It’s no surprise that Caleb Kelly has emerged as a leader during his time at the University of Oklahoma.
Since the sixth-year University of Oklahoma linebacker arrived in Norman from California in 2016, his eagerness to lead by example has earned the respect of coaches, teammates and fans. In addition to his role in the locker room, he speaks regularly at churches, youth groups and other community events.
This year, to solidify that role, he was selected as a team captain and awarded the Bob Kalsu Award, which is given annually to a senior athlete who displays character and dedication on and off the field.
Taking into account his natural abilities, his aspirations and the realization that football wouldn’t last forever, it’s no surprise that Kelly chose a leadership degree when it came time to pick a graduate program.
“I always wanted to be the boss,” he said. “I wanted to make sure that I could be the head of a company or a team.”
"The online program just really helped because I could plan ahead. It just really gives you flexibility. Because I was hurt, I also interned (with SoonerSports) while I was taking my classes for this degree, because it allowed so much time.”
Online program flexible, relevant
He’s well on his way to fulfilling that dream after earning an online Master of Arts in Administrative Leadership (now Organizational Leadership) from the OU College of Professional and Continuing Studies last December.
Kelly, who also graduated with his third OU degree this December, a Master of Business Administration, said he learned about the online leadership degree from a teammate while he was completing his undergraduate degree in communication.
“Austin Seibert (a former OU kicker) was the first one who told me about it, because he graduated with the degree. He actually told me about it when I was in my junior year about to finish,” Kelly said. “I was planning on leaving, and then I had the injury. It’s a good thing it all worked out, and I was already taking classes.”
With days that usually begin at 6:30 a.m. and include workouts, team meetings, team meals, practices, traveling to out-of-town games and other responsibilities, an online program made sense when Kelly was choosing a master’s program.
“I felt like timewise, it was more convenient,” said Kelly, who at the time was also exploring the option of getting an MBA. “I had to go back and forth from home to school a lot my freshman, sophomore and junior years when all of my classes were on campus. It was a lot of walking. The online program just really helped because I could plan ahead. It just really gives you flexibility. Because I was hurt, I also interned (with SoonerSports) while I was taking my classes for this degree, because it allowed so much time.”
Kelly also felt that the leadership program was a good choice because it meshed well with his experience as a football player and his communication degree.
“I’ve been on a team my whole life, so working in business or leading an organization, it just carries over those aspects of teamwork,” he said. “I feel like the change aspect, the change culture, is something we have to constantly work with on our teams and in our sports, so that carried over into my courses. I felt like I always had something to write about when I was completing the courses and writing the papers because it was so relevant to what I had done.”
PACS staff helpful, supportive
Kelly said it was important to him to finish his leadership degree in a timely manner, so he created a schedule to complete his papers on time and just kept pushing. He said support from PACS advisors and instructors also kept him on track.
“I knew every other week I was going to have three eight-page papers due, so I would space it out however I could,” he said. “Even though I had a football advisor, I had to go through PACS when I was getting that degree. They made sure I had everything I needed. Any time I needed to reach out to a teacher, I had the contact information I needed. I think my interaction with teachers was even more so than in-person classes. Just reaching out to teachers, they definitely care. I think that quality is sometimes overlooked.”
Kelly said a lot of people are surprised when they hear he completed a master’s degree online. He’s always eager to tell them about his experience, and he encourages his teammates and friends to check out the PACS online programs for themselves.
“I’m constantly recommending this degree to people, especially my teammates and people who are graduating,” he said. “I tell them it’s definitely worth it.”
“A lot of players don’t even finish their degree. But having three degrees, it’s like, ‘Wow, this guy did this. Every time he got hurt, he picked something up.’ I wanted to make sure I was doing everything I could, because I did know football would end eventually.”
Staying focused through injuries
Kelly, who’s wanted to be a professional football player since the age of 7, said he expected to be at OU for three years before heading to the NFL. Due to football-related injuries – Kelly has undergone five surgeries over the past four years – and the COVID-19 pandemic, Kelly’s three-year plan turned into six.
Along with his work ethic and strong faith, working toward his degrees kept him mentally healthy when injuries kept him off the field.
“Every time, this put a massive change in my life, and I had to go through physical, emotional and mental struggles as I went through the healing process,” he said. “I overcame them with my faith first. My beliefs and religion have given me peace through all my injuries and struggles. I always made sure to stay busy and keep my mind occupied with tasks to get done instead of just sulk in my sadness or pain.”
Since his latest injury may mean an end to his football career, Kelly’s been thinking a lot about his future. His career interests include the administrative side of athletics, coaching, sports broadcasting and recruiting.
He’s had conversations with OU Athletic Director Joe Castiglione about what it takes to run an athletic program, and he recently tested his future in broadcasting with an appearance on Fox Sports Big Noon Kickoff prior to participating in Senior Day activities on Nov. 20.
“I got to meet some amazing ex-athletes,” he said. “I performed well and spoke well during my segment, so it felt like an audition for a possible sports broadcasting career.”
Planning a future in leadership
Whether he continues in the NFL or ventures out into the business world, he believes the three degrees he earned in his five years at OU will serve him well, and the skills he learned from the leadership program have made him well-prepared to succeed no matter which path he takes.
“Football is not something I’m going to do for the rest of my life, whether I play 15 years in the NFL or not. I may be done now. I may try to get in in a year. I don’t even know for sure, but it’s just so realistic for me to get a job in the meantime because I do have these degrees, and I do have the connections to do it,” he said.
“I just think that when you go into a business and the job route of life, you’re now in competition with other people who want the same job. Like in sports, you’re in competition with someone for a position on the team; it’s the same thing. What skills, assets do you bring? That’s why I tried to get as many degrees as I could while I was here, which is a very hard thing to do,” he added. “A lot of players don’t even finish their degree. But having three degrees, it’s like, ‘Wow, this guy did this. Every time he got hurt, he picked something up.’ I wanted to make sure I was doing everything I could, because I did know football would end eventually.”
As Kelly prepares for life beyond OU, he said he’s grateful for everything the university has given him, especially relationships.
“I guess my greatest achievement is how many people I feel like I have influenced or helped in my time here at OU,” he said. “Spreading love and positivity to others and actually impacting them is the best thing I think I have done.”
To learn more about the College of Professional and Continuing Studies and its online degree programs, visit pacs.ou.edu/degrees.