- Ivan Maisel, ESPN Senior Writer
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CLEMSON, S.C. -- On Nov. 17 came the moment for which Clemson junior wide receiver Aaron Kelly had waited his entire career: First-and-10 at the Boston College 45, about a minute to play. Clemson trailed the Eagles, 20-17. The winner would be champion of the ACC Atlantic Division and play Virginia Tech for the conference title.
Tigers coach Tommy Bowden wanted a home run. The play from the sideline: "Look X. Throw Aaron the ball deep."
So much for intricacy. So much for, as modern offenses are supposed to do, setting up a mismatch.
Kelly lined up on the left side of the field. At 6-foot-5, 192 pounds, he is the prototype of an X in offensive coordinator Rob Spence's offense.
"You got to be a war daddy to play X in this offense," receivers coach Dabo Swinney said. "If you don't have a guy over there who can win one-on-one, the rest doesn't matter."
Opposite Kelly stood Boston College freshman corner DeLeon Gause, who was starting because senior DeJuan Tribble had injured a knee. Gause gave up six inches to Kelly. Yet with help from an occasional linebacker or safety, Gause had kept Kelly from making the big play. Kelly had seven receptions for 58 yards.
"We were in Cover 2," Gause said. As the ball was snapped, Gause looked into the backfield and reached out to jam Kelly, giving a stiff arm to throw off his timing.
Gause missed. There are few worse feelings for cornerbacks, like slamming fingers in a car door.
"He had a good three to five yards ahead of me," Gause said.
"We were thinking," Swinney said, "it was going to be a two-deep [coverage], it might be a jump ball, he might make a play on the field; give us a chance at a field goal. As it turned out, he ran right by them, Cullen made a great throw."
"I ran downfield hard," Kelly said. "I saw the pass."
Gause turned and chased. He began to recite the Corner's Prayer, as in, "I hope the safety [Paul Anderson] can get over there so he can hit him, distract him, get in the way. Please get there. Please get there."
Just short of the goal line, Kelly began to slip. The ball came to him. He reached for it.
"It wasn't hard to catch," Bowden said, looking back. "Easy catch. Finally, game over. Monkey off my back. Finally won. Finally got the championship game. Haven't been there since '91. Oh yeah."
"He would make that catch nine times out of 10," Gause said.
"I mean, I make that play nine times out of 10," Kelly said.
"He'd make that play 99 out of 100," Swinney said. "And he didn't make it."
We all work hard. Wide receivers, we get a lot of attention because we catch balls. But the spotlight when you're catching is also the spotlight when you drop the ball. Everyone knows who it is and how you made your mistake.
Cullen Harper's pass bounced off Kelly's hands and hit the ground. And that's really where this story begins. What the people who know Kelly want you to know about him is what he did after he dropped the pass.
To start with, he did nothing.
"There's 87,000 people there, no telling how many million watching on TV," Swinney said. "Most guys would look for a hole to crawl in, or come up a little hurt. Aaron Kelly gets his butt up, this is all the way down the field, has to come back. He didn't ask to come out of the game. Wasn't hurt."
"I felt like the weight of the world was on my shoulders," Kelly said. "But I didn't want to let my team down. So I got up. It wasn't the end of the game. I got back up and tried to help our team win."
Harper threw two more incompletions. On fourth-and-10, Harper completed a 12-yard pass to keep the drive alive -- to Aaron Kelly.
"Most people would [say], 'Don't throw it to me,'" Swinney said. "But he wanted the ball again on the money."
On the last play of the game, Mark Buchholz attempted a 54-yard field goal. It would send the game into overtime and extend Kelly's chance at redemption. Buchholz made 16-of-19 field goals inside of 40 yards last year. He made 6-of-17 outside of 40 yards. Long shot, indeed. The field goal fell short.
When Kelly and his twin brother Avery were growing up in Atlanta, their parents instilled in them the idea that there would be peaks and valleys in life.
"My expression," Janice Kelly said, "used to be, 'Suck it up.'"
After the game, Aaron went to his parents' tailgate in Lot 4, near the football office.
"He was extremely hurt, disappointed," his mother said. "He really wanted to make that play. Those are things he asked for. He asked to be put in that situation when things are on the line. He felt really bad. He felt like he let his team down, his fans down. He was pretty upset."
Aaron's parents talked to him. Then his first cousin took over. Derrick Lassic played at Alabama in the early 1990s. He won the Most Outstanding Player Award at the 1993 Sugar Bowl, when the Crimson Tide won its last national championship. He and his best friend on that Alabama team, wide receiver Curtis Brown, treat the Kelly boys as little brothers.
When Aaron and Avery played at Walton High in Marietta, Ga., Derrick would work them out in the summer. If they didn't give him the effort he wanted, Derrick made them walk home -- 4½ miles. And when Derrick and Curtis believed in Aaron, all 165 pounds of him, Curtis called Dabo Swinney, their former teammate at Alabama, and convinced him to take a look. Clemson signed him, beating out Duke and Wake Forest.
"Basically, I told him, 'Nine out of 10 times you'll make that play,'" Lassic said. (Ugh -- that math again.) "'Keep your head up. You'll have an opportunity sooner than you think to make that play. We all love you. Sometimes you have obstacles in your life that build you as a person. This is an opportunity you'll have for that. You'll see how it makes you feel. You'll work harder so it doesn't happen again.'"
And Lassic stopped. He knew Kelly didn't want to hear a pep talk just then. A few days later, Lassic phoned Kelly and told him a story from Lassic's playing days.
"I had a game once where I fumbled the ball four times," Lassic said. "We were playing Louisiana Tech. The running back coach pulled me out of the game. Our head coach, Gene Stallings, said, 'We're putting him back in the game and giving him the ball.' Then he looked at me and said, 'If you fumble, do not come back to this sideline.'
"That was the first time in my life I wanted to get tackled," Lassic said. "I got tackled and held onto the ball. It was a terrifying experience."
Kelly watched the video of the Boston College game only once. He went to practice. And he stayed afterward. Harper threw Kelly extra balls. The backup quarterbacks threw him extra balls.
"We all work hard. Wide receivers, we get a lot of attention because we catch balls," Kelly said. "But the spotlight when you're catching is also the spotlight when you drop the ball. Everyone knows who it is and how you made your mistake."
The newspapers and the TV stations didn't dwell on Kelly's drop. Clemson prepared to play at South Carolina in one of the most passionate rivalries in college football. The game lived up to its history. The Gamecocks fell behind in the first quarter but never let the Tigers get out of sight. With 9:00 to play, South Carolina went ahead 21-20. With 2:09 to play, Clemson took over at its 22-yard line.
Kelly had made five catches for 64 yards. With the game on the line, with bragging rights on the line, the Clemson coaches did not hesitate. Harper did not hesitate. On first down, he threw to Kelly for a 26-yard gain. But a sack and a short pass left the Tigers staring at third-and-18 from their 40.
And here is where Aaron Kelly showed what he felt about the catch he didn't make.
On third-and-18, Kelly caught a pass for 14 yards.
On fourth-and-4, Kelly caught a pass for 12 yards.
And on first-and-10, Aaron Kelly caught a pass for 18 yards. The Tigers had the ball on the South Carolina 16. Kelly had caught four passes for 70 yards on the drive.
Harper spiked the ball. The clock read 0:17. As time ran out, Buchholz kicked a 35-yard field goal and Clemson won, 23-21.
"Take that drive. We hit him every time," Bowden said. "I thought that's how he responded, like you would think a champion would."
"The best part is that the coaches had confidence," Kelly said, "called my number and Cullen threw me the ball on that last drive. That, to me, was the best feeling, that they didn't lose confidence in me. I wanted to step up and make plays for my team."
On Saturday night, Kelly and No. 9 Clemson will begin the season against No. 24 Alabama. Kelly is playing for family bragging rights. He is playing to make the three catches he needs to reach 168 career catches and become Clemson's career receiving leader.
What Kelly is not playing for is redemption.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at email@example.com.
Aaron Kelly will be playing for a lot of things when Clemson meets Alabama on Saturday, but redemption isn't one of them.