Following a season in which he missed nine games, running back Rob Kelley had an eventful offseason, starting with a haircut and later becoming a father. He hopes an improved focus on his body will help him excel in 2018.
It's a new year, and it's a new Rob Kelley.
Let's start with his hair, which he cut in late February. For the past nine years, Kelley had sported his signature dreadlocks and occasionally been pulled down by them on the field. He had promised a friend he would cut them once he made an NFL team, but then backed out upon making the Redskins' roster. For the last two years, it's been too challenging to start the clippers.
But this has been a different kind of offseason for the Tulane product. After MCL and ankle sprains forced him to Injured Reserve for the second half of 2017, he made some necessary changes in his training. He started working with chiropractors and acupuncturists in New Orleans. He started losing weight. He became a father. The hair needed to go, a literal and metaphorical fresh start.
"I just feel like it was time for something different," said Kelley, who had his barber quickly start shaving before he could protest again. "Everything changes and I feel like coming off of all the nagging injuries, I wanted to wipe everything off...And honestly, I love my hair but I feel way better."
Everyone on the team likes his new look, Kelley said, once they determine who he is. When visiting Tulane's Pro Day in March, Kelley said Redskins scout David Whittington walked right past him before doing a double take and saying hello. In the hallways this week, head coach Jay Gruden was thrown off by his shaved dome, not recognizing Kelley until others started addressing him by name.
According to Kelley, the haircut has made him feel more comfortable around people he hasn't met before.
"I feel more presentable," Kelley said. "I feel like when I walk in I'm easier to talk to, because I feel like some people look at you and they're like, 'Oh he got the dreads, tattoos, I don't know how he's going to act.' Until they meet me, he's a clown. But I feel like it makes you more approachable for people that don't know you."
Kelley began training hard in mid-January with the intent of taking better care of his body, which he says is 100 percent now. It is usually the case that an athlete's first major injury-riddled season forces some reflection. After rushing for 194 yards on 62 carries in seven games last year, Kelley cut weight and began learning more about how his body's muscles and joints worked together.
He received advice from his fellow running backs about chiropractors and physical therapists, ones he started using in New Orleans that placed needles in his knees and help him stretch more effectively – facilitating all the small things he neglected last year.
"I'm finding out I have issues in my hamstrings or my lower back that make other things hurt," Kelley said. "So you actually find out what's wrong with you instead of what's hurting, so knowing if you aren't stretching your hamstrings, you might have knee problems. If you aren't rolling your feet out, your calf might be tight."
It's been a learning process, much like the early stages of fatherhood. Kelley's girlfriend gave birth to daughter Anayah at the beginning of March, and Kelley already notices the difference in the way he's approaching life – he feels he's a little more serious, mature and less prone to joking around the locker room as he might have done as a rookie.
He'll visit Anayah in New Orleans every few weeks, in between the offseason program, and has his family nearby for support.
"Getting healthy, cutting hair, having a baby and trying to become a better person," Kelley said.
The new look and perspective should help as he approaches the most important next few months of his career. The Redskins have made it clear that they'd like to add another young running back to the group this year, likely in the draft, which would make a crowded room even fuller. This hasn't spooked him.
With Chris Thompson and Samaje Perine returning to the fold, and last season additions Byron Marshall and Kapri Bibbs eager to get another shot, Kelley knows he'll need to prove himself, regardless of whoever the Redskins add.
"Obviously this league is what have you done for me lately," Kelley said. "I just look at it like control what you can control. I'm going to go out and put my best foot forward, I'm going to do whatever I can do to better myself and put myself in the best position possible.
"When I came in, Matt Jones saw they brought these two guys in, and I come back and they bring Perine in. Perine's here, they're bringing this guy in. That's what those guys [front office members] do, and if they weren't trying to make the team better, they wouldn't have a job," Kelley added. "I don't look too deep at it. At the end of the day, it's still going to be competition."
So, entering his third year, Kelley will start to establish his new identity. Maybe, he says, that means calling him Fit Rob instead of his plumper nickname. That will have to rely on more than just a trimming haircut though.