One trip changed everything.
Sasha Kelsey's road to where he is today — as a student-athlete at a prestigious institution like Lehigh — has been far from ordinary.
Born in Russia, Kelsey was placed in an orphanage at a young age. The orphanage became all he knew until he came to the United States for a special Christmas program when he was nine years old, spending the holiday season in Atlanta with the Kelsey family.
"I was there for a month, but it honestly felt like a lifetime," Kelsey said. "I didn't know English and they didn't know Russian. There was no formal communication other than just pointing at things and hand gestures. Even so, we felt really comfortable together. When I had to leave, I was so sad. I was depressed for a while back in the orphanage because I had just lived in a nice house with a pool for a month, with a real family. And it all disappeared in days."
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Marlene Kelsey helped make sure it wouldn't disappear for good. She had helped bring Sasha to the United States temporarily and wanted to make it permanent.
"We received an email with pictures and bios of all the kids to make sure we'd have the best fit for our family," Marlene said. "We continued looking at bios, but always came back to Sasha's and knew he was going to be a perfect fit for our family. As soon as we met him in the Atlanta airport, we knew he should be a part of our family. He was very shy at first, but we could tell his silliness and kindness were waiting to be brought out."
Sasha's short time in Atlanta allowed the Kelsey family to experience just a little bit of that kindness, but they wanted more.
For Sasha, the sadness of being back at the orphanage quickly turned into euphoria.
"A few months later, somebody called asking if I would like to be adopted by the family I stayed with," he said. "It was a no-brainer. My older sister was in the orphanage with me too. I talked to her and she thought it was a good idea for me to go, start a new life and try to make something out of my life because there wasn't much we could do in our current situation."
The Kelsey family's idea to adopt Sasha permanently began that winter.
"Sasha's older brother Stephen had a soccer tournament in Orlando that we all traveled to," said Marlene. "While Sasha was busy, we all discussed how we loved him so much and already considered him family. My late husband Jeff and I already knew Sasha was perfect, but I needed to make sure our children were okay with it. I asked Stephen and my daughter Lauren several times to make sure they were positive, and they had never been more certain of anything before."
Sasha was certain as well, but knew it would be difficult leaving his sister, the only blood connection he had left.
"Leaving my sister was the hardest part," he said. "She took care of me at the orphanage in terms of giving me a little bit of money here and there, and having some food.
"She was there for me when nobody else was."
Things now changed. Someone else was there for Sasha: the Kelsey family.
Sasha would soon be there for his new family, too.
"Sasha's adopted father (my late husband) unfortunately passed away from Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma in November of 2006," said Marlene. "He had finished chemotherapy during the process of adopting Sasha, and while it was strongly advised against it for his health, he still went to Russia as part of the process of the adoption. Jeff was a physician and knew the effects that could come from him traveling so soon from finishing chemo, but he loved Sasha so much that he wanted to make sure he could be a part of our family.
"Jeff recovered, but soon got sick again after Sasha was officially adopted. When he passed, we were devastated. Even though we had lost our anchor, we still had much to be to be thankful for and the sadness in our home was lessened by Sasha's cheerfulness. Sasha has a very kind heart and picks up the feelings of others very quickly."
Everything was so new to Sasha — a new family in a new country with a new language — and with the passing of his new father, it added something else he had never experienced.
"I felt emotional, even though I didn't really get to know him that much," said Sasha. "It was the first time I really witnessed somebody die. My family disappeared in Russia. I knew them, but then they disappeared. No one knows what happened.
"To see how my mom, brother and sister reacted, it brought us a lot tighter, just because my siblings lost their father and my mom lost her husband," he continued. "I didn't know English, but we helped each other and got a lot closer."
Sasha would find himself getting closer and closer to his new family, adjusting to America and learning English along the way.
"I remember trying to learn from cartoons and movies," he said. "I went to fifth grade and nobody knew Russian at my school, but my teacher was so nice. I don't know what she did, but she worked magic on me because I was able to speak and write. In about six months, I was fine communicating."
Something else that has helped Kelsey throughout his life is sports. Through good times and bad, sports has always been there for him.
"I haven't not played a sport since I was five years old," he said. "Every season – fall, winter, spring, summer – I've always played a sport.
"At five, I was just put into a house with all these other kids and the first thing I did was go outside and play soccer. I joined a team and that kept me away from trouble. I don't know how I could live my life without sports."
Having played soccer in Russia from an early age, Sasha was introduced to the sport of football by his brother Stephen in the U.S.
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"I never knew what football was, but I began playing football, basketball and soccer in middle school (in Atlanta), then we moved to Miami for high school, since we had family there," said Sasha. "That's when I really started getting into football."
After the move to Miami, Kelsey quickly learned he had the ability to play sports in college, so he began exploring his options.
"I didn't receive any looks until late in the process," said Sasha. "After my senior season was over, Lehigh called me and I had no idea where the school was located. Coach R.J. Ryan recruited me, told me about Lehigh and set up an official visit."
Kelsey had other offers, but they didn't feel right for him and he saw a lot of potential in Lehigh.
"The campus is beautiful and I would say the stadium is the nicest in the Patriot League," he said. "As a team, they threw the ball a lot, which I liked… And my mom loved the school, which was huge."
On the field, Kelsey's career hasn't been as strong as he admittedly would have liked, but he has posted over 50 career receptions and four touchdowns, and was part of Lehigh's back-to-back Patriot League Championships in 2016 and 2017.
In 2008, Lehigh snapped a 4-game Rivalry losing streak by beating Lafayette 31-15. It was @CoachAndyCoen's 1st win over the Leopards & started the current streak of 8 wins in 10 years for the Mountain Hawks.#GoLehigh #BeatLafayette #Rivalry154 #TBTuesday pic.twitter.com/66Oy5nGrZ3— Lehigh Football (@LehighFootball) November 13, 2018
As Kelsey's career progressed, Lehigh truly continued to grow on him.
"Junior year (2016), the season I got hurt, that was the year that turned it around for me," he said. "We went 9-2 so it was a good year for us. Something about that year saw a lot of good happen.
"Physically, I got hurt and had to have surgery. That was tough, but part of it made me better emotionally and mentally. Last year (2017), it was all about coming back from surgery, following the process and grinding."
No matter how tough things are on the football field, Kelsey's past experiences have helped him push forward. Along the way, he has served as a positive influence towards everyone around him.
"Sasha has been through a lot of stuff, more than anybody on our football team knows about," said Lehigh head coach Andy Coen. "I'm very proud of how well he has done. He's going to graduate from Lehigh. In his eyes, he's not going to feel like he was a great player, but he has really done a lot for the team."
How has Sasha helped the team? With some important lessons.
"I have a 'don't give up' mentality because of everything I've dealt with," he said. "No matter how bad the situation is you're in, you have to play the cards you're dealt. Time will go by and you're going to get through it. You could whine about it and pout about it and just feel sorry for yourself, or you could do something about it and come out victorious in the end."
That message is true on a sports team, or in life. Sasha is living proof.
"The situation I was put in stinks, but there were hundreds of orphans," he said. "I'm not the only one. That was our life. Yes, we were missing out on fun things, but we were doing our own stuff. We were doing stuff that kids who have families can't do.
"I don't like talking about this to people because people feel sorry for you," Sasha continued. "But we had no responsibilities. It was just a different lifestyle. It taught you to keep a guard up. It taught you how to grow up quickly. Here in America now, I've always been really quiet. I don't really speak up too much, but I'm always listening."
Along with always listening, Sasha also lives in the moment. That's all he has known, and it's a mindset he will continue to take into his life post-graduation.
It's also a refreshing mindset in a day-and-age featuring fast-paced lifestyles and constant pressure.
"I really live day-by-day, no cliché, but that's all I can do right now," said Sasha. "If I do my work now, then I will be in a good spot after graduation."
"I ultimately want to try and play football as long as I can, start working with design and architecture, and possibly looking at grad school."
Sasha has some ideas in mind, but he's not letting any worries about the future affect his present. That day-by-day mindset has treated Kelsey well, from living in the moment at the orphanage to even his later commitment to Lehigh, which came at the end of his senior season.
"I had a pretty good senior season, took care of business academically and Lehigh called me very late and it happened," he said. "That was because I put in the work. You put in the work and eventually something will happen. If it doesn't, you're not working hard enough."
The most impactful thing that happened for Sasha was the Kelsey family taking him in temporarily and then permanently.
Sasha's trip to the United States as a young boy around Christmas changed everything… It set the stage for a youngster being adopted by a loving family, which has made this whole story possible.
"As I relive the years past, one of the memories I hold closest to my heart is the day that Sasha and I traveled together from St. Petersburg to Moscow to get his American Visa," said Marlene. "Sasha didn't speak a word of English and I didn't speak a word of Russian. We conquered all the unforeseen obstacles that came our way and formed an incredible bond and trust, and made our journey home."