COLUMBIA — Even with the rain pelting his car and the windshield wipers screeching back and forth, Nick Kelly was finding it hard to keep his concentration on the road.
“I thought I would hear from him because I played well. But you just never know, so I was nervous,” Kelly said.
Then his cell phone started to ring. It was his mom.
“She was talking really quick and was excited,” Kelly said. “Coach had called the house and told her he wanted me to play for him.”
Kelly, a senior forward for the Columbia College men’s soccer team, had been waiting two years for such a call. Kelly, who is second on the team in scoring this season with seven goals, was not heavily recruited out of high school. Yet he decided to continue playing soccer and enrolled at Kansas City Kansas Community College.
“Nick had always been skillful, especially at ball handling,” Kansas City Kansas assistant coach Chris Bisoni said. “What he needed and did develop at KCK was incorporating his skill play with his teammates.”
Since KCK is a community college, Kelly had only two years to accomplish his goal. His plan was to improve his skills and hopefully receive a scholarship offer to a Division I or II school after his freshman year. However, things did not go as planned.
“I didn’t get any offers at all and that was extremely disappointing,” Kelly said.
Frustration quickly began to affect Kelly and soon grew into anxiety as he started his final year at KCK.
“As a player, you always want to go somewhere,” Bisoni said. “That frustration comes from fear of your playing career coming to an end.”
The season seemed to go quicker than the United States’ last World Cup appearance, and he still had not received any offers.
“I was surprised no one gave him a shot or even a look,” former teammate Caleb Olmstead said.
During the last game of the season, Kelly could see his hopes of continuing his playing career tick away.
“I remember the night of my last game at KCK,” Kelly said, “and thinking that my career was over. Those thoughts of giving up were just filling my head.”
Fortunately for Kelly, a teammate was about to change Kelly’s life that night. After the game, Kelly went to dinner with a few of his teammates, including Olmstead.
“I mentioned to Nick about checking out Columbia College,” Olmstead said, “because Coach Klein was my club coach in high school. I didn’t know if he was going to try or not, but I thought maybe Klein could help.”
In the following weeks, Kelly looked up information about Klein and Columbia College on the Internet. After deciding it was something he wanted to pursue, he talked to Bisoni about helping him.
“In Nick’s situation, he told me what he wanted and we went from there,” Bisoni said. “I talked to coach Klein about four or five times, just telling him what Nick was about and how he played.”
The trick however, was getting Klein to watch Kelly in person, not just on film.
“A big key is seeing a player play,” Bisoni said, “Nick needed to get in front of Klein so he could see what kind of player he was.”
After listening to Bisoni, Klein decided to invite Kelly to an open tryout. Kelly made the two-hour drive from Kansas City to Columbia on a stormy weekend morning.
“There were about seven or maybe eight guys,” Kelly said, “and we had to play in the gym because of the weather.”
The players competed in one-on-one drills to showcase their dribbling and defensive skills. Then they played small-sided team games to display their overall game play and interaction with teammates.
“He brought everyone into a huddle,” Kelly said, “and told us that he was glad we came out and he would call us if he was interested or not.”
Kelly packed up his things and walked outside into the hard rain and dark skies.
“I couldn’t get my mind off of it,” Kelly said. “I was definitely feeling good about the tryout, but like I said, you never know.”
Fifteen minutes later, Kelly finally received his scholarship offer.
“It is hard for a mid-level community college player to get noticed,” Bisoni said, “because people just look at the best players on the winning teams. But there are always those diamonds in the rough that a coach can get if he just gives them a shot.”
Two weeks later, Kelly was a Cougar.
“It was a really easy decision,” Kelly said. “I was just happy to be able to play somewhere.”