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Blessed, not bitter: Wrongfully convicted Greg Kelley relishes new lease on life at EMU

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

He's not bitter. He's blessed.

That's how Eastern Michigan's newest football recruit, Greg Kelley, chooses to look at life these days, after an eight-year, nationally publicized saga that saw the one-time top-shelf Texas high-school football star wrongfully convicted for child sexual assault and spend three-and-a-half years in prison.

He finally was exonerated by Texas' court of appeals in November, and signed to play football with Eastern Michigan last week. He is 25 years old.

Greg Kelley

"I choose to forgive, not for the people that did me wrong, but for myself, so I can continue to go forward," Kelley said Thursday in an interview with The Detroit News, his first public comments since officially committing to Eastern last week.

"I'm at peace with everything."

Kelley signed with Eastern because of a prior relationship with defensive coordinator Neal Neathery, who got Kelley to commit to Texas-San Antonio when he was on the staff there.

That commitment came during Kelley's junior year of high school.

The last football game Kelley played was in the Texas state playoffs. His team lost on a Hail Mary. His team lost on a Hail Mary the year before, too.

Another Hail Mary, interestingly, got him to this point — convicted and sentenced to 25 years without the chance of parole in 2014, it took a tireless advocate, an unconvinced lawyer and an opened-minded district attorney to take up the case, eventually unearthing a shoddy and unethical police investigation and inadequate legal representation the first time around. The state of Texas isn't known for revisiting criminal convictions, yet his was thrown out. Kelley has been completely exonerated and declared innocent.

The prime suspect now is Kelley's high-school friend, whose parents owned the house where Kelley was staying in 2013 as both his parents were battling illnesses. Kelley's friend's parents owned an in-home daycare. Kelley was accused of sexually molesting two boys.

Kelley has since received a wrongful-conviction settlement from the state of Texas, and is suing the police department that targeted him from the beginning and never looked at other suspects. That case is pending.

Kelley's case was documented in this summer's five-part Showtime documentary, "Outcry."

"I just call myself blessed," said Kelley, who was so adamant about his innocence from the beginning that he refused to sign a plea deal that could've kept him out of prison, and despite his mother's pleas to take it. "Everything that happens to me from here on out is a blessing. And I don't take it for granted. It almost feels like my entire life was put on pause and I entered this blackhole and got spit out when I was 25 years old.

"For the people that stepped in and saved my life, I'm extremely grateful for them. Not everybody gets that. Not everybody who gets falsely accused ever gets to see the other side of justice.

"I have nothing but gratitude for people that saved me from that injustice."

It's unclear what role Kelley will play immediately at Eastern Michigan; then again, it remains unclear when Eastern Michigan will play football. Mid-American Conference presidents are expected to vote Friday on whether to reinstate a fall season, or continue moving forward with a spring season.

Kelley acknowledged there are "cobwebs" to dust off, but he's kept in great shape, working out in Texas with several NFL players, including former Lion Quandre Diggs.

Kelley was enrolled at Texas and was preparing to try to walk on the football team, but right as that was about to happen, COVID-19 hit, and Texas halted the walk-on program. He debated whether to continue pursuing football or moving on in life, but ultimately decided to stick with it. He entered the transfer portal, and within two weeks, he was an Eastern Michigan Eagle. Kelley and wife Gaebri — his high-school sweetheart who stuck with him during his entire ordeal — made the two-day move from Texas late last week.

"I've got nothing but work ethic right now," Kelley said. "I've gotta continue to live life."

tpaul@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tonypaul1984