We nicknamed him "The Reverend" a long time ago and like all passionate spiritual leaders Reggie Kelly eventually couldn't resist the call.
It came Thursday, but Kelly knew he was going to come back as early as last Nov. 15 and that Bengals win in Pittsburgh that was a Reggie Kelly kind of man-up win.
Tough. Physical. Punishing. Relentless. Emotional.
"It was like, 'Man, there is only so much more I can miss. I can't miss much more of this,' " Kelly said. "I've just been excited throughout the season. I've been excited in the offseason. I've been excited all the way up to this point. I'm just excited about the opportunity just to strap them back up."
Thursday's text from quarterback Carson Palmer left Kelly's legacy in the speed dial as word came down he had signed a one-year deal.
"We just got better today on a number of levels," Palmer wrote. "He brings maturity, leadership and he's a great role model for younger players. Aside from his ability to put his hand on the ground in a three-point stance and block anybody."
Kelly admits he toyed with retirement in the days and weeks that followed the awful moment in Georgetown, Ky., early last August when he ripped his Achilles to shreds by merely putting his foot down. Any other 33-year-old in the middle of writing a spiritual memoir probably would have closed the book on his career. Any other NFL team probably would have given an 11-year veteran coming off the injury that athletes dread most the gold watch and a thank you.
But Kelly isn't your normal guy and the Bengals don't play in your normal division. In a locker room teeming with careers and lives in transition, not to mention the tabloids, Kelly has been one of the rocks. In a bruising division swarming with pass-rushing werewolves and man-eating tackles, Kelly has been an immense weapon.
"When you come into the league, you aspire to be a guy like Reggie Kelly," said left tackle Andrew Whitworth. "If your career can be nine, 10, 11 years, and it can be half like what Reggie is, you've had a great career. He adds so much to the running game because he's big and tough. And he's like a father figure in the locker room. Or a big brother. Guys know they can go to him for anything. And he's so calm."
With the Bengals making the transition to a pair of rookie tight ends that aren't known as blockers, Kelly is needed now more than ever. If the Bengals ran the ball effectively last year out of double tights without him and at times replacing him with an extra tackle, how well can they run the ball with him?
"We did it a lot with the two tight ends we had," said offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski of J.P. Foschi and Dan Coats. "We're not going to change anything (or do it) different. We're just getting back a solid guy we've had doing it for a long time."
The one thing the Bengals have been able to do with Bratkowski is pretty well protect Palmer against the blitzes and schemes of the two divisional foes that terrorize the rest of the NFL rushing the passer in the Steelers and Ravens. And Kelly has been a big reason why. With former Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan sitting in New York Thanksgiving Night and Bill Belichick stalking Opening Day, Kelly's experience is even more coveted.
"He gives us flexibility and options," Bratkowski said, "as well as being the ultimate professional."
And Kelly may need his teammates more than ever as he finishes the book he began writing in 2005. He worked at it on and off until he made a concerted effort to get it done and published. That was three years ago and he's now preparing for it to come out during the season.
And that's the title.
"There's definitely a strong Christian message centered on that we all go through different things in life and there's a lot of things we're not going to like," Kelly said. "But these things are going to prepare us for the next phase in our life for something bigger and better. Ultimately we're all prepared for heaven.
"It's my story. There are examples of things I handled well and some things I didn't handle well. And how I can help other people get prepared for difficulties they may face. The premise of the book is whatever you go through in life you're just not going through it for the heck of it. There's a reason and a purpose behind it. Have a good attitude. Learn from it and grow to prepare yourself for on down the line. ... About the time I left Atlanta and came here (2003), I embraced the idea of helping other people and I think that improved me as the total package, as a man, instead of worrying about Reggie Kelly the individual."
Kelly wrote the book with Nashville author Bart Green, but Nick Cosgray, the Bengals rehab trainer, could have also co-authored a book with Kelly using the same title after getting him to 100 percent by late December.
"Nick did a great job getting me back with routes and blocking drills and when the rehab started going well that's when I also started to get excited about coming back. Especially with this type of injury because you never know, but I'm ready," Kelly said. "I've worked extremely hard in the weight room and on the field and I think I've become as strong as I've been in quite some time. I know I have to get prepared for what lies ahead. I know I'm going to have to fight for everything I get this year. But I don't have a problem with that."
Kelly can see the future and even though equipment managers Jeff Brickner and Adam Knollman never gave away his locker next to Palmer or his No. 82, he knows this decade belongs to the No. 84 of No. 1 pick Jermaine Gresham and the No. 80 of Chase Coffman, last year's third-round pick. Neither has taken an NFL snap.
Enter Kelly, who already has a good relationship with Coffman.
"Whatever I can do to help them, I will," Kelly said. "I'll go slow with (Gresham) and let him see how he wants to handle it. I really like Chase. I think he's going to be a good player. I didn't know what to expect last year. I knew he was the son of a professional athlete (former NFL tight end Paul Coffman). I didn't know if there would be arrogance, but he came in very humble and willing to learn. He's a hard worker."
But probably the best thing Kelly can teach them is at age 33, he won't go gently into mothballs. No, this may not be his last year.
"I don't know if it will be my last year here, but I think I've got some years left," Kelly said. "My body feels refreshed and strong after a whole year off. I didn't want to miss last year, of course, but my body feels so much better.
"If they want me to be a backup, I have no problem with that, but that's not going to be my mindset. I have to feel like I'm going to be the starter. That fuels me to compete. I think every NFL player has to feel like that. I know I have to feel like that to get ready to play."
The kids are going to get a lot of reps early because the Bengals have told him "we're going to err on the side of caution." He'll start his on-field sessions next week working with strength coaches Chip Morton and Jeff Friday on the side and when they think he's ready, they'll put him in keeping in mind they don't have to pound him with Sept. 12 so far away.
"They've always treated me well here. I feel like they're giving me the VIP treatment," Kelly said. "Considering the injury, they gave me a generous package. Last year I got my full salary. It was a paid vacation. That's a blessing. I want to come through now on my end."
Kelly has been back in Cincy for awhile after taking a mini vacation back home in Mississippi. In fact, he saw a lot of the guys at a birthday party Wednesday night and gave them a little dig.
"I told them they were going to be seeing me sooner than they think," he said.
He dropped enough hints to Whitworth that he was looking for him Thursday in the locker room.
"The Rev is back," Whitworth pronounced later that day after he glimpsed him still looking the same.