Mike Kelly walked onto the Wagner College football field in 1962 as an unknown commodity. He did not receive a single scholarship offer out of high school and was considered to be a “walk on” at Wagner. He knew all about Wagner’s success on the gridiron, especially their undefeated season in 1960. Growing up in northeastern New Jersey, he followed the Seahawks in the local newspaper. His dream was to make the team. After the Wagner coaches saw Mike’s talent on the field, he earned a football scholarship following his freshman year.
Fast forward to 1999 and there was Mike being inducted into the Seahawks Hall of Fame. “I was happy they did that for me,” he said humbly, “it is one of my proudest accomplishments for sure.” In between were stints in the NFL - the Miami Dolphins in 1966, followed by the New York Giants in 1968.
Mike credits much of his success to Wagner's football program which allowed him to thrive. “I would give the coaching staff credit because they taught me helpful techniques and allowed me to do things on the field that they wouldn’t allow other players to do. They treated me like an individual and gave me a lot of freedom to play my best game, as long as I didn’t mess things up too bad.” he joked. Mike specifically recognized his head coach Bob Hicks for helping him develop as a player, “Coach Hicks was extremely supportive of me, he always encouraged me to play my game.” Looking back, Mike believes that Wagner College was the best fit for him as a football player, and as a student, as it allowed him to reach his full potential.
Having been born and raised in Harlem and Washington Heights, Mike had a comfortable and integrated preteen experience which did not include any organized sports. So, when he moved to northern New Jersey to start eighth grade, things changed for him athletically, and he began playing for the first time on teams that had uniforms and grass fields. What was more challenging was adjusting to being only one of about twenty minority students in a class of over six hundred students. There was a lot of “subtle, social separation” and we all lived in one section of town. However, when he arrived at Wagner, he felt things had started to change for the better. “College kids were able to make their own decisions and choose who they wanted to hang out with; and it was certainly better than when I was in high school.” While Mike was one of only two black players on Wagner’s football team, he felt comfortable on campus and freely participated in all the events and activities. He pledged the Delta Nu fraternity and was welcomed into the group. However, Mike still felt that more could be done to recognize the concerns of students of color and he believed that Wagner’s minority students needed more representation.
When Mike returned to Wagner as part of the coaching staff, he met with the black student-athletes who wanted to start a Black Student Union (BSU). Mike was asked to serve as the club’s advisor and he readily agreed. Mike played a pivotal role as BSU’s staff advisor from 1970-1972, encouraging students and helping them achieve their goals. “I loved being their advisor, I got to see changes being made, and things were changing for the better, the voice of black students started to be heard on campus.”
After Mike's time at Wagner, he went on to be a director and vice president of human resources for multiple companies including Dell and First Union National Bank. In 1995, Mike was asked to serve on the Wagner College Board of Trustees, where he continues to serve as a Lifetime member. Mike enjoys his work with Wagner, especially the time he spends with student-athletes. “They make me feel young again,” he said with a laugh.
A few years ago, Mike made a commitment to include Wagner College in his estate plans and became a member of the Heritage Society. When asked about his reasons for giving back, he said, “Although I couldn’t make a massive impact financially, I knew I had to do my part to keep Wagner strong.” He continued, “I have always been proud of my contributions to help the students and programs at the college - and now I am committed to help with a significant financial contribution.” Mike gave his heart and soul to Wagner as a football player, later as a coach and mentor, as a trustee, and now as a member of the Heritage Society. He is a Seahawk forever!