around…my love of the game and making plays.”
For more information about the AFL and its players, visit the Arena Football League’s official website at ArenaFootball.com.
Bucky Berlin, a senior from Jamestown, NC, is a sportswriter for Clemson’s student newspaper, The Tiger.
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