Lewis: Tulane’s Rob Kelley glad to be back in the game _lowres

Advocate staff photo by SCOTT THRELKELD -- Tulane running back Rob Kelley (28) is forced out of bounds by UL-Lafayette safety Trevence Patt (4) after a catch during the first quarter Saturday, Dec. 21, 2013, in the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

Rob Kelley didn’t attend Tulane’s debut game in Yulman Stadium last year. That would have been too emotionally painful.

And, sure enough, when we he did go to the second home game, he cried.

When you’ve played on somebody’s football team since you were 6, being suspended for what would have been your last college season is understandably hard.

“When I saw my position group walk out on the field, I got all emotional,” the running back from O. Perry Walker said. “I was close to all of those guys and coaches in the room, and they were on the field and I was up in the stands. The tears just started rolling.”

For many, if not most, players, coming back for a fifth year would have been unlikely. Teams move on without you, especially if you were signed by the previous coach and there’s a shortage of scholarships for newcomers to hand out.

But after getting “things that happened with my grades and some other little different stuff between me and the coaches getting taken of,” Kelley is back in uniform for the Green Wave.

In fact, despite a year off and playing at a position of strength, Tulane coach Curtis Johnson considers Kelley a starter. Not only that, but Kelley is taking the final class he needs to graduate in December. He’s the first in his family to do.

“It’s all about perseverance,” Johnson said. “Rob’s a tough guy, which comes from his daddy being as tough as nails. He wasn’t going to let Rob quit. What Rob’s done — getting his degree and coming back on the team — shows me what kind of person Rob is.”

And, CJ added, it was why he never gave up on Kelley, keeping him on scholarship although per team policy Kelley was not allowed to take part in team activities, including being on the sideline during home games.

“I had to work out on my own, but sometimes guys would stick around to get a second workout in and help me out,” Kelley said. “And if I got discouraged or something, guys like (Lazedrick) Thompson would say, ‘Quit lying down! Get up and get going!’ ”

Kelley said he never blamed anyone but himself for his shorcomings, and while he could have transferred to another school, he felt too much loyalty to his teammates and coaches.

But, Kelley added, back on the West Bank, there wasn’t always as much support.

“A lot of people doubted I was going to make it at place like Tulane,” he said. “And then they were saying I’d never go back. That just pushed me harder to make them wrong.”

But now, with his difficulties behind him, Kelley’s focus is on football. A 6-foot, 220-pounder who led the team in all-purpose yards as a freshman in 2011, in rushing in 2012 and shifted to fullback in 2013, he is expected to contribute at running back and special teams.

There is one problem. Because he was not in team activities in the offseason, Kelley’s conditioning is lagging. In Tuesday’s rugged three-hour practice, he threw up.

But vomiting on the field sure beats crying in the stands.