It’s as easy to fawn over Joshua Kelley as it is your first newborn.
How can you not coo with all the smiling and laughing?
Kelley’s laugh often precedes him.
Reporters covering UCLA’s football team were waiting to meet him on a sun-scorched afternoon in August 2018 when they first heard it, wafting through the air like some gift from the heavens. Kelley couldn’t even be seen, located somewhere on the other side of massive doors outside the Wasserman Football Center as he approached for a group interview.
But it was only moments after he emerged that he emitted that same wonderful sound, forever linking the running back and his most endearing expression.
“It’s uncontrollable sometimes,” Kelley once acknowledged, making his point with another chuckle.
The last laugh of his remarkable story could belong to the Chargers. They drafted the 5-foot-11, 212-pound Kelley in the fourth round last month, giving a onetime college walk-on the chance to compete with incumbent running backs Austin Ekeler and Justin Jackson.
Kelley is not being paid to be a good humor man. The Chargers need production and are likely to get it thanks to Kelley’s high-level vision, speed and cutting, all of which were on display when he ran for 105 yards in 15 carries during the Senior Bowl. This is a player who rarely loses yardage, always seems to fall forward and is a dependable presence in the passing game.
And yes, he can get nasty, flipping the switch from lovable to despicable in warmups.
“I’m like, all right, I’ve got to get locked in, I’ve got to get ready to go,” Kelley said late in the 2018 season. “Someone wants to really hurt me, they want to tackle me. They’ve got to do their job over there, so I’ve got to do mine.”
Kelley was UCLA’s best running back before he even played. He regularly darted through defenders during training camp before the 2017 season, which he was forced to sit out after transferring from UC Davis.
He became a Bruin thanks to a different sort of relentlessness, having made a flurry of phone calls to running backs coach DeShaun Foster the previous spring while trying to find a new football home.
Imagine what might have happened had Foster not eventually picked up. Kelley was practically the only good thing that came out of coach Chip Kelly’s first two seasons at the school, when the Bruins went a combined 7-17 and set a record low for attendance at the Rose Bowl.
Kelley finished his abbreviated UCLA career ranked 14th on the school’s all-time rushing list with 2,303 yards despite playing only two seasons and barely playing in the first three games of 2018. He shrugged off getting benched for all of the third game to rush for 124 yards against Colorado in the fourth and rarely fell below triple digits the rest of the season.
His first game against USC was enough to make Tommy Trojan weep. Kelley ran for 289 yards and two touchdowns, the most yards rushing by either team in the history of a series that has involved five running backs who won the Heisman Trophy.
He wore his sweat-soaked jersey to the news conference after the Bruins’ 34-27 victory, reminiscent of a little kid bringing his football to bed.
“If somebody told me I have to sleep in this jersey,” a buoyant Kelley said, “I would.”
Much of Kelley’s life hardly has been the stuff of dreams.
He and an older brother were raised by a single mother who instilled relentless positivity. He was lightly recruited out of Eastside High in Lancaster, necessitating the move to UC Davis, a Football Championship Subdivision school. He practiced with the Bruins for a full season before being put on scholarship.
True to form, he stayed upbeat even through a coaching change and back-to-back losing seasons, once piercing the silence of a meditation class when he burst into laughter.
Just the sight of Kelley walking on campus often made teammates chuckle in anticipation of hearing his laugh.
“They’re like, ‘Why are you smiling or laughing all the time?’ ” Kelley said. “And I just told them, ‘Hey, man, look around you. I’m here at one of the best universities in the world playing football. There’s a lot to really enjoy.’ ”
The fun now moves to SoFi Stadium. Even before Kelley gets his first carry, Chargers fans will be able to detect his presence.