Rob Kelly’s got it going on. He’s a well-spoken, head-turnin’ surfer with a solid air/barrel repertoire, a wicked competitive streak, one smokin’ hot girlfriend (think fire-breathing dragon standing on the sun kind of hot) and a spanking new Billabong contract. He’s got the vision to be in the moment of his realized pro dream, while working towards a business degree that will set him up for the days beyond his pro career. And he loves NJ. Wouldn’t want to be anywhere else… and his job has taken him just about everywhere else.
strong>Photo by Joe Reighn
I was fortunate enough to get a few minutes with Rob on the heels of his contract signing to hear about his career, his recovery from a horrible injury and his aspirations to make it to the WCT. Take a moment, read below and find another reason to love the Garden State…
TSV: How old are ya’?
TSV: How long have you been pro?
Rob: Since I was 18 when I signed with Fox
TSV: And what spurred you to do it?
Rob: My senior year of high school I had some good results. A lot of good stuff happened. The timing was just really good. My parents were okay with me taking some time off school and I just went for it.
TSV: What did you win that year?
Rob: Open Men’s and Junior Men’s in the ESA’s Easterns and the NSSA’s Open Men’s division.
TSV: Wow! What a year. So, Billabong is your primary sponsor? And given that you launched career with Fox, this was a big move for you…?
Rob: Yes. But if you go back all the way to when I was 15, my first sponsor ever was actually Billabong. Back then it was just a few boxes of clothes…very minimal…til I was about 16 when I switched to Fox. At the time I wasn’t as big a deal …Billabong had such a big team, whereas Fox had a smaller surf team, so for me-as a kid-I was able to get a little more exposure with Fox.
TSV: So, why the switch now?
Rob: Pretty much it was a bidding thing. Billabong just kind of outbid Fox…There were no hard feelings when I left and I left on good terms. Plus Billabong put together the better offer and it seemed like the right thing to do.
TSV: I think it’s interesting that Billabong is sponsoring two pros out of NJ [the other being Sam Hammer], which is a lot for just our state. What does that say about Billabong’s focus on the area?
Rob: Yeah, just the fact that the biggest surf co. in the world is investing in NJ surfers, I think it says a lot for the state of surfing in NJ. In the past, maybe NJ was overlooked, but now Billabong—and other companies too—is showing that the surfing’s stepping up and more on the radar than in the past.
TSV: How do you think NJ stands against NY, Maine and the surrounding states? Do you think we’re getting a bit more recognition over those states?
Rob: Yeah, I think so. We just have more substance and have more guys on a higher level. But there are definitely really good surfers in NY too. I think the main focus in the northeast would be NJ and NY. I also think that with the WCT contest coming to NY in September, it seems that there’s a lot more tension in the area now.
TSV: Are there wildcard spots that everyone here is competing for?
Rob: I’m not sure. I know that they’re having local trials and typically those are just in the state that the comp is in, but if they open up the trials to NJ too, I would definitely hope to get a spot. That would be insane.
TSV: That’d be unbelievable!
Rob: Well, that’s definitely on my mind and I know all of the NJ guys are asking if they’re going to open it up. But I hope so.
TSV: Why NJ for you? What does it mean to you?
Rob: It’s pretty much all that I know. I grew up in PA and NJ, so the people and the atmosphere are so much different than California or Hawaii or anywhere. And yeah, the waves aren’t as good, but just everything appeals to me….And when it gets good, it can rival any other spot.
TSV: So, you’re a full time pro right now.
Rob: Yeah, but I’m also taking courses online too.
TSV: What’s the degree you’re going for?
Rob: Business. And with Billabong…they said that I’ll also be able to get my foot in the door with them this year too with Marketing…Which was another big reason I went with them—to be able to work within the industry, because that’s like the ultimate goal when you’re a pro surfer—to surf and travel and get paid as long as you can, but then hopefully have something to do in the industry afterwards. And signing with Billabong, the opportunity would be there and that was another reason.
TSV: So, what is Billabong looking for from you right now—contests, travel, videos?
Rob: Pretty much all of that. They just want me to represent the brand in a good way in the region. They want the kids and everyone in NJ to get hyped on Billabong.
TSV: With all your success on the contest circuit, do you have WQS/WCT aspirations?
Rob: Oh definitely, just because I love competing. I’ve always been pretty competitive and competition is something I’ve always enjoyed, so that’s one of my top priorities.
TSV: That’d be sick to see you on the ‘CT.
Rob: Oh Yeah!
TSV: So, what’s next for you?
Rob: Just travel as much as I can and surf the best waves I can.
TSV: Where have you travelled to?
Rob: Australia, Indonesia, New Zealand. All over Central America.
TSV: How’s it been with your brother Chris? Does he push you and how does that dynamic work for your career?
Rob: Oh yeah, while we’re not outwardly competitive, I think we always try to outdo each other and that just naturally helps both of us so much…And that’s a positive thing.
TSV: How’s your shoulder?
Rob: Basically, I got released to start surfing, but the doctor said to not push it too hard over the next couple of months. Like right now, I was supposed to be out in Hawaii, but he said that I’m not ready for that. He did say that I could surf here when it’s mellow. But I should be 100% within the next couple of months.
TSV: It was a big deal too that Billabong signed you when you were injured. Rob: Yeah, that was pretty much the worst time to get hurt, which was right before January when the contracts get re-negotiated. I was on a 3 year deal with Fox and this was the end of my 3 years and I got hurt in November right during negotiations. That was a really scary time. There couldn’t have been a worse time to suffer an injury like that. I’m just really thankful that [Billabong] had faith in me and signed me during that time.
TSV: And how did you get hurt?
Rob: I was in the barrel and that’s the last thing that I remember. I must’ve hit the sand because my collarbone broke in 4 places and I had a concussion. Luckily I was surfing with a friend…he helped me out of the water, called the ambulance, got me to the hospital. Couple days after that I got surgery and got 7 screws and a titanium plate across my shoulder that will be there forever… It was one of the best days of the year though.
At this point in the interview, Rob noted that the wind had finally come around and chest high peaks started turning on with an hour of light left in the day. Hearing the urgency of a grom who can think of nothing but getting a few waves, I ended the interview and cut him loose. But he didn’t jump before exhibiting the graciousness of a pro stoked on his lot in life. And man, it’s a good lot.