"Catch."

That's how it started, with a typical backyard ritual: a man throwing a football, a young boy on the receiving end.

That chance meeting, that simple exchange, would change two lives and ripple through a dozen years and make a major mark on South Jersey  football in 2017.

JoJo Kellum doesn't know where he would be today if he had not caught that first pass from Sam Hoggs, and then the second, and the third.

But he knows where he wouldn't be.

He knows he wouldn't be starring at running back for the Lenape High School football team.

He knows he wouldn't be scoring 24 touchdowns in a sensational senior season and leading the Indians to an 8-1 record and a berth Friday in the semifinals of the South Jersey Group 5 tournament.

He knows he wouldn't be fielding scholarship offers from colleges such as Bucknell and Fordham.

And he knows he wouldn't be going home every night to a hot meal of chicken and rice, or fish, or spaghetti prepared by the man who has spent every day of the last four years making good on a vow to a dying woman.

"I don't know where I would be if he didn't step into my life," Kellum said of Hoggs.

In some ways, they are an odd couple: a high school football star and an unmarried 53-year-old man without children of his own.

But Hoggs grew up in a large family in a big house near the corner of Highland and Drexel Avenues in Pennsauken. He was the oldest of seven boys and there always seemed to be a neighborhood kid who was welcome to a seat at the dinner table, or a spot on the sofa.

Hoggs learned from the example set by his late father, also named Sam Hoggs.

"We had people in our house all the time," Hoggs said. "I learned that we're here to take care of each other."

Hoggs has been Kellum's legal guardian for four years. But their relationship stretches back to when JoJo was a 5-year-old with bright eyes and soft hands, a precocious youngster desperate for somebody to throw him a football at a gathering at his mother's home in Mount Laurel.

Hoggs knew Kellum's mother, Barbara Kendall, from Pennsauken. Both went to Pennsauken High School, and Kendall and some of her family used to frequent Hoggs' barbership and beauty salon on 38th and Westfield Avenues.

."We went to party at her house and I started throwing the football to this little kid," said Hoggs, who now owns a construction business. "I was, like, 'You got to sign this kid up for football.' "

Kellum remembers his first meeting with the man who would change his life.

"I was, like, 5 years old, we had a cookout at our house," Kellum said. "He picked up a football and threw it to me, he kept doing it and I was catching them all.

"He talked to my mom about signing me up and he started taking me to football."

Kellum has carried Lenape on a five-game winning streak since a 10-7 loss to rival Rancocas Valley — whom the Indians could see again in the South Jersey Group 5 title game — according to coach Tim McAneney.

"We pretty much said, 'We're riding Jo,' " McAneney said. "He's just a great high school football player and a special, special person."

Then 5-foot-10, 185-pound Kellum has scored 16 touchdowns in the five-game winning streak. He ran for 117 yards and two touchdowns in Lenape's 35-0 victory over Vineland in the playoff opener on Friday night.

"He is the best back we've faced the last two years," Burlington Township coach Tom Maderia said.

Cherokee coach P.J. Mehigan notes that Kellum is a physical runner who fights for extra yardage, but also becomes a force on the defensive side as a cornerback.

"Explosive guy who runs equally well between the tackles and outside them," Mehigan said.

Kellum credits his development into a top player to countless hours working out with Hoggs.

Hoggs said Kellum deserves the credit.

"This is a kid who would ask me again and again, 'We going to the field, we working out?' " Hoggs said. "I was amazed at how hard he worked, how much he wanted it. The cold didn't bother him. The heat didn't bother him."

Over time, Hoggs became a fixture in Kellum's life, taking him to football practices, guiding him through workout sessions, taking him fishing on four-hour charter boats out of Wildwood.

He also took Kellum to family outings, including weeklong Christmas visits to Hoggs' clan in Athens, Ga.

Kellum's own life was a bit unsettled, with his mother ill and his father in prison. He came to relish the time he spent in the warm embrace of Hoggs' family.

"They took me in like they knew me my whole life," Kellum said.

"Salt of the earth," Lenape assistant coach Mark Lilley, who grew up in Pennsauken, said of Hoggs and his family.

Kellum began spending weekends at Hoggs' home, and some weeknights, as well.

Hoggs used to live in Vineland but moved to Mount Laurel to be closer to Kellum.

"The kid, he was yearning for a father figure," Hoggs said. "I told him, 'Jo, I'll never turn my back on you.' "

When Kendall's condition worsened from complications from a blood disorder, Hoggs became an even more important figure in Kellum's life.

"His mom was dying and she said to me, 'Sam, you got to take care of him,' " Hoggs said. "I said, 'Barb, I got him. He's with me.' "

Things became stressful after Kendall's death. Kellum lived for a while with his older sister, then was placed in foster care for a short stretch.

Meanwhile, Hoggs applied for legal custody of Kellum and was turned down.

"I told him, 'Don't worry, Jo, I'm not giving up,' " Hoggs said. "I was going to get him or die trying."

Hoggs' second application was approved and he became Kellum's legal guardian in 2014. They have lived together in Mount Laurel through Kellum's high school career.
Kellum has developed into a star athlete. He has become a strong student with a 3.2 grade-point average. He has become a team leader known for his unselfish play.

"Jo-Jo, hands down, the hardest-working kid I ever met," Lenape senior quarterback Matt Lajoie said. "He's just a great teammate. He's been through a lot, but he lets everything out on the football field."

JoJo Kellum has scored 24 TDs this season for Lenape.
Avi Steinhardt/For the Inquirer
JoJo Kellum has scored 24 TDs this season for Lenape.

Kellum's career at Lenape is winding down, as the Indians have just two or three more games.

He said he cherishes these last few days with his teammates, many of whom he met as a 5-year-old who was signed up for the sport on the advice of a man who visited the house one Sunday afternoon and picked up a football.

The man threw it. The little boy caught it.

And two strangers became family.

"I always think about that, 'What would have happened if I never played football or moved in with Sam?'" Kellum said. "Honestly, I don't know."