When Todd Kelly was a senior at Bethel High School in Hampton, Va., in early 1989, he liked the football program Joe Morrison was building at South Carolina and committed.
Unfortunately, Morrison would die from complications of a heart attack near signing day, and Kelly and the other Gamecock recruits were allowed to consider other schools.
Kelly looked at Tennessee, and this time the recruiting process fell into place much more smoothly.
"As soon as I got off the plane, I saw orange and ate at Calhoun's and went to the fraternity and sorority parties and just fell in love with the tradition," he recalled this week.
It was love at first sight in more ways than one, as one of the Vol football hostesses whom he met was his future wife, Renee.
"She was one of the prettiest girls on campus," he recalled with a smile this week. "I found the love of my life."
Kelly also found his place at Tennessee as a good enough defensive end to be drafted in the first round of the NFL draft. As a result of his accomplishments, the current Knoxville resident will be inducted into the Greater Knoxville Sports Hall of Fame on Thursday.
"I'm definitely flattered and honored," said Kelly, who credits his Christian faith for his success. "There are numerous guys they could have chosen, but they chose me."
Kelly, who attended the same high school as former NBA star Allen Iverson, arrived at Tennessee during a high period of Vol football after several up-and-down seasons.
The Vols under Johnny Majors and later Phillip Fulmer shared an SEC title in 1989, won it outright in 1990 and played in Jan. 1 bowl games all four years he was there 1989-92.
"It was a fun time at UT," he said. "You could walk into an airport with Tennessee stuff on, and people would say, 'You guys have a heck of a tradition.' "
Although Kelly did not start until he was a senior after backing up such standout players as Marion Hobby and Chuck Smith, he saw plenty of playing time all four years.
He made first team All-SEC his senior year in 1992 and moved into second place in Tennessee history in sacks at the time behind Reggie White.
He also received laurels off the field, as he carried a 3.0 grade-point average and pondered eventually going to law school. He was able to enjoy such accomplishments through several strong influences at Tennessee, including academic counselor Carmen Tegano, he said.
"He kept me on the straight and narrow path," Kelly recalled.
After Kelly finished his senior year at Tennessee, he was drafted in the first round by San Francisco, and all seemed well.
Although he became a pass rushing specialist on the 49ers' championship team of 1994, he admittedly did not shine as much on the field as his Super Bowl ring did off it, particularly for a first-round draft pick. The person to blame, he said, was Todd Kelly.
"My NFL career didn't go like I planned it to go," said Kelly, who also played with Cincinnati and Atlanta. "I didn't take advantage of the opportunities. I would tell kids today to lift the weights, do the running and do all the things that are going to make you a great player."
As a result of his lack of proper focus and injuries, a career that he thought might last 15 or so years lasted only four, although he did become eligible for various league benefits.
Kelly and his wife later moved back permanently to Knoxville, where he now serves as a representative for Covidien, selling surgical implants to hospitals.
He also has tried to sell good habits to youngsters, particularly while serving as a youth football coach 2003-09.
"Just getting an opportunity to teach these guys techniques and fundamentals was enjoyable," he said. "That's what is missing, a lot is discipline."
Although he hopes to get back into youth coaching, he has stepped away for now to watch his son, Todd Kelly Jr., a junior at Webb School and one of his former youth players. To date, the young Kelly has had more than 20 offers from Division I colleges wanting him to be a strong safety.
Kelly Sr. said he would love for his son, who has a 4.1 GPA, to go to Tennessee, but he wants him to decide on his own.
The recruiting battle is actually a little more complex than one might imagine, even at the Kelly home. The reason is that daughter Clarke made a new all-girls cheerleading squad that began at Alabama last year, and she is wanting her brother to play for the Crimson Tide.
Regardless, Kelly Sr. will continue cheering for the Vols, still staying connected with the program and passing along the lessons he learned.
"You should take advantage of your education and make good choices," he said. "A lot of times the choices you make in life are going to dictate your future."
John Shearer is a freelance contributor.