JACKSON, Tenn. - 5/24/2011 - Story by Matt Vines, courtesy of The Jackson Sun
Matt Kelley wasn’t sure he would walk again after suffering severe leg injuries during the 2008 tornado that leveled part of Union University’s campus.
More than three years later, the Union senior golfer is toting his clubs along hilly courses and has redesigned his swing to return to competitive golf.
Kelley will play his final collegiate event this week as Union qualified for the NAIA championships at TPC Deere Run in Silvis, Ill.
“Three years ago I was going through intense therapy, and it was hard for me to see myself getting back to this point,” Kelley said Tuesday as he practiced at Jackson National Golf Club. “It’s taken three years to get my game back where it needed to be.
“I have to give the thanks and glory to God for allowing me to be part of something this special. He is the reason I am able to do what I’m doing.”
Kelley was standing in a bathroom with three other Union students when the Feb. 5, 2008, tornado ripped through campus and buried the students in 25 feet of rubble.
“It was like a bomb went off outside the bathroom door,” Kelley said. “The door blew off the hinges … and knocked me to the ground.
“I fell in an awkward position with my legs out in front and bent to the side as the walls began to crack and cave in on us. Tons of concrete stacked up on my legs.”
The four students yelled for 20 minutes before other classmates heard them, and it took more than five hours for every student to be freed.
Kelley’s right leg was tucked under his left leg as he waited to be excavated by rescue workers.
He lost circulation in his lower body but didn’t realize the severity of his injuries until he tried to move.
“It felt like an eternity under there for me,” Kelley said. “I was under excruciating pain for the first 20 or 30 minutes … but my entire lower body went numb from losing circulation.
“I remembered thinking that when they get to us, I will be able to get out of here and walk to my parents and go home. But rescue workers asked me to help them pull me out, and I couldn’t move my legs.”
Kelley said his legs swelled to “watermelon” size, and he endured four surgeries during a two-and-a-half month hospital stay.
Doctors cut eight holes in his legs to relieve the swelling then patched up the holes with three more surgeries.
Serrated scars cover much of Kelley’s lower legs as he addressed a ball in Tuesday’s practice, and his left calf is almost non-existent.
No bones in his legs were broken, but lumbar vertebrae in his lower back were fractured. He had extensive muscle and nerve damage in his lower body.
He said he first had doubts a week into his hospital visit when doctors wanted him to put his feet on the floor.
“My feet touched the ground, and I couldn’t feel anything,” Kelley said. “It was one of the creepiest feelings to not feel the floor beneath my feet.”
After four weeks in intensive care, he moved to the dialysis floor for a month because his kidneys had shut down.
He then spent several more weeks on the rehab floor learning to walk again.
During this process, golf and a normal life were on his mind, and golf turned out to be his therapy.
“(Coach Andy Rushing) and (teammates) Clay Mallard and Mills Hamaguchi were coming almost every day to visit me and update me,” Kelley said. “They were telling me who was playing good and who wasn’t.
“That really kept my spirits up and kept me motivated.”
Kelley returned to his Somerville home for more rehab, but by June, he had picked up his golf clubs and was swinging them in his front yard.
“Balance was really tough for me, and I would swing and my dad would catch me because I couldn’t stay balanced,” Kelley said. “I started with a wedge … but I could swing everything in my bag my mid-July.
“Golf is a passion of mine, and eventually getting out on the course using my legs was some of the best stuff I could be doing for my recovery.”
He returned to school and competitive golf in the fall of 2008, playing the season with a cart exemption.
Kelley credits Rushing for his speedy return, and he gained enough strength to walk 18 holes by the first spring tournament at the hilly Falcon Ridge Golf Club.
“Coaches push. That’s what we do,” Rushing said. “That’s a special circumstance, and you don’t have a handbook.
“How hard do you push and how fast is this supposed to happen?”
Rushing credits Kelley for the team’s unity and ultimately for the mental toughness to advance to two straight NAIA championship events.
“(Golf) is a difficult sport to get a team concept,” Rushing said. “What happened to him and the way he handled it made this group a team … and Kelley’s done it with a smile on his face.
“The only thing I’ve said to the team about this is that when you get a bad break on the golf course … don’t spend three seconds feeling sorry for yourself about what happened in a round of golf.”
A self-described “grinder,” Kelley said he’s had to focus more on his short game because of less lower-body strength.
His tee shot was about 40 yards shorter than his teammates in the first hole of Tuesday’s practice round.
When he returned to golf, he had no feeling in his left foot and he still can’t feel his toes.
“Legs are very crucial to a swing, and balance is the main thing I’ve struggled with and still do,” Kelley said. “I’ve made adjustments to my swing, and I don’t let it affect my game.”
Sophomore golfer Brett Barry joined the team in 2010 and said Kelley’s been a true inspiration for the team.
“He’s the nicest guy on the planet, but he’s also been a vital part of this team,” Barry said. “It’s tough for us to walk 36 holes in a day, but he never complains and just ‘mans up.’”
Kelley isn’t just an inspirational cheerleader, he’s developed into the team’s fourth scorer this spring.
He shoots in the mid-70s most rounds and has scored in all five of the Bulldogs’ tournaments.
“My legs are still getting stronger but aren’t back to 100 percent,” Kelley said. “At the end of each round, I’m beat.
“But I love that feeling because I’ve accomplished something knowing what I’ve come from and what I was.”
Asked to describe Kelley’s journey, Rushing pauses before answering.
“You just have to know that there is a God and that He’s devoted his attention to Matt Kelley. I can’t think of it any other way.”
— Matt Vines, Jackson Sun, 731-425-9634
Phone: (731) 661-5027
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