Senior wide receiver Sasha Kelsey fields a punt in a spring scrimmage at Ulrich Sports Complex on April 23, 2016. Kelsey will be the only football player returning to Lehigh for a fifth year. (Musa Jamshed/B&W Staff)

Sasha Kelsey recounts early hardships and later successes

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“Oh yeah, this? This is for my architecture class,” senior wide receiver Sasha Kelsey said, pointing at his 3D-printed pieces.

Though they may look alien to others, Kelsey toys with his creations with ease and briefly constructs a tiny model before looking back up.

“I like doing things for myself,” Kelsey said. “I like having my thoughts, ideas and designs to myself for a little bit.”

He trails off and puts the pieces down.

Kelsey is the only Lehigh football player returning for a fifth year to complete his eligibility. Unlike the majority of his teammates, Kelsey’s story starts beyond the gridiron, beyond the United States and — at the time — beyond hope.

Kelsey was born in Russia to alcoholic parents, an abusive older brother who was addicted to drugs and an older sister. His birth parents abandoned him when he was young, leaving him in the care of St. Petersburg’s Orphanage.

Kelsey’s brother — who died a few years ago — used to beat him and his sister constantly. His sister, however, was like a guardian angel to him.

“My sister, Marina, I’ve got her name tattooed here,” Kelsey said, pointing to his right bicep, which bears her name below a pair of hands folded in prayer.

Life wasn’t any easier in the orphanage.

Kelsey said each of the kids came from a similar background and would sniff glue, smoke cigarettes and drink alcohol to pass the time.

“I never really thought it anything bad, either,” Kelsey said. “It was just what was going on. I was just lucky I didn’t like it.”

Instead, Kelsey stuck to himself and became more introverted and self-driven, eventually taking to art.

When he was 9 years old, Kelsey visited the U.S. for a month and stayed with a prospective adoptive family. He found himself in awe of the American experience.

Upon landing in Atlanta at what he perceived to be a “jaw-droppingly large” airport, Kelsey said he recalls asking his host family if every car outside of the airport was theirs and being fixated on the idea of not walking everywhere.

What felt like almost as quickly as he arrived, Kelsey left his host family in tears before returning to Russia.

After six months of a long, drawn-out legal process, 10-year-old Kelsey left Russia, but this time, it was to permanently live with the host family he had met almost one year earlier.

Kelsey’s transition to American life, however, was not smooth, and he struggled to fit in.

“Kids would tell me to say certain words at lunch,” Kelsey said, “and I’d always get in trouble because I’d end up saying bad words. I had a lot of people thinking I was the class clown, I guess.”

Kelsey left his comfort zone when be began exploring the sports he had played back at the orphanage.

Though he was a three-sport athlete at the time, one interested him more than the rest and would come to be a life-long passion of his.

“Here, I noticed soccer didn’t get a whole lot of fans,” Kelsey said. “Basketball, I was good at that, but not good enough to play after high school. It was football, that was definitely the thing where I grew up. With football, I got lost on the field. You can’t really worry about outside noise. I could always put on my cleats and my helmet, and nothing else mattered after that.”

Watching professional football helped foster Kelsey’s interest in the sport. Though his favorite team is the Green Bay Packers, he said he draws inspiration from former Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick.

After serving time in prison for dogfighting and being suspended from the NFL, Vick returned to the field before retiring and now works with animal rights groups.

Kelsey said Vick’s situation was analogous to his in a way and commends Vick for turning around his life.

“I’ve been around stuff like that,” Kelsey said. “What you see is often what you do. But, he came out with a second chance and took it. He didn’t fake it or give any excuses. I think that shows a lot of character.”

Kelsey went on to play football for his high school in Miami, graduating as an all-state wide receiver with a persistent work ethic that attracted attention from several schools. Lehigh’s academics appealed to him, so he left the Florida heat to play as a Mountain Hawk.

Though no stranger to scenery changes, Kelsey said coming to Lehigh scared him at first. In addition to the challenging academics, he felt like he didn’t fit in with the student body.

“I wasn’t always happy,” Kelsey said. “It was really hard, and I struggled. Everyone’s so smart — you’ve got all these valedictorian kids — so it was hard for me to keep conversation with some people.”

Over the years, however, he grew fond of the university. He said the season-ending hip injury he suffered from during his junior year granted clarity about his support system at Lehigh.

“The doctor who did my surgery said he had only seen four injuries like mine,” Kelsey said. “The team could’ve easily given up on me, but they sat down and took me to one of the best trauma surgeons in the world up in New York City. I’ve seen how much everyone cares and wants to help. Seeing that made me buy into Lehigh.”

Scott Brisson, the former wide receivers coach and current offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, praised Kelsey’s transformation.

“I saw tremendous growth in him as a person, allowing everyone to help him,” Brisson said. “Once he realized there was an opportunity to come back fully, he took it.”

Junior defensive back Donavon Harris said Kelsey’s recovery was a testament to his diligent attitude toward football.

“When (Kelsey) was recovering, he was serious,” Harris said. “He stayed on top of therapy, on top of his diet and on top of his state of mind. It was a hard time for him, but he got through.”

As he prepares to enter his final year of eligibility, Kelsey is focusing on personal improvement and nothing less.

“Actions really speak louder than words, and that’s how I play,” Kelsey said. “I have a lot of good memories so far. But, I want to make the best ones next year — the best year of my life.”

From Russia to America, orphan to athlete, injured player to Lehigh standout, Kelsey continues to piece together a story that is as intricate as it is inspiring.

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