During his four years at the A ir Force Academy, Cadet Squadron Shawn Kelley has molded himself into someone quite different than the former Sweeny Bulldog who signed on to play baseball.
Now he is just two months away from graduating.
“I came here just trying to play baseball with a free education and a military stipend,” Kelley said from the military academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado. “That was all I thought about. It wasn’t about wanting to serve or anything like that. My dad was a Marine. But when I went through basic training and the rigorous stuff everyone goes through, it just changed.”
Used mostly as a reliever since he stepped onto Falcon Field, Kelley made six appearances this season, striking out seven batters before the coronavirus curtailed the season.
“All of this has made me realize just that life is real short,” he said. “When I was growing and just playing the game, coaches would always tell us to play it like it’s your last one. That’s something that really never clicked with me when I was younger. Well, we were in Utah on the way back when everything broke. I didn’t realize that we had played our last game — it hit me hard. So for me it’s not taking anything for granted any more.”
The 6-foot, 175-pound righty made 60 total appearances covering 78 innings, racking up 66 strikeouts with two saves in his collegiate career.
“I really enjoyed coming in and cleaning up everyone else’s messes,” Kelley said. “I think three of my five outings I came in with bases loaded. It’s nice coming in with the adrenaline pumping already.
“But right now we are just trying to get to graduation. They are putting in some Air Force rules and now we are just stuck on base. All of us here are just seniors, just trying to get to graduation about 60 days away.”
The Air Force Academy requires more than playing a sport and taking care of the studies. It’s about not wasting any second, minute, hour or day that could go toward preparation.
“Some of these guys are going special forces, rescue officers or some transferring to go Navy Seals or Army Rangers,” Kelley said. “Going through everything, it creates a bond that I would not have gotten at a regular college. Going through three all-nighters studying with a teammate for an astronautical engineering class that I didn’t understand because it is like rocket science. Stuff like that sucks at the moment, but the memories that you make going through that are just creating tight-knit bonds with others. I wouldn’t trade that for anything.”
A normal day for cadets at the Air Force Academy starts at 6:30 a.m. with morning formation. Each squadron has 100 to 110 people. Classes follow at 7:30 a.m,. with each class taking 53 minutes. For athletes, they are more or less done by lunch, depending on their major.
“Then we have noon meal formation where all squadrons form at the walking area and march to lunch together, all 40 squads,” he said. “Each squadron is then broken up into three flights and then three elements, and we have lunch with elements ,which are three freshmen, three sophomores, two or three juniors and a senior. Right after lunch, we meet with our officer in charge and go over some things. After that, baseball practice, and in season from 2 to 7 p.m. practices. We go to dinner, then home work and then bed. Then we get back to it next day again.”
As an incoming freshman in 2017, it took a while for Kelley to adjust to such a rigorous schedule.
“Freshman year was a struggle,” he said. “Besides everything that I mentioned, we also have military aspects that we do on weekends, which are requirements for graduation. So most of it was adjusting from small-time Sweeny to some of the classes that I’ve had to take here.
“I had to take calculus I, II, physics I, II, electro engineering, aeronautic engineering and astronautical engineering. Those core classes had to balance these out, so we had to learn how to balance those classes with the athletic side and military side of it as well. That and still be around to get to know your squadron and make an impact on them. Just by having a jam-packed schedule, it didn’t click for me until my sophomore year.”
Now that he’s gotten through it, he is ready for the next phase in his life.
“I want to have a sense of purpose to my life because it matters,” Kelley said. “I am going to be a missile and munitions maintenance officer who will be in charge of equipping the jets with munitions that they need before missions. Within a year to 18 months, I will be a flight commander and in charge of a squadron of 210 people. So from someone who was just focused on baseball to all I wanted to do, to now really looking forward to go to my base and impact people’s lives. I just feel like a completely different person then from when I came here as a freshman.”
After graduation May 28, Kelley and his comrades will be given 60 days of paid leave, during which he will return to Sweeny to be with family and friends.
Then it will be off to Luke Air Force Base in Glendale, Arizona.