NASHVILLE — The 2018 season presented several challenges for Tennessee Titans right tackle Dennis Kelly. Among them was a then-characterized undiagnosed illness that became a migraine disorder and cost him five games.
Kelly told the story on teammates Will Compton and Taylor Lewan’s podcast Bussin’ With The Boys.
Kelly’s 2018 Struggles
Head coach Mike Vrabel’s Tennessee tenure opened with a Week 1 atrocity.
Titans starter Jack Conklin had been ruled out for the season opener at Miami as he recovered from a knee injury. Kelly started in a game that would last seven hours and 10 minutes because of weather delays, the longest in NFL history. Lewan suffered a concussion, tight end Delanie Walker snapped his ankle and quarterback Marcus Mariota took a hit that caused him to land on his throwing elbow.
It’s about time we got the boy @DennisKelly67 on the bus! Episode #083 coming in hot
🏈 Dennis’ path to the NFL
😂 Wild college stories
👀 Super Bowl predictions
🏥 Dennis’ mystery illness
🏆 A heated MVP debate
…and MUCH more
— Bussin’ With The Boys 🐺 (@BussinWTB) January 27, 2021
Mariota’s malady would be the subject of much discussion for the rest of the year.
For Kelly, the problems started the following week. He was hospitalized in the days leading up to Tennessee’s Week 2 contest against the Houston Texans but testing proved inconclusive.
“Literally, we don’t know anything,” Kelly said in 2018 returning to the team. “That’s kind of the mystery.”
Unable to identify the issue, the Titans managed Kelly carefully so as not to trigger his mystery ailment. He missed five of the team’s first seven games and played a total of five snaps in Tennessee’s London loss to the Los Angeles Chargers.
Kelly went into the second week of the 2018 season determined to be prepared for his match-up with Houston defensive end J.J. Watt.
“Practiced Wednesday,” Kelly said on his Bussin’ appearance. “Start driving to my oldest daughter’s dance class and then my arm kind of gets a little numb. It felt like I was, maybe, sitting on my wallet weird and was hitting a nerve. I’m like ‘OK, maybe I’m just doing something weird. So, I get out, the numbness kind of goes away, I walk into the building for the dance class and, at that point, I had no strength.”
The Titans right tackle went on to describe being unable to hold his daughter because he lost feeling in his arms and could feel her falling. Kelly told his wife that his mouth then began to go numb and the couple decided it would be best to take their children and go home.
Kelly described losing his ability to communicate clearly on the car ride. After a call with Tennessee’s training staff, the right tackle was taken to the E.R.
“We go in there and they’re doing all the tests,” Kelly said. “CT scan, anything you can think of and they’re like, ‘Yeah, you probably look like you had a mini stroke or baby stroke. Just start taking some baby aspirins and you should be good. We’ll keep you overnight and see what happens.'”
Just a mini stoke, eh?
Reoccurrences in the Titans facility
Kelly described two more instances from that year where he was overtaken by this unknown malady.
Lewan and Kelly told the story of a session in the Titans offensive line room at Saint Thomas Sports Park where a second episode took place. Players were asked by position coach Keith Carter to diagram plays on a white board as a part of their Friday session. Kelly said he was assigned “the most basic play there is…and I thought I crushed it.”
Lewan, Carter and the rest of the players had a different perspective.
“Dennis is up their doing his thing and kind of fucked it up,” recalled Lewan. “Dennis doesn’t really fuck up plays. Sometimes, even Ben (Jones) will get up there and just draw something up and they’ll be like ‘Hey, no’ and he’ll be like ‘Ah, I meant this.’ Dennis does the shit right.”
Lewan described Kelly as “just standing over him” after diagraming his play incorrectly, not knowing where he was at the time and then needing to sit down in Jones’ chair. Kelly asked Lewan to retrieve Tennessee’s training staff for assistance. Lewan did so and returned to find Kelly incapacitated, in tears and with Vrabel, who had been called to the offensive line room to help.
Kelly was again taken to the hospital.
Into the unknown
Kelly said it took two or three weeks for his family and physicians to get a better handle on his situation.
He recalled a third and less severe instance happening while back at the Titans facility talking to former teammate Wesley Woodyard. Kelly began having migraines three or four days later in his estimation, causing him to awake in the middle of the night and “violently throw up.” Medical staff began treating Kelly’s illness as if he was going through the NFL’s concussion protocol without it being concussion related. He and his family started sending out his test results to doctors and universities around the country to try and get closer to the cause.
Finally, Titans team doctor John Williams told Kelly he might have a rare migraine disorder that spanned about six weeks. The stroke-like episodes fit the bill. The migraines followed for about a month. Kelly was given medication to cut the severity of the headaches, slept close to 20 hours a day and was symptomless in six weeks.
“Never had a problem since,” said Kelly.
Kelly has been one of the best acquisitions for Tennessee since GM Jon Robinson traded for him. His 2018 absences was one of that season’s biggest mysteries and to hear the story in Kelly’s own words still leaves a lot of questions. Kelly’s recovery has been critical to the Titans success in 2020 and may still be beyond that.
Most importantly, it appears that Kelly has his health.
Featured Image: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports.