MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — After years of separation, Steven Kelley and Joe Jackson ended up at the same college, on the same football team, in the same backfield.
Though they played against each other in high school, Kelley and Jackson just learned last week that they are brothers.
Kelley, a transfer from Tennessee, showed up at Troy State on March 24. In spring drills, he found himself following the blocks of Jackson, whom he played against in one of those small-town high school rivalries in southeast Alabama.
Kelley and Jackson, a junior, quickly learned that they had a lot in common. They were both bowlegged, with patchy hair on the face and a little bit of a temper.
One day last week, Kelley decided he had to ask Jackson some questions. He had to know if his suspicions were right, or if they would turn into yet another disappointment.
“God just told my heart to ask him his full name,” Kelley said. “I just knew him as Joe Jackson. So when he told me his name was Joseph Frank Kelley, my heart just fluttered.
“I said, ‘Let me ask you a question,'” Kelley continued. “Is your birthday March 18 …”
They finished the sentence together: “1974.”
“I said, ‘I’ll be down in your room in a minute,'” Kelley said.
Jackson, 22, was born to Frank and Mary Kelley. Jackson said he was told he got ill as an infant, and when his parents went to the hospital to visit him, he had been taken into state custody.
“They thought he was being neglected,” said a sister, Sally. “That’s all I know.”
Sally, 20, and Steven, 19, also ended up in foster care, but managed to stay together. Sally said they were taken away from their parents because of abuse allegations against the father.
The parents later divorced.
There was another sister, Loretta, 24, who remained in touch with Steven and Sally until about six years ago. They have no idea where she is.
Mary Kelley regained custody of Sally and Steven when they were in grade school, and they lived in Enterprise, Ala., where Steven became a star tailback on the high school football team.
The kids knew they had a brother, but didn’t know he was living with his foster family about 20 miles away in Dothan, Ala.
Jackson was a three-year starter at fullback. Games between Enterprise and Dothan often turned on the backfield dual between Jackson and Kelley, who didn’t know there was something deeper behind their rivalry.
Sally stutters awkwardly when she recalls those Friday nights in the stands, when she had cheered for the only sibling she had left against the one she had never known.
Even at a time to celebrate this reunion, the bitterness remains.
“I just can’t understand how parents would just let their kids go like that,” Sally said.
Jackson, now a junior, rushed for 509 yards on 127 carries for Troy State last season, leading the Trojans with 13 touchdowns. Kelley arrived with sparkling credentials, though he did not play for the Volunteers last year. As a high school senior, Kelley ran for 1,451 yards and 16 touchdowns, and was among the top running back prospects in the South.
Kelley and Jackson hang around together even more since that conversation last week. They know it will take years to restore the brotherly bond that a troubled childhood took away.
“I think the only thing that will allow us to come closer together is time,” Jackson said.
The brothers drove to Enterprise last Friday, and Jackson was reunited with his mother. Sally locked her arms around the young man she had known for a few years, but not as a brother.
It still may take a while.
“I’ve been knowing that I had a brother, and I’ve always had something inside my heart for him,” she said. “I just didn’t know it was him.”