Crazy Train to Peoria

(Photo by Duane Zehr)

Matt Hawkins
October 23, 2017

Crazy, but that’s how it goes —Ozzy Osbourne’s Crazy Train

From Iowa to Illinois, with visits to Nebraska, Oregon and countless towns along the way, Nick Kelly’s life has been a wild ride. He’s overcome two serious sports injuries and decisions that took him through Plans A and B, and into the second stage of Plan C as a transfer sports communication major at Bradley.

I’m goin’ off the rails on a crazy train

Kelly ’19, from suburban Des Moines, Iowa, dropped out of Iowa State University a few weeks into his freshman year to pursue music interests. After four years on the road, the onetime baseball standout gave sports a last chance to open academic doors. He successfully navigated the student-athlete life at his hometown junior college, found Bradley by accident and earned academic scholarships to the Hilltop.

“I never thought I’d go back to college, much less a traditional school. I certainly never thought I’d come to a private school,” Kelly said. “I didn’t come to Bradley without adventures along the way, but it was an amazing experience getting here.”

I’m goin’ off the rails on a crazy train

The wild train ride began in junior high. He mangled his foot and tore growth plates in a freak football injury during the last practice of his eighth grade season. It took him two years to fully recover from that injury. Along the way, Kelly tried to learn blues guitar from his grandfather, but blues didn’t pique his interest.

After recovering from that, he broke a finger during his sophomore basketball season. The injury required reconstructive surgery that derailed his athletic career.

His family also moved from Mason City, Iowa to Des Moines. The dynamics of large-school sports in addition to injury recovery gave Kelly time to return to guitar interests. He joined friends’ garage bands and filled his final high school years with gigs in the Des Moines area.

Music stayed a central focus when Kelly opted to attend nearby Iowa State University for college. He declared an event management major “because it sounded interesting” but spent his weekends playing local bars and small venues.

He quickly realized his heart was in music, not academics, and left ISU before Halloween to continue with the band Pressing Forward.

“When I was in the band, I thought I knew how to do life at 19,” Kelly said. “Man, I was wrong.”

I’m goin’ off the rails on a crazy train

The band’s first tour with Kelly crisscrossed the eastern Great Plains and introduced the aspiring rocker to the harsh realities of the business. Instead of tour busses, fancy lodging and buffet spreads, small-town rockers settled for sleeping in vans, fast food and grueling road trips. Trips included stops in Peoria, Omaha and countless small towns between.

Kelly eventually connected with then-Waterloo-based The Opportunist. That group, which developed a loyal following, toured the West Coast. Connections made through The Opportunist led to a stint with another heavy metal band, Terraform.

Life on the road took a toll. Though he was a respected guitarist in the heavy metal subculture, long days, inconsistent pay and mounting debts forced another life change.

“I was broke, but I was doing what I loved,” Kelly said. “I was spreading my message about what you could do through music. People told me my music made a difference, and that made the stress and debt worth it.”

I’m goin’ off the rails on a crazy train

Eventually it was time to get serious about school and finances, so he returned home to Des Moines Area Community College in 2015. Six years after giving up sports, and without a formal tryout, Kelly walked on to DMACC’s baseball team.

DMACC provided a needed reality check and life structure. The baseball team’s oldest player committed to being a leader even if he didn’t receive much playing time. Kelly pulled a 4.0 GPA while juggling baseball and student activities.

“I take pride in not touching a baseball for six years before playing on a good team. It built leadership skills and broke me out of my shell,” he said. “I put myself in uncomfortable positions because I had a strong appetite to learn more.”

Kelly discovered the Hilltop by accident during a baseball roadtrip to Springfield. The squad stopped in Peoria for dinner on the way back to Iowa. While waiting for food, Kelly googled the University and found the sports communication website. He texted information to his parents, who encouraged him to seriously consider applying.

Crazy, but that’s how it goes

The Bradley sports communication option kept Kelly’s baseball dreams alive, albeit from a Plan C vantage point. He hopes to mirror the minor league path to the majors by working up through front office opportunities. He looks forward to the Hollywood Semester, athletics-related opportunities and the challenge of keeping a perfect GPA. He also has a cell phone full of local contacts he met while attending Peoria Chiefs games before classes started.

“People would never guess I’d be here,” he said. “There are so many negative stereotypes with being a touring metal musician and an athlete. I’m just a nice, average guy with an insane story.”

Crazy, but that’s how it goes