Kelton’s work comes to a head

By Craig Larson
Globe Staff / September 25, 2010

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This defining day, one of joy and raw nerves, is one Aaron Kelton has been preparing for since he set foot in his first grade classroom in Wellesley as a Metco student more than 30 years ago. A boy from the streets of Roxbury and Dorchester who loved to compete, always played to the final whistle, and did so with a smile.

“He never gives up . . . and he never has a bad day,’’ said Mike DeLong, his coach at Springfield College, where Kelton ran the triple option as the starting quarterback his junior and senior seasons.

Kelton will proudly step onto Weston Field as the head coach at Williams College for today’s NESCAC opener against visiting Bowdoin, the culmination of a long and rewarding journey that started as an eager assistant under Andy Levin at Wellesley High.

He will do so as both the first African-American to lead a varsity team at Williams, a tradition-rich Division 3 program, and the first football coach of color in the New England Small College Athletic Conference.

Over the years, there have been other offers to call a program his own, “but I didn’t just want to be a head coach, I wanted to be at a place where I could be successful, and I landed one of the top jobs in New England,’’ said Kelton, an Ivy League assistant the previous four years on Norries Wilson’s staff at Columbia, the last two as a highly regarded defensive coordinator.

“From the moment I got the job,’’ he said, “I was instantly excited.’’

He has truly embraced the significance of his hire since May, replacing Mike Whalen, who returned to his alma mater, conference rival Wesleyan, as coach and assistant athletic director after a 38-10 run with the Ephs.

“It’s absolutely a wonderful thing, Williams is making a statement,’’ said Kelton, who joins Tom Williams, in his second season at Yale, and Stonehill’s Robert Talley (fourth season) as the only African-American head coaches among the 57 college football programs in New England.

“It’s important at all schools that presidents see there is some very talented coaches of color that will be the face of their programs. I want to be a role model. You don’t have to have it be a Division 1 program, a Boston College or Notre Dame, there are only 119 of those jobs across the country. I embrace it, it gives people a different perspective.’’

His perspective has been nurtured from an early age. Imagine being the only dark-skinned 7-year-old in a suburban classroom in which every other face was white.

“One of the blessings of going to Wellesley prepared us for all situations — academically, athletically, and socially — at an early age,’’ said Kelton’s twin brother, Drew, a social studies teacher at Wellesley High, where he is also the freshman baseball coach. Three other Kelton kids, Nancy, along with twins Corinne and Calvin, also went through the Wellesley school system.

“You learn to deal with that, and those are transferable skills. He is well aware that being at Williams is a tremendous accomplishment. The entire family is excited. But after awhile, it’s about what you do. He understands the gravity of it all.’’

As Williams senior tricaptain Dylan Schultz, a starting middle linebacker, emphasized, “We’re very proud, too, but football is football.’’

Schultz and the rest of the Ephs have been swayed more by Kelton’s infectious enthusiasm, his ability to offer constructive criticism, and his approach of tweaking, not uprooting, and building upon the program’s past success.

He certainly paid his dues, his tour on the sideline including two high schools (Wellesley and Wayland), along with collegiate stops at BC, MIT, Clarion, Concord College, Virginia State, and Columbia, as well as immersing himself in three professional training camps (Colts in 2007, Jaguars in 2008, and Cardinals in 2009) as part of the NFL’s summer internship program.

“He never really talked about coaching growing up, but he has such a rapport with his players — that’s the key to his success — it’s a skill he’s always had, and he gets them to play hard,’’ said Drew Kelton, who will be in attendance today.

The transition at Williams has been “incredible,’’ said Schultz, who recalls meeting Kelton for the first time this spring, rounding the corner to the coach’s office and being greeted with “the biggest smile. He really has found a place in his heart for the school and the team.’’

Kelton plans on staying awhile. He and his wife, Charlotte, and their young daughter have settled in Williamstown.

Now his focus is on the season, and taking the Ephs as far as they can go.

“We want to have a perfect season,’’ he said. That, of course, would have to include finishing with a win over archrival Amherst.

“We want to win every game, we want to win each day in practice, and the kids have done a great job stepping up to the challenge,’’ said Kelton. “They have worked their tails off.’’

Now his moment has arrived.

“There will be plenty of excitement, and some nervous energy, but it will be like all the games I have participated in,’’ said Kelton, who will turn 42 tomorrow. “After kickoff, it will all settle down.’’

Craig Larson can be reached at