‘It’s just so heartbreaking’: Josh Kelley’s mom couldn’t watch his NFL debut in person

Chargers running back Josh Kelley (27) and wide receiver Keenan Allen (13) celebrate their team's win
Chargers running back Josh Kelley (27) and wide receiver Keenan Allen (13) celebrate their team’s 16-13 win over the Cincinnati Bengals.
(Emilee Chinn / Associated Press)

More than a decade of nurturing and supporting her son to his sport’s highest level culminated with Jacqueline Kelley watching from her living room couch instead of in the stands or on the sideline of an NFL stadium.

She wasn’t able to watch her son, Josh, the Chargers’ rookie running back, score his first NFL touchdown Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals. He also rushed for 60 yards in 12 carries, a performance coach Anthony Lynn said was crucial in the team’s 16-13 win on the road.

Instead, the COVID-19 pandemic forced her to scream and shout at her television screen from her home in Lancaster. But for Jacqueline, who raised the former UCLA star and his older brother without the help of their father, the moment was still special.


But it stung at the same time.

“It’s just so heartbreaking,” Jacqueline Kelley told The Times. “You look so forward to going to the games and see him succeed, but the fact that we can’t is so disappointing.”

Chargers coach Anthony Lynn addressed the lack of offensive execution in the team’s season-opening win over the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday.

Jacqueline and Josh, a fourth-round pick for the Chargers in April’s draft, share a close bond. At age 9, Josh showed interest in football, and he watched games on the couch next to his mom, she said. Josh, who grew up in Lancaster, played two seasons at UC Davis before transferring to UCLA in 2017 as a walk-on.

That summer, Jacqueline helped Josh with his training, driving him to an empty field, throwing a football to him and mimicking a defensive back that he could juke. Though Josh sat out his first season because of NCAA transfer rules, he earned a scholarship, rushed for 2,394 yards and scored 25 touchdowns in two seasons at UCLA. When the Chargers drafted him, the family celebrated with a small party, rejoicing that he could stay close to home.

Jacqueline, a speech pathologist assistant, said she and her son try to communicate everyday either by text or FaceTime. She has also visited him at his apartment near the team facility twice. Seeing her son make the 53-man roster reaffirmed all of the sacrifices they made, she said.

“It’s very humbling because once he wanted to start playing football, you never know how far it’s going to take you,” she said. “You just don’t realize the hard work that they put in to succeed.”

Chargers running back Josh Kelley is chased by Cincinnati Bengals' Jessie Bates.
Chargers running back Josh Kelley is chased by Cincinnati Bengals’ Jessie Bates.
(Aaron Doster / Associated Press)

Jacqueline said she didn’t expect much in Josh’s first game. She thought most of his snaps would be on special teams. Lynn inserted him on offense in the second quarter, his first two carries gaining only seven yards. But early after halftime, Kelley took a handoff to the right, but cutback left for a 26-yard scamper. Jacqueline said she started jumping up and down, and her phone began buzzing with calls and texts.

“People were asking if I saw it,” Jacqueline said, chuckling. “Of course, I did. When that happened, I thought to myself that he got those nervous jitters out and he would do well.”

Later in the quarter, rookie receiver Joe Reed returned a kickoff 46 yards, setting the Chargers up near midfield. The team drove downfield to the Cincinnati nine-yard line.

On second and goal, Kelley rushed left and followed a lead block by receiver Keenan Allen for a touchdown, tumbling into the end zone and energetically high stepping in celebration. Jacqueline doesn’t remember her exact reaction, other than “there was a lot of screaming and yelling in here.”

Jacqueline said she texted Josh after the game, telling him she was proud of him and to keep the ball he scored the touchdown with. Lynn said he thought Kelley ran the ball hard, but wants to coach him on short-yardage situations. Reed, who said he talks to Kelley a lot, said as rookies, he’s happy they gave positive contributions.

“We want to come in here and make some sort of impact, whether it’s on offense or special teams,” Reed said. “Regardless of the situations, they have us here, they believe in us so it’s up to us to make plays.”

Jacqueline said she’s still debating her plans for the Chargers home game against the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday.

She still wants to see her son, even it if it means waving at him from the bus. But regardless, Kelley said he wants to build off his performance from last week.

“I just have to stay ready,” he said. “I have to stay prepared.”


The Chargers placed linebacker Drue Tranquill on injured reserved and promoted Asmar Bilal from the practice squad to fill the roster spot, the team announced Tuesday. Tranquill, a second-year pro, broke his left leg in Sunday’s game against the Bengals.