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Ivory Kelly-Martin’s roller-coaster Iowa football career ends at high point
Senior running back has unselfishness that can be ‘a little bit harder to find’ in current era of college football
ORLANDO, Fla. — Some Iowa athletes jumped on the towering “SkyCoaster” at a small amusement park for the Citrus Bowl’s Day for Kids.
The ride takes patrons 250 feet up in the air before dropping them in almost a free-fall toward the ground before they swing back up. The park calls it “the closest thing to jumping out of a plane besides jumping out of a plane.”
The ups and downs of the ride are symbolic of the journey of Iowa’s projected starter at running back against No. 22 Kentucky.
Ivory Kelly-Martin, the starter on 15th-ranked Iowa’s depth chart ahead of Saturday’s Citrus Bowl, has weathered those ups and downs with more composure than Thursday’s riders of the SkyCoaster ride.
“I just can't say enough about Ivory and how he has handled everything,” Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz said. “The thing I'll always remember about Ivory when I think about his career is some of the unselfish things he's done.”
Kelly-Martin’s collegiate career looked promising as a true freshman. He appeared in all 13 games, sometimes on offense and sometimes on special teams.
Three Iowa backs had more carries than Kelly-Martin that year, and two of the three were seniors.
The opportunities were there in 2018. Unfortunately for Kelly-Martin, so was the injury bug.
He started in Iowa’s first game of the year against Northern Illinois and injured his ankle. Jamar Kelly, Kelley-Martin’s father, said his son “probably should’ve sat, but he tried to play through it.”
After missing two games, Kelly-Martin came back. Kelly knew the injury still “nagged him over the course of season where he wasn’t effective.” The sophomore averaged 3.5 yards per carry.
Kelly-Martin then found himself in a crowded running backs room in 2019. It was Tyler Goodson’s freshman season. Future NFL back Mekhi Sargent was in his second season in Iowa City.
Brian Ferentz needed someone to redshirt.
“There just weren't going to be enough carries to go around,” Ferentz said.
Despite coming off a five-carry game against Iowa State, Kelly-Martin agreed to be that someone.
“It's one of the most unselfish things that I have ever seen as a coach, and I think it's hard to do,” Brian Ferentz said. “It's hard to do for anyone, but certainly a skill player that touches the ball and has had a lot of success for us at that time touching the ball.”
When he came back from the redshirt year, Goodson and Sargent were ahead of him on the depth chart. That didn’t leave many carries for Kelly-Martin.
Then he tore his ACL at the end of the 2020 season.
“He’s had an extreme mountain to climb in his career,” teammate and tight end Sam LaPorta said. “It definitely does put things in perspective.”
The 2021 season was no picnic either. After opening the year as the No. 2 back behind Goodson, he struggled with ball security and then an injury to something as small as his toe have caused big problems.
“Definitely something so small can be pretty frustrating, but I’ve dealt with plenty of injuries, so I can overcome anything at this point,” Kelly-Martin said.
Now his toe is doing “pretty well,” Kelly-Martin said.
Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said Kelly-Martin has “two good weeks of practice” where he looks healthy.
“When Tyler (Goodson) made his decision, wasn't counting on Ivory to be available,” Kirk Ferentz said. “Getting Ivory back is just a bonus for us.”
Kelly-Martin said his injury adversity “takes a little bit of a mental toll on you sometimes.” He’s worked to take care of the mental side of football as well as the more visible physical side.
“There are so many things that come physically throughout your athletic career,” Kelly-Martin said. “But some of those things mentally, you can’t get back if you start losing control of that type of stuff.”
He credited the support from family — both the kind he’s related to and the metaphorical family also wearing black and gold — and his faith for helping him through that process.
“It sometimes becomes hard on him,” his father said. “He has his struggles, but he just managed to fight through them, knowing that he’s going to be in a good situation no matter what because he has a great team.”
While it was not as prominent as the ACL and ankle injuries, Kelly also pointed to a wrist injury that he attributed as the reason for some of the 5-foot-10 back’s ball control issues.
He’s earned plenty of respect from his teammates. LaPorta said the running back has “extreme character.”
“Not a lot of guys can handle the highs and the lows that I feel like he’s had,” LaPorta said.
While many other players would transfer to a place with the chance to have a bigger role, Kelly-Martin stuck around.
“That shows the character that he has that he’s still here,” LaPorta said.
Noting the mentors he had when arriving in Iowa City, Kelly-Martin worked to be a mentor to the younger Goodson, who is now NFL Draft-bound.
“I tried to be that same type of older, good teammate to Tyler when he first came in,” Kelly-Martin said. “He's been able to excel in every single way possible, and I don't want to take any credit for him. But … I've tried my best to coach him up.”
Brian Ferentz said Kelly-Martin’s unequivocal unselfishness is “getting a little bit harder to find” in college athletes.
“To ask a skill player to go out there on special teams and cover kicks and be a gunner and do some of the dirty work — a lot of guys aren't interested in that when they come to us,” Brian Ferentz said. “They have been big stars wherever they are.”
Just like on a roller coaster that drops someone off at the same place they started, the Citrus Bowl will take Kelly-Martin back to where he began as an Iowa athlete — being a significant contributor in the offense again.
“He’s anxious to do what he’s capable of doing,” his father said. “Hopefully … he can really put it on display in the end — be effective for the team, score some touchdowns.”
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