The long road back

MADISON - Heart, as defined through the lens of a Division 1 football player, has just as much to do with courage as it does the relentless pursuit of driven ambition and passion for the game.
It comes in every shape and size, every background, every walk of life and from every corner of the football-playing universe. Some get injured and prove it then. Others grind through a tough four-quarter game only to win or lose on the final play of regulation before unleashing it.
No matter what, whether good or bad, heart always shines through. Even if the common eye can't quite see or sense it like some closer to the situation can. It's transparent and visible all at the very same time.
Some have it and some don't.
"I think every football player could be a better player every day," UW junior defensive end Brendan Kelly said. " You've just got to approach it as getting reps and taking advantage of the reps when you get them. We're all going to have good days and we're all going to have bad days, but it's how you come back and what you do."
Kelly would know, simply because he's been through much more negative strife throughout the past 24 months than he would have ever hoped to see, or that he ever would have imagined when he came out of Holy Angels High School in suburban Minneapolis.
Football, the game he loves and works tirelessly to be great at, was taken away from him due to a cocktail of injuries throughout his first few seasons in Madison. First, it was his hand that required surgery and forced him to miss most of his true freshman season in 2008. Then, a nagging groin injury suffered the following year pasted the injury prone stamp all over his player profile.
He had to redshirt during UW's impressive march through the Big Ten schedule that eventually led his squad to Pasadena and the glorified structure known as the Rose Bowl a season ago.
"I found the love in the game still," Kelly said of the two years he missed due to injuries. "Even though I was without it. I play football more for the journey than the game itself. It's all the little stuff that people never see. Game days are great, but you learn so much through the struggles. A lot of people in life realize that.
"It's those down times where your character is really tested and you find out what you're about."
Naturally motivated
Kevin Zeitler, for those that may not know, is one of the more intense individuals on the Badger roster. Not intense in the way that would scare an every day passerby walking past him on the street, but in a way any football fan would appreciate their right guard possessing. He has a relentless work ethic that has him as chiseled as a 6-foot-4, 315-pound man could possibly be. Kelly, much like Zeitler, has that same work ethic.
His might even be more exaggerated.
"That kid is a workaholic," UW center Peter Konz said of Kelly. "I think most of his injuries just come from training so hard. He was roommates with Zeitler so that's got to tell you something, right? I hear they would lift two times a day. They'd lift here and then go get their own workout.
"I wouldn't doubt that."
Kelly has ideal size for the defensive end position. He's all of the 6-foot-6, 255 pounds the UW roster lists him at. He's strong, cut and full of potential. He adds another option to what is the deepest defensive line Bielema has ever had during his tenure as Wisconsin head coach.
He's stayed healthy throughout fall camp and he's been listed as a backup to Louis Nzegwu on the initial two-deep released earlier this week. He's been proving his worth on the field ever since he was cleared to participate, dating back to last spring camp.
"He's been through a lot with injuries," UW co-defensive coordinator and defensive line coach Charlie Partridge said. "So getting that confidence and trust back in his own body is important for him. It's never been a matter of toughness. It's just been a matter of whether anything is going to happen to him again and getting over those things.
"He gets more confidence with every practice that he gets through."
Confidence, as welcoming as that sounds, does not suddenly return overnight. It takes several reps in practice, it takes gradual improvement throughout the course of several practices and in Kelly's case, it takes complete trust that the injuries that had plagued him throughout the past two years are completely healed.
It takes some time, but it seems as though he's heading in the right direction.
"You've got to approach each day with a purpose," Kelly explained. "If you go out there just to go through the motions you're not going to get what you should out of it. I definitely think going through each day with the purpose of getting better will have you feeling more confident with your play. You're going to try new things and your coaches are going to trust you more on the field.
"That will give you more opportunities and that's going to lead you into becoming a better player."
Behind the scenes
When asked what it was like missing nearly two full seasons with his lingering groin injury, Kelly had to think.
He didn't go as far as saying it was 'Hell on earth' simply because he knows there are more than enough people in the world that have endured much tougher situations than he has. But he also strayed from undercutting what's happened to him by glossing over it like it was minor.
His career was nearly ended due to his groin injury. The fact that he's back and playing football at all, let alone at a high enough level to crack the two-deep, is somewhat remarkable.
"The kid has a motor like no other," UW senior and newly elected captain Aaron Henry said. "He's hungry. His will to work is like no other. That's the great thing about Brendan. He's always willing to put forth the effort to take his game to the next level, even when he wasn't playing.
"He was taking his game forward and beyond to help his teammates get ready for an opponent."
That required a lot of time in the film room, a place where Kelly tried to learn the tendencies of upcoming opponents offensive linemen. His work ethic off the field, much like it is on it, was off the charts.
"He studied film as much or more than the starters," Partridge said. "He would write up reports on each opposing offensive lineman for our guys that were playing to use. I've never seen a guy approach it to that degree. That's why when he comes into the room or goes out onto the field he's got everybody's respect.
"Because of what he did at that time."
Kelly would be the first to tell you that respect does not have the capacity to be given. It needs to be earned. Like a developing confidence, it takes time and consistent production for respect to come about.
"I almost punished myself in a way for being hurt," Kelly said. "I wanted to give anything back to the team to make up for my role on the field. I felt like I needed to stay in the loop."
So Kelly turned to those scouting reports. He couldn't do what he wanted to physically with his teammates, so he utilized his eyes and his bright mind to the benefit of his teammates.
"If you're hurt and you get away from the guys and try to fight it on your own that's the worst thing you can do," Kelly said. "Once you're with the guys and you're working with them and you're giving them scouting reports that you see, that's part of the team again.
"It wasn't like I was angry. It was just kind of like I expect to give something to this team. Since I couldn't give it right then I had to do what I could. It wasn't like I was mad at myself because obviously I can't control what happens."
Nobody wants to be hurt because it simply means whatever playing time they might have had and whatever shot at basking in the glory they could have experienced are tossed by the wayside. Nobody wants to be hurt, that's given. But something needs to be said about Kelly's approach, because simply put, not everybody would embrace an extended period of missed time quite like he did.
"He's probably a little borderline obsessive compulsive," UW head coach Bret Bielema said with a wry grin. "He's got all kinds of notes out. He's always carrying around food and he's just always trying to get better."
What may come
With a cluttered injury past like the one that defines Brendan Kelly it's tough to predict what may happen in the future from a football standpoint. An old injury might get aggravated or a new one, much like the toe injury Kelly had to deal with to start fall camp, could crop up. It's not as much of a crapshoot as it may seem, but Kelly's health will forever be a concern during his time as a Badger.
That's just the lay of the land.
For now, though, it seems as though Kelly is playing without any reservations. He's a football player in the truest sense. He's good at what he does and he's good at critiquing his shortfalls and commending the things he does well. If he stays healthy he could very well be the breakout contributor the Badgers so desperately need at a position knee-deep in the task of trying to replace J.J. Watt.
"The bottom line is you've got to have reps to get better fundamentally," Partridge said. "He saw that right away. I think he kind of initially had a feeling and maybe some optimism that he was going to come back and have the form that he was once at. I think he realized within three or four snaps that he wasn't (there).
"He's very self-aware and he's seeing a very marked improvement per practice."
Wisconsin is set to open its regular season next Thursday night against UNLV inside Camp Randall Stadium. Kelly, who continually says he needs to get better as a pass rusher, run stuffer and special teams contributor, is well aware of the potential he can have on the team. He, just like his head coach says, is a good player.
He understands he adds depth at the end position and plays on a defensive line that has as many as eight players legitimately ready to make an impact at their various positions. He's worked hard throughout August with hopes of making that return to game action, one that's been essentially two years in the making, even more glorious.
"You can mesh with a guy like that," Henry, who has also endured serious injuries throughout his career, said. "Seeing where he's come from and seeing how he's dealt with some things. I think that's why we have a really good relationship. We understand how it works sometimes. Sometimes the ball just doesn't bounce your way. But I think it all boils back down to football.
"If you can definitely see a guy that is going out there and busting his butt for you when he isn't on the field just imagine when he gets on it. Somebody like Brendan Kelly has had my trust from day one just because the kind of character that he holds and his work ethic.
"It's like no others."
Heart, as defined through the lens of a Division 1 football player, has just as much to do with courage as it does the relentless pursuit of driven ambition and passion for the game.
Brendan Kelly, if you haven't become cognizant of the fact, has it. The only difference this year is that he gets to show it on the field.
"He's a very good football player and we haven't had him for two years," Bielema said. "It's refreshing to see him have success because he's a well-liked kid and you just want to see him out there.
"It's just refreshing for him to play the game and for him to be able to start making plays."