KNOXVILLE — On a cool December evening, Todd Kelly Jr. was handed a phone and received a message he’ll never forget.
On the other end of the line, former Tennessee All-American safety Eric Berry delivered some devastating news.
Zaevion Dobson — a longtime family friend of both Berry and Kelly — was dead.
“He was a great kid,” Tennessee safety Kelly said Monday, reminiscing about playing pee-wee football with Zaevion and his older brother Zach at a local Knoxville park.
“He was never in trouble. … He was always smiling. … He’s a kid from Knoxville that loved the game of football. It was his dream to play D-1 football and that was cut short.”
Dobson, a former Knoxville Fulton High school player, was tragically slain last December shielding two female friends from gunfire during a drive-by shooting outside his home. The 15-year-old’s heroic act immediately resonated with the nation, as Dobson was honored by President Barack Obama and posthumously received the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage at the ESPYs this summer.
— The White House (@WhiteHouse) July 14, 2016
Upon hearing the tragic news, Kelly did his best to comfort Zach, a star at Fulton and Middle Tennessee State University commit, saying, “I told him I would do anything I could to help.”
Now, Kelly is fulfilling that promise.
The former Webb School of Knoxville standout and son of former Vols star Todd Kelly is doing his best to continue Dobson’s heroic legacy, switching his jersey number from 6 to 24 — Dobson’s old number.
“Wearing this No. 24, (Zaevion’s) legacy still lives on the football field,” Kelly said.
“Everyone knows what it stands for.”
Honored and privileged to wear the #24 this season in honor of Zaevion Dobson, your legacy lives on and will never be forgotten . . .
— Todd Kelly Jr. (TK) (@ToddKellyJr) August 1, 2016
Kelly wanted to pay homage to Dobson during Tennessee’s Jan. 1 bowl game against Northwestern, but the Vols equipment staff couldn’t make the change in time. Instead, Kelly wrote “24” on his towel and decided to address the matter during the offseason.
Sometime later, Kelly asked UT defensive back Darrell Miller, who wore No. 24 in 2015, if he could have the number.
Miller had no problem handing it over.
“No disrespect to you and your number, but I really want to wear this in honor of my friend who was slain and murdered on the streets,” Kelly recalled telling Miller.
“He understood, and he didn’t hesitate to give it to me.”
Kelly’s decision “flabbergasted” Zach, who also wears 24.
“I’ve known his family ever since elementary school,” Kelly said.
“It’s my duty to represent him. … (Zaevion) is looking down in heaven and he’s happy about this. I hope his legacy continues.”
As Tennessee opened training camp Monday, Kelly wore 24 with reverential pride. He’s honoring a “national hero” who actually grew up idolizing him.
Throughout Kelly’s measured address to the media, he remained adamant that his tribute was not about him but “all about Zaevion.”
“When you think about it, two plus four equals six,” Kelly explained.
“I still have my old number, but I’m honoring Zaevion, which is what I love to do. … He was a special kid. We’re going to miss him. Wearing this (number), I can at least show him some love.”
Jesse Simonton covers Tennessee football and recruiting for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and SECCountry.com