In a small office at St. Paul Catholic High School in Bristol, teacher and Falcons football coach Jude Kelly is surrounded, not surprisingly, by uniforms, team pictures, footballs, trophies and a sign with the word TEAMWORK on it.
What stands out on a wall in the office, though, is a crucifix that has traveled with Kelly throughout his life. It was prominently displayed in his dorm room during his college years, in the office at his first job at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven, and at subsequent positions he held at high schools in Manchester and Southington.
The crucifix, which adorned his bedroom wall when he was a child, is a constant reminder of the deep-rooted religious faith instilled in Kelly at a young age by his parents, who were devout Catholics.
Much to the objections of others, Kelly displayed the same crucifix in his office at Southington High School, a public school, during the 17 years he spent there as a teacher and head football coach. Even more frowned upon was his non-negotiable ritual before and after every game — the team’s huddling to pray together.
“We always prayed before and after games,” he says. “It’s who you are and what you do.”
Throughout his life, a guiding force has always been his faith in God. He was an altar boy at Corpus Christi Church in Wethersfield, and he attended his parish’s Catholic elementary school.
“When I pray, I don’t ask for specific things, but guidance for making decisions,” says Kelly, who is not afraid to share his beliefs with students and players alike. “It’s not something I ever questioned.”
Over the years, Kelly, a member of the American Football Coaches Association and the National Football Foundation, has been recognized for his contributions to the game of football. On Nov. 8, he was honored again during an induction ceremony into the eighth class of the Southington Sports Hall of Fame. During his tenure at Southington High, his career record was 115-62-2, and his team captured Southington’s first Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference championship game victory in 1988.
More important than teaching the fundamentals of football, Kelly says, are the life skills he has imparted to his players and students. They include:
Hang in there if you are frustrated.
Overcome the fear of failure.
Have the ability to work hard, and the discipline to stay at it.
These life skills have left an indelible mark on Kelly’s players, including one in particular, Byron Jones, currently a Dallas Cowboys free safety. Jones was drafted by the Cowboys during the 2015 NFL Draft, after he played football under Kelly at St. Paul. During his college career, he played football at the University of Connecticut. Each year, Jones says he enjoys catching up with his former coach over a gargantuan dinner with Kelly’s family.
“I hope he realizes the huge impact he had on my life, not only as a football player, but as a man,” Jones says of Kelly. “His commitment as a football coach and a teacher is rare to see.”
Jones, a New Britain native, also credits Kelly for always stressing the importance of doing the right thing. “I've carried that life lesson with me throughout college and to the pros,” he adds.
Cary Dupont, president/chief administrator of St. Paul Catholic, says it is that ability to instill in players a way of life beyond football that makes Kelly a valuable member of the staff.
“Jude has always been a great inspiration and role model for our kids because of the way he lives his life,” says Dupont. “He’s very consistent and he has been able to get the kids to understand a picture bigger than football.”
One of the ways Kelly has had a positive impact on students is by incorporating faith-based practices into his coaching, Dupont says. During conditioning workouts, for example, Kelly uses meaningful themes from the Stations of the Cross that relate to each player’s life. He also asks players to attend a team Mass each Friday before football games, a longstanding tradition at the high school.
Football at an early age
Kelly’s love of football began when he was 10 years old; he played in the Wethersfield Midget Football program through eighth grade. As a freshman, he joined the football program at Wethersfield High School. While a knee injury prevented him from playing his senior year, he remained part of the team as its manager.
In 1970, Kelly began attending Southern Connecticut State University and was an offensive lineman on the college football team. After continuing his graduate studies there, Kelly stayed on as a football coach, physical education teacher and student teacher supervisor.
After a few years, however, Kelly yearned for more fulfillment in his teaching career; he felt he could make a bigger impact on students at the high school level, and he set his sights on a Catholic school setting. So, in 1979, he took a job at East Catholic High School in Manchester as a physical education teacher and head football coach. He led the Eagles to three state championships before leaving the school in 1988 for his posts as head coach of the Blue Knights football team and a teacher at Southington High.
After his daughter graduated from high school in 2005, Kelly felt it was a good time to return to a Catholic school and he set his sights on St. Paul. He started out as a physical education and health teacher, dean of students and head football coach.
Today, he still teaches health education there and continues to coach the Falcons football team, which has grown to some 40 players on what the school calls the froshmore team (freshmen and sophomores) and the varsity squad (juniors and seniors). The team ended the 2016 season with a 6-4 record.
Kelly believes his biggest achievements are not the victories or championships earned on the field. They are the accomplishments of his students long after they have graduated, he says.
“All of the kids who played for me, they always talk about their (football) seasons and talk about what they’ve got out of it,” says Kelly, in his 44th year of coaching. “I enjoy seeing what they've done in their lives.”