Darius Kelly brings a wealth of experience at all levels of the game of football to the Catalina Foothills High School program.
Kelly played football at Buena High School, Syracuse University and the National Football League, and is tasked with taking the Falcons to new heights as their head coach.
It’s a task that Kelly’s waited for his whole life, and one that is ripe with opportunity. The Falcons have been one of the more consistent programs in Tucson over the past decade.
Kelly replaced longtime Catalina Foothills coach Jeff Scurran over the offseason, with an eye on taking the Falcons back to where they were earlier this decade.
The key for Kelly is to instill the life lessons that football taught him to his protégés, so they can find success on the gridiron this fall.
He’s thrilled with the buy-in he’s seen from the squad so far, with a steady crew of 50 to 60 players showing up for summer practice each day.
“It means a lot to be here,” Kelly said. “Just thinking back to how far I’ve come athletically, as far as maturity, it means a lot. It’s being able to give back to a lot of the kids who are a lot like me.”
Kelly, who never knew Scurran as a player, said assuming the top spot at the north side high school is an honor that he doesn’t take for granted. The Syracuse University alum wants to reach the same heights Scurran did, including the Falcons’ 2016 run to the state championship game.
He’s confident the team can do that, with a youthful core of skilled players that have taken to his coaching staff with gusto.
“[Scurran] always won, every place that he’s gone to, and I’m here to continue that and to get us where we need to be,” Kelly said. “I know that just a few years ago the school was in the championship game, so we’re not that far away from being where we’re at, and we have to build it back up right away.”
Kelly’s commitment to building a winner on the field, in the classroom and inside the weight room has drawn praise from veteran players like senior linebacker and tight end, Will Parker.
Parker, who finished his junior season with 59 tackles, said Kelly’s energy has rubbed off on players during the team’s spring and summer practices.
The rising senior is thrilled to have a coach that’s played the sport at its highest level, sharing life lessons that resonate with players of all skill and age levels.
“Coach Kelly has brought a lot of new energy into this program, for sure,” Parker said. “There’s a lot more enthusiasm here and you can see that in the number of kids out here each day. There’s a lot more work ethic than before.”
Fellow rising senior Conner Alubowicz, who is slated to be the Falcons quarterback to start the season, vouched for Kelly’s coaching staff. The young man believes the Falcons can reach new heights this fall, given the conditioning they’ve undertaken during the spring and summer.
Such conditioning allows the team’s players to feel confident that they’ll be in good shape come the fall, according to Alubowicz.
“I’d say that at this time of year, we’re way more conditioned, and way more in-shape than we have been in the past,” he said. “So, I expect us to be stronger, more conditioned and to work harder than in previous years.”
It’s that work ethic that’s caught Kelly’s attention, with a team full of players that want to grind it out in the grueling summer heat. He’s thrilled to see players like Parker and Alubowicz taking charge in practice, serving as on-field coaches for younger players.
It’s that leadership that wins championships, according to Kelly, and that will guide the Falcons back atop the standings after a tough 5-6 season in 2018.
“We can roll with 23 kids and I’ll be happy, as long as those 23 kids are working hard and trying to get better,” he said. “So, to me, the numbers, they’re important, but I want to get all these kids better and really focus on them as much as I can.”
The Falcons kick off their 2019 season against Kelly’s high school alma mater at home on Friday, Aug. 23.
Kelly is confident that he’s put his players in the best position possible to compete against the Colts. The key to doing that is to build a teamwide drive to get better at the intricacies of the sport each day.
“I have learned a lot from a lot of my coaches coming up, including (Syracuse University football coach) Doug Marrone,” Kelly said. “All those coaches who have always emphasized learning the game of football. Whether you think about it or not, it’s a science, it’s a lot of math, and all of those things go into it. These kids, they’re smart kids, and it’s been good so far.”
The key lesson that Kelly is trying to teach his players is that success in football is not easy, requiring years of labor.
He wants his players to understand that his ascension from the high school level in Southern Arizona to Syracuse University and the NFL wasn’t by accident. He wants his players to share the same love for the game that took him from the obscurity of Sierra Vista to the bright lights of professional football and believes his staff has done just that so far.
“It’s not going to be handed to you, and you have to work for it, and with that comes sacrifice,” Kelly said. “I sacrificed a lot coming up and that’s the biggest thing that I can teach them, that it’s a sacrifice. Whether it’s to go on to be a lawyer, go on to play football, all those things; there are things that you’ll have to sacrifice if that’s what you want, and that’s the biggest thing that I can pass on.”