No. 9 Colorado vs. No. 21 Utah
When: 5:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Folsom Field
TV / Radio: KDVR (31) / 850 AM, 94.1 FM
Podcast: Visit BuffZone.com to listen to this week's show featuring senior center Alex Kelley
Alex Kelley stood on the sidelines, looked up at the scoreboard and knew the Colorado football program had a long way to go.
It was Sept. 15, 2012, and the scoreboard at Bulldog Stadium read: Fresno State 69, Colorado 14.
"I was the only person who didn't play because I was redshirting, but it was a pretty low point," Kelley said.
Four years later, Kelley has been a key piece of Colorado's remarkable resurgence, starting at center for the ninth-ranked Buffaloes (9-2, 7-1 Pac-12), who can win the Pac-12 South title with a victory against No. 21 Utah (8-3, 5-3) on Saturday.
It'll be the final game at Folsom Field for Kelley and 26 other seniors, and he is amazed at the growth of the program during his career.
"I can't even believe how we started to where we are now," said Kelley, who has started 35 of CU's 36 games over the past three years.
For Kelley, the journey has been longer than it has been for most of the Buffs. In fact, offensive line coach Klayton Adams joked that Kelley is a "ninth-year senior."
Kelley hasn't been here that long, but it feels like it. While still a senior at Vista High School in Oceanside, Calif., Kelley committed to CU when Dan Hawkins was the head coach, during the fall of 2010. A couple of weeks later, Hawkins was fired.
Kelley initially looked at other schools, but said, "Deep down in my heart, I knew Colorado was the choice for me. I knew the kind of future we could have at Colorado. The thought crossed my mind to maybe go to another school, but at the end of the day, I bleed black and gold, and this is my dream to come here and play football."
A member of CU's 2011 recruiting class — the only current player remaining from that class — Kelley grayshirted, meaning he didn't enroll until the spring of 2012. He endured the 1-11 season of 2012, which led to coach Jon Embree being fired and current coach Mike MacIntyre being hired.
Kelley then went through a rough first three years with MacIntyre, going 10-27.
During his career, he's had two head coaches and three position coaches.
A religious young man, Kelley cited one of his favorite scriptures from the Bible, Hebrews 12:1, which says, "... let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us ..."
"That's kind of been my thought process throughout these four, five years: just stay the course, keep grinding, keep working, keep doing what you're doing," he said.
Through it all, Kelley has gone through his own ups and downs as a player. While he's been a steady starter the past three years, he hasn't always played his best.
"He's never quit or gotten discouraged about it," Adams said. "When you get on Alex about something or you try to correct something he's doing, his immediate answer is, 'OK,' and he usually writes it down. He's just a really humble blue-collar kid."
Kelley is the type of player who shows up every day to work, rarely missing a practice. His reliability and dedication have helped to shape him as a leader for the Buffs, and this year he's enjoying his best season.
Finding success this season is especially sweet for Kelley, because he can share the excitement with his father, Karry, who lettered four times at CU, from 1976-79.
Karry helped the Buffs reach the Orange Bowl in 1976 and was part of three winning seasons at CU.
Now, after the dark days of Alex's career, the Buffs are finally winning again, and Karry is loving it.
"Week in and week out I look up in the stands and my dad seems to be the loudest, craziest fan there," Alex said. "He seems to be having the most fun. I'll look up and he's jumping up and down for joy. I think he's enjoying this more than I am."
At some point, Alex and Karry are sure to sit down and share stories of playing in bowl games, wearing the black and gold, and running behind Ralphie.
For now, however, Alex has too much work to do.
"I haven't really had a chance to sit back and dwell on my career here and this being my final home game, because we've got Utah ahead of us we still have a lot of football left to play," he said. "I'm just more focused on that."