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Darius Kelly found new purpose as Saguaro head coach

Apr. 10—Darius Kelly can still vividly recall the time he spent playing in the front yard of his family's North Carolina home with his older brother.

Bryan is 10 years older, meaning Kelly was often on the receiving end of hard tackles while the two played football. But despite the pain that came with that, many memories and life lessons came, too. Many of those he still uses to this day now as a 31-year-old football coach.

"North Carolina is where I think things really started to hone in on who I wanted to be as a person," Kelly said. "My brother wanted me to be successful, so he gave me that tough love and beat me up in the front yard. Those little things got me to want to be better and to be the best."

Kelly was hired to become the new head football coach at Saguaro in March, taking over for Zak Hill who departed after one season.

Kelly was part of the 6A championship staff last year coaching wide receivers and defensive backs, the position he gravitated toward in his own football career. Now, he's quickly learning what it means to be the head coach at Saguaro.

Saguaro has won 14 state titles in program history. One of those was an Open Division championship in 2021. The Sabercats have appeared in the Open title game three times in five years.

Their most successful run came under Jason Mohns, who departed after the 2022 season to become tight ends coach at Arizona State. Kelly has had conversations about what it means to be the head guy at Saguaro. There's a constant target. Not to mention endless pressure to win.

So, why did Kelly decide that was the job he wanted? Most importantly, what made him the guy for the job?

It all started in Sierra Vista where he learned how to navigate through adversity.

"I went through a lot of different struggles," Kelly said. "I went through mental health struggles, and I got into things I shouldn't have gotten into. It made me realize I am someone who needs to be living in my purpose and needs to be doing things other than for myself."

Kelly made the move to Sierra Vista after his father, Terrance, was stationed there with the Army. He attended Buena High School where he quickly became a standout.

Division I colleges were beginning to take notice of his talent. But all of that came to a screeching halt when he broke his arm on a punt return. Suddenly, the scholarships were gone. So was his sense of direction.

Kelly's grades slipped as he abused alcohol and drugs. He managed to re-focus and found an opportunity with Pima Community College. That led him to Syracuse, where he played two seasons with the Orange as a starting defensive back before spending time with the Buffalo Bills in training camp.

But, on his first day of camp, his brother called as he got off the plane in Buffalo. His mother, Malisa, his biggest supporter and the biggest proponent of tough love in his life, was diagnosed with a rare form of stomach cancer.

Just 40 days later, she was gone.

"It was a tough time. It still is tough. It doesn't get easier," Kelly said. "She was my No. 1 fan. When I say that, there's no close second. I heard her voice in every single game over thousands of people. Hearing her call me her 'little money maker' and her 'baby bop,' her love was like no other.

"It was tough love, but it was a love that was incomparable to anything I have ever felt."

Kelly returned to Arizona after the brief stint with the Bills. Once again, he was lost as he dealt with the death of his mother.

But coaching saved him. He joined the Buena staff and was royalty on campus. He eventually ended up in the college ranks before returning to Tucson to coach Catalina Foothills, a program in disarray. He left it better than he found it when he made the move to junior college and eventually Saguaro.

Now he's in charge.

"I've gotten to learn so much about this place and so much about the history," Kelly said. "All the time that has been put into this, it's amazing to find out about it. It's amazing. This place is a great place to be and I'm honored, I really am."

Through all the ups and downs in his life, Kelly always reminded himself of his purpose. He wanted to be successful. He wanted to make his parents and his brother proud. Most importantly, he wanted to be proud of himself.

He's reaching that point, slowly but surely. But he's found a new purpose in the process, one that centers around proving to the Saguaro players that he will be in their corner every step of the way to help them achieve their goals.

"My purpose is being in front of everybody and letting them know everything is going to be all right," Kelly said. "They have someone in their corner. I'm in their corner now. I feel like my purpose now is to be there and be who I want to be as a coach."

Have an interesting story? Contact Zach Alvira at (480)898-5630 or zalvira@timespublications.com. Follow him on Twitter @ZachAlvira.