Land of 10 has embarked on a series of “Next Generation” articles, a project that aims to bring our readers greater insight into the class of 2017 signees. Land of 10 Iowa writers Scott Dochterman and Bobby La Gesse are hard at work visiting the Iowa incoming freshman class to show you more than 40-yard dash times and recruiting rankings. Each week, Land of 10 will introduce the Iowa fan base to one of the new Hawkeyes. Up this week is 3-star RB Ivory Kelly-Martin.
OSWEGO, Ill. — As a little kid, Ivory Kelly-Martin would wait for his dad to arrive home from work. When the door opened, the best part of his day began.
Kelly-Martin, his brother, Decxavier, and his dad, Jamar Kelly, would head to a local Chicago park to throw the football. The brothers would take handoffs, score touchdowns and fight for dad’s approval.
It was fun, but it wasn’t all play time. Kelly would work out the boys — just like his high school teams — putting them through drills and stressing the finer points of ball security.
“I became a pro at that before the age of 6,” Kelly-Martin said.
Thinking about it now, 12 years later, brings a smile to Kelly-Martin’s face. He loved those days, blissfully unaware of how they would shape his future. With each trip to the park, roots were spreading that eventually would lead him to Division I football and an Iowa scholarship.
The two people Kelly-Martin tried to emulate were with him. His brother ran next to him, setting a bar Ivory-Martin kept trying to clear. His dad, oversaw his development and put together a plan that would turn him into a football star.
For Kelly-Martin, flinging the football with family is a great bonding memory, but it’s so much more than that.
• • •
Kelly-Martin’s story begins with his father sitting in a Football 101 class. Yes, an introductory junior college course is an unexpected option for a former high school football star.
Jamar Kelly was a standout prep running back, splitting time between Weber and Austin high schools in Chicago. He was good enough to go to the University of Illinois, but his grades weren’t in order.
He became a Prop 48 student and needed to improve academically before he could suit up for the Illini. It didn’t work out, so Kelly transferred to Harper College in Palatine, Ill. — on one condition. He needed to take Football 101. The Harper staff quickly realized that Martin had survived in high school on his physical gifts. He didn’t understand the rules of the game or why coaches told him to do things.
“It was great for someone who was athletically strong, but whose football IQ was poor,” Kelly said.
— Hawkeye Football (@HawkeyeFootball) February 1, 2017
Kelly possessed talent but he ignored everything else. The class would alter his future, showing him a different side of football. It led him into coaching, which he did for parts of two decades in Chicago, including as the Collins Academy High School head coach in 2007 and 2008.
He made sure his players appreciated the mental component of the game. His athletes didn’t just run through drills; he taught them why they mattered. It would be the same with his children. He would make sure they didn’t make his mistakes.
“With my boys, I’ve always pushed them to challenge their football IQs,” Kelly said. “Make it constantly great.”
It’s why they ended up at the park, learning fundamentals, like how to hold a football when taking a handoff.
• • •
If Kelly-Martin wasn’t taking handoffs from his dad, he was doing so for the Windy City Dolphins, a youth team in Chicago.
His earliest football memories are in the backfield. He remembers his first touchdown as an 8-year-old. As he crossed the goal line he saw his mom, screaming in the back of the end zone. It was the first time she watched him play and a sense of pride swelled inside the young boy. He was happy that his football success could bring so much excitement to someone else.
“Seeing their joy really brings me joy,” Kelly-Martin said.
He’s a pleaser; he wants to make others happy. It’s easy for him to do that in football. His family would cheer each tackle he made. His friends and coaches would smile after each pee-wee touchdown he scored.
But Kelly-Martin didn’t just play because others liked to watch him run; he quickly grew to love the sport. It came easy, but he knew much work would be required. He said he’s always enjoyed the process as much as the final result.
“Football is one of the greatest things,” Kelly-Martin said.
It didn’t take Kelly long to realize his son could excel at the sport.
“You saw the difference between him and the other kids,” Kelly said. “Yes, it’s a young age, but you saw the IQ of the game, the technique of the game, understanding of the game and the athletic, physical ability.”
Kelly-Martin didn’t realize any of it. He just heard the stories about Kelly’s days carrying the football and wanted to do the same thing.
“That was influential to me,” Kelly-Martin said.
Kelly saw real football potential in both of his boys. The athletic gene also was present in his daughter, Ty, but football was his sport. He knew what it required, so he passed it on to his sons from a young age, be it at the park or a practice. He even retired as a high school assistant athletic director and football coach in 2008 so he could be around them more and help with the recruiting process.
There would be distinct lanes for Kelly the dad, and Kelly the coach. He would tell Kelly-Martin when he was going from one to the other, about to treat Kelly-Martin like any of his football players.
“I love him to death, and as a coach I am always listening to him,” Kelly-Martin said. “He always has something good to say.”
Kelly-Martin and his brother grew up on the football field. They would attend practices for their dad’s squads. They would even tag along to Collins Academy team camps in the summer. The duo would bunk next to coaches and go through drills with the players.
“That was a really big aspect that allowed me to perform in front of the other kids my age,” Kelly-Martin said.
Kelly didn’t want his youngest son to just play well. His intellect needed to match his physical gifts. So Kelly forbid Ivory to play running back for parts of middle school.
Kelly-Martin moved to quarterback in seventh grade so he could learn to read defenses better. He switched to slot receiver in eighth grade to work on his hands and playing in space.
Kelly-Martin begrudgingly did it — and walked away from the experiment with a better understanding of offensive football.
“That was kind of what we were after,” Kelly said.
• • •
The same traits always stand out when Oswego East football coach Tyson LeBlanc watches Kelly-Martin work out.
High football IQ.
There isn’t a tag on Kelly-Martin’s helmet that reads “coach’s son,” but there might as well be. Those are the characteristics LeBlanc tends to see when watching a coach’s son.
“He kind of has them all,” LeBlanc said.
He’s not alone. Older brother Decxavier is the same way. All that time around his dad’s teams paid off for both sons.
Kelly-Martin would always watch his brother, who would become an honorable mention all-state performer and Illinois State linebacker. He was the first to play football, the first to excel in high school, the first to be recruited.
Kelly-Martin watched it all, taking mental notes. He realized that his brother put together a blueprint for success, showing him a way to be greater than he ever thought.
“That pretty much pushed me to get to the point I’m at now,” Kelly-Martin said.
Thanks to Everyone that has helped me on my journey! I'm officially a Hawkeye and ready for the next chapter of my life! ?? pic.twitter.com/7R45OU71fA
— Ivory Kelly-Martin (@kellymartinivo) February 1, 2017
Decxavier went to Nazareth Academy. So did Kelly-Martin. That meant waking up at 4:45 a.m. for the 45-to-60 minute ride to the LaGrange, Ill., school. Off-season workouts started at 6 a.m. School would follow, along with additional training. They wouldn’t arrive home until 8 or 9 p.m.
“That was just the life for two-and-a-half years,” Kelly-Martin said.
Football came first. If that meant waking up before sunrise to play for a team that could maximize his potential, so be it. The brothers would only play other sports if the coaches were fine with the boys missing an occasional practice or contest because of football training.
Training was just like school — only the best would do. The Kelly-Martins work out at ETF Performance Training in Deerfield, Ill., another 45-minute drive from home. The facility trains professional athletes in a variety of sports, including football. Kelly-Martin believes he started training this way when he was about 10. Now he’s in a college prep regimen, designed to ensure that he’s in peak form for his arrival this summer at Iowa.
“He is getting the best training and preparation going into college,” his dad said.
Kelly oversees everything, but the plan wouldn’t matter if Kelly-Martin weren’t on board. Kids sometimes burn out or grow disinterested if they’re pushed hard. Not Kelly-Martin. He relishes the chance to train.
“He is non-stop, probably to a fault,” LeBlanc said.
Injuries limited Kelly-Martin’s production as a sophomore, but he won a state title with his brother in 2014. He rushed for 2,036 yards as a junior and helped Nazareth claim a second straight championship.
But Kelly-Martin always wanted to play high school football with his friends in Oswego, where the family moved in 2009. He nearly transferred to Oswego East after his sophomore season and did so the second semester of his junior year. He committed to Iowa shortly after enrolling and rushed for 1,360 yards and 22 touchdowns this past fall.
Over time, Kelly-Martin developed into a runner without a weakness LeBlanc could spot. He could power over defenders. He could juke around them. Pass catching and pass protection weren’t problems.
Kelly-Martin became the player his father hoped he would become. It stood out in his best two traits — his vision and instincts. Kelly-Martin is a patient runner, setting up his blocks to create open rushing lanes.
“That’s a product of being around the game and having the ball in his hands,” LeBlanc said.
• • •
As the final horn sounded, the scoreboard read: Loyola Academy 22, Oswego East 3. That game on Nov. 5 would be the last time Kelly-Martin would walk off a high school football field.
He was held to 33 rushing yards, a rough ending to a fantastic high school career that included two state titles and first-team all-state honors.
“I found a sense of accomplishment,” Kelly-Martin said.
With it came family bragging rights. He only hints at it, and certainly won’t say it unless pressed, but he thinks he’s eclipsed his father’s playing career. He ran right past the family member who planned it all, and the one who trained alongside him.
“I am going to start the next chapter in my life,” Kelly-Martin said. “That will pretty much be bigger than anything.”
Even the park workouts.
For the complete Iowa NextGen series, click this link.