All They Need: Robert and Jeremy Kelly give a new meaning to "Carolina Family"

Robert and Jeremy Kelly's rivalry has always stemmed from love.

kelly graphic

Robert and Jeremy Kelly lived in France for most of their childhood, but both brothers now play varsity sports at UNC. 

If you would have ventured into the Kellys’ house on the outskirts of Fontainebleau, France, you would have felt it.

It was infused in the bruised walls and the scuffed-up living room carpet. It was marked on the torn backyard lawn, which was aerated by youth cleats and watered by competitive tears. It was tangible when a window shattered, and it was abstract when the bottle of wine fell from its shelf but somehow remained intact and didn’t stain the rug.

But you don’t need to cross an ocean or peer into the past to feel it. It’s clear now, too. And yet, it’s impossible to articulate.

“You don’t even have to even say it,” Robert Kelly said. “It’s just there.”

For Robert and Jeremy Kelly — brothers who are now both UNC student-athletes — it shines through in their experiences they’ve had in the context of sports, family and friendship. It’s evident in their always-evolving rivalry that started in childhood, and it’s never faded in their support for and reliance on one another.

Si c'est facile à expliquer, ce n'est pas l'amour.

If it’s easy to explain, it’s not love.

***

The sun sank low in the sky. The once-luscious grass lay tattered. Jane and Robert Kelly Sr. had been playing two-on-two soccer with their 10- and 11-year-old sons for hours when they finally made the joint executive decision to call it quits.

“Jeremy would play until midnight,” Robert Sr. said. “He’d say, ‘One more game! One more game!’ And we’d play that one. ‘Please, please, please! Play one more.’”

Jeremy’s eyes would gush. He’d scream. He’d tear down one of the two soccer goals that framed the family’s long backyard. For the record, both brothers took their shift of expressing their desire to continue playing.

“And we’d say, ‘If you do this, we’re not going to do this tomorrow,’” Robert Sr. said.
“‘I don’t care. I want to play one more!’”

The four Kellys would spend their Saturday and Sunday evenings together on their makeshift backyard pitch, and the conflict each night consistently came to a contested decision: to keep playing, or to eat dinner. For the brothers, their love for the game took priority more often than not.

But even when the two brothers weren’t competing outside, they seemed to go at it in plenty of other sports. Because it rained so often in France, their parents facilitated other means for the boys to satiate their competitiveness.

The main room on the first floor of their house was cleared of all furniture, stripped of all of its living room characteristics besides a fireplace. It was really used for the wall — the wall that made it possible for them to play squash, racquetball and different variations of tennis. The two brothers would deck themselves out in all white like they were stepping onto the center court at Wimbledon, grab their rackets and a soft, tennis-sized ball and head to the family room to keep their fierce rivalry ablaze.

“The sibling rivalry at the ages of zero to probably 15 or 16 was very intense,” Robert Sr. said. “And that was a huge challenge for me and Jane to monitor and figure out how to deal with.”

As Mom and Dad will have you know: Love is persistent. It may not be as patient or as kind as universally advertised, but it certainly has staying power. The love occasionally poured from the brothers’ eyes, tore their backyard, rearranged their house. It’s the only way they knew how to express it.

As it turned out, the rivalry that sometimes made them want to rip each other apart, forced the two brothers to grow closer with one another.

And that made all the difference when the brothers were introduced to a new world.

***

Getting dropped in a new country is like getting thrown into the ocean for the first time. You may know how to swim, but how quickly can you adjust to the current and the undertow? You may know how to speak the language, but how quickly can you adapt to a culture starkly different from the only one you’ve known?

The two boys were born in Prague, Czech Republic, but they moved before they were able to form any real memories there. Jane’s first-born was just two when a professional opportunity opened up in Fontainebleau, and the family relocated. But moving within the same continent — especially when the brothers were so young — was cake. The brothers didn’t know any better. In essence, France was the first culture they’d ever experienced.

And, in their own words, the world the brothers knew was home to stern, grave people in comparison to the United States’ prevailing “optimistic” culture.

Case in point: France was where Robert’s kindergarten teacher ripped up his assignment as soon as he turned it in because the handwriting wasn’t neat enough. It was where Jeremy’s teacher mimicked and ridiculed him in front of an entire class for reading too slowly aloud. It was where the coaches — who were paid by the state — would approach a disheartened Robert after a loss, sit him down and audit every error they saw the young boy commit.

“Tougher,” Robert said of his experience with coaches in France. “A lot tougher. You never see a coach smile, that type of stuff. You think it’s sad, but that’s just normal in France.”

At one of his soccer tournaments, eight-year-old Jeremy was circling around the soccer park. He was bored, making his rounds through the facility to kill time before his next game. When he caught sight of this older team, which sported stylish cleats and impressive uniforms, he did a double-take.

“And then there is this massive coach who turns to me and is like, ‘What the fuck are you staring at?’” Jeremy recounted. “The dude is like 40 years old … Here, if you looked, they would smile, wave, maybe even talk to you.”

But all accusations of being harsh aside, France was also the place where kids were taught to be independent. At five, Jeremy went away for a week on a field trip to a remote farm. By six, the Kelly boys were enlisted in competitive tennis tournaments. At seven, coaches Robert barely knew would drive him four or five hours away. He’d spend weeks with French families he’d never met before in order to play in more tennis tournaments.

“And we were lucky if we got a call once during the week because mobile phones were just kind of kicking in at that point,” Robert Sr. said. “It would be him and another kid, and they’d go to the Belgium border somewhere, or up to Normandy and be up for a whole week playing tennis. And we paid nothing.”

Fontainebleau was where they loved. It was where they called home.

And then in the flick of a switch in 2008, the Kellys moved from their three-story yellow house in France to a three-story yellow house in Chapel Hill — just outside the campus where the two former Morehead-Cain Scholars, Jane and Robert Sr., met.

So why move? Why make the change? Jane ponders several reasons: Maybe she wanted to make sure that her boys didn’t miss out on experiencing a significant part of their heritage? Maybe she wanted her boys to attend an American university? Maybe she missed home?

Or maybe, her kids say, she didn’t want to take the chance of her kids becoming too French.

“My mom wanted us to be more American,” Robert said.

And the transition was hard. There was a culture shock; there was a learning curve. But the two brothers were never alone — even if they couldn’t recognize it at the time.

“I think we leaned on each other, we just didn’t know it,” Robert said. “We were doing new things, joining new soccer clubs, new tennis, new friends, new school."

“Especially coming over to the states, all we had was each other.”

***

“Did you ask him this already?” Jeremy inquired. “Did he say that during his sophomore year, he decided to play tennis, and that broke my dad’s heart?”

When the brothers were in their first two years of high school, their dad encouraged them to focus on one sport if they had aspirations to play collegiate athletics.

Jeremy’s decision was made for him. Because of a tennis-induced back injury that he incurred his first year of high school, he check-marked soccer on the proverbial ballot.

His brother’s situation was a little different, though. Robert, who was talented in both soccer and tennis, oscillated back and forth. He was more passionate about soccer, but could he have the potential to be better at tennis?

Jeremy and Jane sat quietly at the dinner table night after night, listening to the two Roberts talk out the decision. The torn backyard or the sectioned-off living room?

In the end, Robert picked up the racquet instead of the cleats. Each family member has a different theory for why he chose tennis over soccer: Was it the politics and subjectivity that accompanied soccer that pushed him towards tennis? Or was it that he experienced immense improvement in tennis over a short period of time and thought that he could be best at tennis in the long run? Or that his independent personality — especially at such a vulnerable age of 15 — meshed better with the individual accountability that comes along tennis?

When his dad learned about it all, he was surprised. He knew how passionate Robert was about soccer — his dream job was to work for a football club’s administration — and he knew he could have been good enough to play at UNC. Discussing and watching the beautiful game wasn’t the only thing that connected him to his sons, but it was a significant one nonetheless. After all, Robert Sr. played under Anson Dorrance when he attended UNC as an undergraduate.

So, Rob: What ultimately made you choose tennis over soccer?

“I’m not sure,” he said. “To be honest, if I had to do it all over again, I’d probably choose soccer. I don’t know. I just miss it like crazy. Obviously, I’m saying this, but let’s say I chose soccer, I would miss tennis probably.”

Robert still thinks about it. The dinner conversations with his dad, the hypothetical tournaments he’d be playing in. As someone who’s never been afraid of independence, though — which could be partially credited to his French background — he’s never regretted his own decision-making.

Now in his senior year, the older brother is somewhat living vicariously through the younger brother. He’s staying connected to soccer through Jeremy, whether that’s through watching his games, participating in “English banter” with some of Jeremy’s teammates, or playing the occasional pickup game on Hooker Fields, a recreation center on UNC’s campus, with his brother. 

Not to mention, Jeremy calls his brother out for playing tennis with a “soccer flare.” Robert plays to the crowd, stays cool under pressure, busts his butt without intentionally giving off how hard he is working.

“They’re each other’s biggest fans,” said Walker Hume, Jeremy’s teammate and one of Robert’s closest friends. “Like whenever R. Kelly does something really well, Jeremy is always talking about it, or whenever Jeremy does something really well, Robert is always posting stuff on social media.”

The brothers connect with each other in so many different ways. They have similar senses of humor, they came from the same background and, interestingly, they bond over not being expected to produce much on the court or field when they first arrived as athletes. When Robert was a first-year, men’s tennis head coach Sam Paul didn’t expect him to ever start in any of his four years. Now, Robert is a team leader and one of the most accomplished player in the ACC, specifically in doubles.

Same thing for Jeremy. As a right wingback for the Tar Heels, the small, not-particularly-fast midfielder didn’t think he would come in and make an instant impact on the North Carolina men’s soccer team. Instead, Jeremy proved to be a vital component of this final four team, most notably scoring the only goal of the match in the Sweet Sixteen win against Syracuse this season.

“I try not to have expectations for players,” UNC soccer head coach Carlos Somoano. “He fit in very well with the guys and worked hard, which is what we always hope for.”

When Jeremy followed his brother’s footsteps and attended Chapel Hill, Robert did what he could to make the transition as smooth as possible for his younger brother. He’s told Jeremy what classes to try to get into (and which ones to stray away from), and he opened up several friendships to him, like the ones he had with Tucker and Walker Hume on the soccer team.

Whenever one brother needs someone, the other brother is always there.

***

Robert Kelly stood solemnly at the funeral. The Macholl family, to whom he had grown to admire and adore over the past two years, asked if he could read a passage for their late son, Mick. He accepted the offer, of course. But he was noticeably nervous.

Mick was 5 years old when he died of neuroblastoma. What started out as something Robert was told to do turned into something he wanted to do. And then eventually, something he loved to do.

And even though his brother wasn’t at the funeral with him, Robert knew Jeremy was with him every step of the way. Jeremy was aware of how many times his older brother visited a week and how much the team meant to Mick. Even for Robert, who was at the focal point of this situation, it was hard to articulate how much Mick meant to him.

“It’s hard to describe if you’re not in the relationship,” he said.

As Jeremy will have you know: Love is personal. It’s a feeling. It’s individually taxing. And yet, it’s the strongest connector of people. Jeremy didn’t need to physically be there for his brother.

In some cases, especially the transformative ones, it’s better left unsaid.

***

It seems counterintuitive to explain love to anyone. If you think about it, describing love is like describing a color.

For the Kelly brothers, the love evolved from bitter rivalry to all they got, to all they need. Now — in several different aspects of their life — they lean on each other like bookends.

Seated across from each other in the student union, when asked to explain their brotherhood bond, they couldn’t get the words out. They were gasping for air, laughing, almost as if they were stalling to wait for how the other was going to answer.

Maybe they thought the question was ridiculous. Maybe they had never given it any thought. Or, most likely, they’ve never had to say anything about it before.

C'était toujours là.

Because, unquestionably, “it’s always been there.”

@alexzietlow05

sports@dailytarheel.com

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