In his first season with the Denver Outlaws, Kelly helped lead the team to the 2016 MLL title.

Tom Kelly's Path from Virginia Failure to Pro Lacrosse Success

Tom Kelly still remembers his first college faceoff. It came on March 8, 2011 — a frigid Tuesday in Charlottesville, Va. 

With less than a minute remaining in a blowout win over Vermont, Kelly, then a promising freshman for a Virginia team that would go on to win the NCAA lacrosse championship that spring, ran onto the field in his short sleeves and shorts. He promptly lost the faceoff.

“I went in there like an icicle and the kid smoked me,” Kelly said. “I think they scored, but I’m not 100-percent sure. I’m trying to block that one out.”

Kelly didn’t know at the time that it would be his final faceoff at Virginia. Neither did Cavaliers coach Dom Starsia, nor did Kelly’s friends and family. For the Rocky Point (N.Y.) product, expectations were that he’d help lead the Cavaliers for four years.

But Kelly didn’t make it to his second season. After 2011, Kelly’s concentration and academic commitment started to slip. By the start of his third semester at Virginia, Kelly’s parents pulled him out of school, and his college lacrosse career was over.

That was five years ago. After time away from the game that he loved, Kelly decided he wasn’t done. He worked with former Adelphi great Matt Schomburg at FogoLax and tried out for the Denver Outlaws in 2016. 

"I really got to miss lacrosse instead of lacrosse being my life. That’s when I realized how much I loved it.” — Tom Kelly

Kelly made the Outlaws last year, winning more than 50 percent of his faceoffs for the MLL champions. In 2017, he was an MLL All-Star. Now, he’s an elite member of the 49-player U.S. men’s national training team vying for a spot on the squad that will play in the 2018 FIL World Championship. The team is in Sparks, Md., this weekend to train at US Lacrosse headquarters and compete in a Blue-White game Sunday at 12 p.m. ET. 

It’s an unprecedented route to MLL and national team success, but Kelly knew he had it in him.

“I always knew I had potential,” he said. “I knew I was a pretty good athlete and could hold my own, but I never really put in the hard work. It wasn’t until lacrosse was away and I really got to miss lacrosse instead of lacrosse being my life. That’s when I really realized how much I loved it.”

It was tough to forecast what Kelly could be back in 2011. After a hamstring injury in his senior season at Rocky Point prevented him from training that summer, Kelly came into the fall season at Virginia out of shape and unprepared. Starsia remembers that Kelly had the talent to compete on the Division I level, but his commitment to aspects of the program like the weight room and study hall was lacking.

“You could tell that he had potential to help us on the field and we needed it, but at the same time, there are just some basic requirements to be able to participate, and Tommy just had a hard time wrestling that to the ground,” Starsia said. 


Kelly remained with the Cavaliers through the 2011 season, which ended with a win over Maryland in the national title game. He was “on top of the world,” he said, and lost his motivation in the classroom, which contributed to poor grades the following fall.

That’s when Kelly’s parents pulled him out of school. He returned home to Long Island to begin life without lacrosse.

“I was upset with myself and my decision-making at school,” he said. “I was self-destructive and didn’t want to do the things that I liked to do. Just sit around and be bummed. … At that time, I said, ‘Alright, maybe lacrosse isn’t for me. Maybe I should just go to school to be a student.’”

For the better part of two years, Kelly worked as a bartender at Oceans 5 Seafood in Shoreham, N.Y., while helping with Schomburg’s Fogolax Academy as a coach. He watched as players he used to dominate in high school succeeded in the college ranks.

Schomburg, who met Kelly at the Rocky Point gymnasium when he was 13, encouraged him to try college lacrosse once again. They looked at Salisbury and Adelphi, but those opportunities never materialized. Kelly also considered careers like firefighting and law enforcement, where he wouldn’t have to return to school.

But after working at Fogolax and playing casually, Kelly’s fire returned. Schomburg said he knew Kelly had the talent to play professionally, but it was up to him whether he wanted to commit to the training.

“I said to him that if he stayed out of trouble, lost some weight and trained every day, I’ll call every single GM in the league and introduce him,” said Schomburg, who was a Bayhawks assistant from 2006-2009.

Kelly went to a New York Lizards game and watched Greg Gurenlian dominate his opponent. That’s when it clicked for him.

“‘You could throw me out there,” Kelly told his friends. “‘I could have done better than that guy. I think I’m going to try to play.’”

Kelly’s friends laughed, but he was serious. Kelly lost more than 50 pounds and trained alongside Schomburg for months to get ready for a possible MLL tryout.


Kelly finished this MLL season ranked third in faceoff winning percentage and played in the MLL All-Star Game.

After tearing his achilles at War on the Shore in late 2015 and the ensuing recovery, Kelly had his shot with the Outlaws in April 2016. With former faceoff man Anthony Kelly out of the picture, Tom Kelly battled  Brent Hiken and Chris May for the position. He took the starting job just a handful of games into the 2016 season, helping the Outlaws dig out from a 2-5 start to win the MLL championship. Kelly won 20 of 38 faceoffs in the championship game, a wild 19-18 win over the Ohio Machine at rain-soaked Fifth Third Bank Stadium in Kennesaw, Ga.

“It wrote the end to the story there,” Kelly said of the championship. “All the doubt I had about my career and what my career could have been and how I could have taken care of my business in college — I never really reached that peak. At that point, I was like, ‘My talent wasn’t going to waste. I didn’t fail myself here.’”

But the upward trajectory didn’t end there. Kelly’s teammates encouraged him to submit his name into the U.S. national team tryout pool. He did so, and surprisingly, was chosen by coach John Danowski and his staff for tryouts.

“I was shocked,” Kelly said. “I was like, ‘What do they want me for?’”

Kelly could not participate in the first round of tryouts after separating his shoulder in the MLL All-Star Game. However, the staff saw enough in him to include him on the training roster.

Fresh off finishing third in the MLL in faceoff winning percentage (56.7) this season, Kelly has a chance to show that his journey isn’t done just yet.