Jun. 9—INDIANAPOLIS — Ryan Kelly looks forward to summer barbecues, sipping a few beers and bonding with his Indianapolis Colts teammates.
Those off-field rituals were rare in 2020. With the coronavirus pandemic rampaging across the nation, players were often isolated. They arrived in the building for practice, dressed in socially distanced locker rooms, got their work in on the field and then headed back to their respective homes.
For the veterans, training camp was all but unrecognizable and the regular season felt like no other before it.
So Kelly was happy to have two weeks of organized team activities at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center this spring. It was a small step back toward normal.
“This is the game that we love,” Kelly said. “We’ve played it since we were kids. I think it was 170 straight COVID tests last year. That stuff wears on you. So I think everybody’s excited to come back in on our terms. You can only work out by yourself or at a different place for so long without seeing the guys that you’re going to be spending every day with. So I think it was very important, and everybody’s on board.”
It was a unique spring across the NFL.
Citing health-and-safety concerns, several teams boycotted voluntary OTAs and came together only for three-day mandatory mini-camps. Kelly — the Colts’ NFL Players Association representative — worked with head coach Frank Reich and general manager Chris Ballard to find a local solution everyone could live with.
The compromise brought the players into the facility for two weeks of light workouts and gave them two full months off before the start of training camp. In return, the coaches didn’t have to wait until mid-June to work in-person with the team and got to run more practices than a simple mini-camp alone would allow.
Kelly praised the deal as an example of the organization’s commitment to its players. But it also was another sign of his growing leadership role.
When the nation faced a racial reckoning in the wake of George Floyd’s murder last summer, Kelly was among the players who led a week of discussions about personal views and experiences with racial discrimination.
In a locker room full of high-character leaders, the starting center’s ability to inspire still stands out.
“I remember saying to Chris, ‘If we are going to go where we want to go as an offense, then Ryan Kelly is going to have to step up and be an alpha dog,'” Reich said in May 2020. “Man, I didn’t realize how much of an alpha dog he is. He has been top-notch. I mean, this guy has taken complete control of the offensive line room as far as the calls — what we do in the protection world and the run game. He is a really, really smart football player. He prepares very hard. He is tough.
“He’s got that personality. You (media) guys know what I’m talking about. He’s got that deep voice, and he talks with a lot of authority. He’s not one for much small talk, right? He just calls, barking out the signals. I just think Ryan breeds confidence. I just think when you hear him make the calls, you hear it with authority. You hear it with conviction. I think the offensive line feeds off of that.”
Kelly’s name isn’t far down the list of the Colts’ most indispensable players.
Indianapolis has a lot of faith in young backup Danny Pinter — who also can fill in at both guard spots — and Joey Hunt was re-signed to add depth and competition at the position. But this is Kelly’s show.
He’s made the Pro Bowl in each of the past two seasons, and his on-field bully mentality pairs well with left guard Quenton Nelson — setting the tone for one of the league’s best and most physical offensive lines.
Kelly’s also been tasked with helping to break in a new starting quarterback in each of the past four seasons. The process is going well with Carson Wentz so far, and those aforementioned barbecues should only speed up the process.
But Kelly’s response to his latest relationship-building challenge offers a bit of insight into how he’s managed to connect with so many different locker room personalities.
“It seems like it’s been my life for the last couple years now, but it’s fun, man,” Kelly said. “This game has blessed me with a lot. It’s blessed me with meeting people I would never have thought I’d be friends with or would have come in contact with. And so in the short, brief meetings that I’ve had with Carson and hanging out with him and his wife — just an awesome guy so far. This is what this league shows is that the guys who stay in here are professionals. They do the things on and off the field to stay here, to better their careers, and (I’m) just excited to have him.”