Duke linebacker Kelby Brown tears ACL for fourth time, ends career

Duke's Kelby Brown answers a question during a news conference at the ACC Football kickoff in Greensboro on July 20, 2014
Duke's Kelby Brown answers a question during a news conference at the ACC Football kickoff in Greensboro on July 20, 2014 AP

For Duke sixth-year senior Kelby Brown and his family, it could be hard to look on the bright side after four anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tears in five years, the last of which occurred last week and officially ended his football career. But last year, after ACL tear No. 3, his dad tried.

“I was up here for the very first practice when he was a freshman,” Kelby Brown Sr. said, remembering back to 2010. “And he had a concussion at that practice. And I called my wife and told her, because he had had a concussion problem in high school, and we looked at it and said, you know, he may never play again. We had to face that his freshman year.

“What happened was, I got really sad for him, thinking that he may never have a chance to show people that he could play football. Because I knew guys when I played football (at Northwestern), they got hurt their freshman year, and they never even got to play.”

Brown, who played at Charlotte Christian, did show everyone that he could play football, especially in 2013, when he was named first-team all-ACC, ranking second in the ACC with 8.77 tackles per game from his linebacker spot. He was the emotional leader of the Duke defense as the Blue Devils posted a school-record 10 wins and won the ACC Coastal Division. He also recorded 11 tackles for loss and a pair of caused fumbles, fumble recoveries, pass breakups and interceptions apiece. He had the game-sealing interception at then-No. 16 Virginia Tech on Oct 26, 2013, preserving a 13-10 win that gave the Blue Devils their first road win over a nationally ranked opponent since 1971.

Of course, there will always be thoughts of what could have been for Brown. He never played again after that all-ACC campaign. When he tore his left ACL on a non-contact play in a preseason scrimmage last year, it wiped out the work in what his father called the best offseason ever. And this most recent injury, another tear of his left ACL (the previous two tears in 2010 and 2012 were on his right side), robbed him of the chance to return to his linebacker spot.

“It’s difficult to put into words the feeling of heartbreak I have for Kelby and his family,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said in a statement released Tuesday. “While we will certainly miss his athletic abilities and leadership as one of the best linebackers to play at Duke, what is most important above all else is Kelby’s health.”

When Brown took the field for the first time during his freshman year, he parents snapped all the pictures they could, just in case. It was hard proof that he could play football – and not just they would know it.

In the immediate future, Brown will serve as a student assistant for the 2015 season. He graduated from Duke in June 2014 with a degree in evolutionary anthropology – and a 3.73 grade point average. Currently, he is pursuing a master’s degree in Christian Studies. Medical school is an option as well.

“Like I told him,” the elder Brown said in 2014, “When you think about the fact that you may have never played a single down and you wind up having the type of impact he had, you really can’t look at it as totally negative.”

Keeley: 919-829-4556;

Twitter: @laurakeeley