Robby Kelley is a 29-year-old world-class skier who’s starting a new career with the Castleton University football team.
The Starksboro native joined the Spartans on Thursday for the first day of preseason, marking a new phase in life and a temporary shift away from Alpine racing. Kelley also plans to ski for the Division III Spartans, but his focus now is on a nine-game football schedule that runs from Sept. 7 to Nov. 9.
Although the 5-foot-10 athlete has never played organized football, his passion for the game has always burned strong. When he was 11 years old, he took on the challenge of trying to throw a football over his house, and he spent countless hours falling short before finally succeeding. At Mount Abraham High School, he played varsity baseball for longtime coach Jeff Stetson and was a soccer standout for Eagles coach Mike Corey.
Kelley has skied since he was a 2-year-old and his athletic pedigree is undeniable. His mother Lindy was on the U.S. Ski Team for eight years and competed in the 1976 Olympics. Older siblings Jessica and Tim have also been members of the national team, while cousin Jimmy Cochran is a two-time Olympian. Another cousin, Ryan Cochran-Siegle, competed at the 2018 Winter Games and is currently on the U.S. Ski Team.
Kelley recorded his first FIS points at 15 and placed fourth in giant slalom at junior national championships at 16. He competed for the University of Vermont in 2010 and 2011, earning five podium finishes on the carnival circuit. He was named to the U.S. Ski Team from 2011-2013 and he represented his country at the 2013 and 2017 world championships.
A few years ago, Kelley helped found Redneck Racing, which features elite skiers dedicated to high-level training and a low-budget lifestyle. During his first winter with the team, he won six FIS races and slashed his slalom world ranking in half. But after a disappointing 2018 racing season, Kelley weighed his options and decided to return to school as a student-athlete.
He follows in the footsteps of Montpelier skier Eric Keck, who was on the national team in the late 1980s and early 1990s before joining the Columbia University football team in 1994 as a 26-year-old. Keck was a 6-foot-4, 290-pound defensive tackle who earned All-Conference honors in the Ivy League. Another native Vermonter, Jericho’s Skyler Davis, transitioned from the U.S. Ski Team to compete for UVM soccer in 2015 and 2016. The two-year captain helped the Cats make NCAA Tournament appearances both years.
Kelley is staying in the Castleton dorms for the upcoming week and is eagerly awaiting the team’s first intrasquad scrimmage on Aug. 24. He’s not entirely sure what to expect, but he’s ready to roll with the punches while getting up to speed with the football culture. Here are some wide-ranging questions for Kelley heading into Saturday’s open practice at Dave Wolk Stadium.
TA: You did a bunch of sports growing up, but was football or something like this ever in the back of your mind? Or was it a more recent thing?
Kelley: “I never played competitive football or any organized football. But in eighth grade I almost switched over from soccer to football, and decided not to. But it’s something I always wished I did. I played soccer in high school and I was pretty good and enjoyed it. But I’ve always wanted to play football. So now that I get the opportunity, I’m super excited to try it out.”
TA: Did you play when you were 5 or 6, just throwing the football around? What’s your background actually playing the sport?
Kelley: “So my dad was a high school quarterback and he’d always throw me footballs when I was younger. I’ve always done a ton of pickup football, but I’ve never actually played. And I’ve always felt that I’m pretty good, and that I’ve wanted to see how good I could actually be. So I’m really excited for the opportunity to test that out this year.”
TA: Did you have any positions you stuck to at pickup, or anything you prefer?
Kelley: “Yeah, normally wide receiver — trying to burn people and catch the ball.”
TA: In terms of skill sets, do you think there is a lot of crossover between a top-level Alpine guy like yourself and then going onto the football field?
Kelley: “I think the biggest thing is my ability to change direction. Just skiing slalom, it’s so much quick side-to-side. And I think my cutting ability is pretty good from that. I get pretty strong with that lateral movement, and that definitely transfers over to football.”
TA: And how about the actual training stuff? I’m guessing it’s a lot of work in the weight room, and then a lot of aerobic work and cardio work too?
Kelley: “Yeah, I got the Castleton program and I’ve been going through that. And it’s definitely a lot of the same stuff I’ve been doing the last few years.”
TA: You obviously skied at UVM for two years, so do you have two years of college eligibility left?
Kelley: “In Division III you have 10 semesters to complete four years per sport. I’ve only gone to school for four semesters, so I have six semesters left to compete. I can do two years of skiing, and then I could do up to three years of football if I wanted to. But I should be able to finish school in two years.”
TA: In terms of football, was there ever a final personal-commitment moment where you knew for sure you were going to do it?
Kelley: “Skiing has been my whole life for the past eight years or so — since I left school in 2011. I kept getting better every year, and I was really happy with my progression. And then I had hip surgery in the spring of 2018. And then last year it just didn’t quite work right and I had a tough year and I wasn’t at the level I’d been at. And partway through the year I was thinking about what I was going to do if I didn’t turn around and start skiing faster. I thought of going back to school, and then I realized that I could go to a Division III school and continue to play sports. And the football opportunity was something I was really excited about. And then I started contacting coaches in February, I think. And then just the fact that I could be somewhere about an hour from home and play football and ski, it was something that I was really excited about. It was probably the middle of March when I decided that I was definitely going to do it. I just had to figure out certain things eligibility-wise, but it’s all worked out so far.”
TA: Have you played any semi-competitive or semi-formal games since then? Or have you been doing summer workouts?
Kelley: I’ve had friends that would throw me a bunch of passes. And then I have a couple big guys I’m friends with that are 250-pounders that would tackle me and hit me hard. Just in the last couple weeks I’ve gotten in touch with some guys on the team and we’ve done some workouts and played a little pickup.”
TA: I know you said wide receiver. Are you open to playing other positions or defense?
Kelley: “If I get there and my skill set is better suited for a different position, I would definitely be open to anything as long as it helps the team.”
TA: What would you say about either big advantages or any disadvantage of being 29? I’m guessing most of the guys are going to be younger than you, right?
Kelley: “It’s definitely going to be strange. But being in an athletic environment my whole life, I’m always around people in their mid-20s. Even the last couple years. When I was younger, I’d be around people that were older than me. And then as I’ve become one of the older guys on the circuit, I’m surrounded by guys who are 18-24. So I’m used to being around some younger people. But it’s definitely going to be a bit strange being in school and being around so many people so much younger than me.”
TA: And how about the academic stuff? Do you have to narrow stuff down for majors this year, or are you keeping your options open?
Kelley: “I was doing business at UVM, and at this point in my life I’m not super interested in that. So I think I’m going to switch to art as a major. Right now I have it narrowed down to studio art and film-making. And I’ll decide between those after this semester, and then I’ll really have to get dialed in after that.”
TA: And just for people who don’t know the history of Redneck Racing, how would describe that and how you’re going to manage the winter time?
Kelley: “So it’s basically just an alternative to the U.S. Ski Team that we created. I got cut after the 2014 Olympic season and there were a lot of things I wasn’t happy about with the U.S. Ski Team. So me, my brother and two other guys — Tucker Marshall and Andrew McNealus — decided to band together and start this team that was the opposite of the U.S. Ski Team basically. Instead of driving around in Audis, we’d get the cheapest rental cars we could get. We’d get the cheapest hotel rooms we could get. That was our thing. Just doing everything barebones, trying to not sacrifice our training, trying to still get really high-quality training everywhere we got, but just do it as cheap as we possibly can and make it viable. And it was a cool thing that people really latched onto. And then my brother and I, after the first year of Redneck Racing, we both got named to the U.S. Ski Team the next year because we’d been pretty successful. And then I declined and continued to do Redneck Racing for the last four or five years.”
TA: So you won six FIS races that first year with Redneck Racing? And you cut your world slalom ranking in half that year?
Kelley: “Yeah, I believe so. I was more of a GS specialist when I was with the ski team, so I switched over to slalom. It’s definitely easier to find high-quality slalom training anywhere. It’s tougher to find World Cup-quality GS training on your own.”
TA: And do you feel like you know what you’re getting into with training the next few days?
Kelley: “I’m prepared for anything. I know we have testing the next couple days, and then definitely getting into practice. And I’m just really, really excited to get going. I’ve been really looking forward to this since March since I decided I was going to do it. So I’m pretty stoked it’s actually here now.”