Kelly credits Morgan with giving him Hall of Fame push

February 02, 1994|By John Steadman

As Leroy Kelly stands at the summit of achievement, entry into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he remembers his high school and college coaches and what Morgan State University, in particular, made possible.

Without Morgan State's offering the opportunity, there would have been no reference point. And it was Kelly's performance in the Morgan program that led him to an invitation to play pro football.

There was a strong link between Morgan and the Baltimore Colts, mainly because Earl Banks, the athletic director and coach, had been a lifetime friend of Claude "Buddy" Young, who played for the Colts, scouted talent and ultimately joined the National Football League as a special consultant to commissioner Pete Rozelle.

"I remember so many of the Colts, like Buddy, George Taliaferro, Gene 'Big Daddy' Lipscomb and Jesse Thomas, who was to become one of our assistant coaches, coming to our practices and helping me with some techniques," Kelly recalled.

"One thing Taliaferro told me was to keep my head up when I was running. Something that simple is often forgotten. Young players have a tendency to look down and don't see what's developing."

It was Young, then working for the Colts, who told Paul Bixler of the Cleveland Browns about Kelly. Scouts often do that for each other, especially back then when the NFL was fighting the rival American Football League for playing talent.

Bixler came to see for himself and advised the Browns to pick Kelly on the eighth round of the draft. It meant a $7,000 signing bonus and a contract for $12,500.

"I bought a brand new Malibu Chevrolet for $3,700 from a dealer on Reisterstown Road," Kelly said. "I'll never forget it. The Colts .. might have drafted me, but made another running back, Tony Lorick of Arizona State, their No. 1 choice."

When Kelly enrolled as a Morgan State freshman, coach Earl Banks was in his first year, too. It was a letter from Lou DeVicaris, coach at Simon Gratz High School, that provided the entree to an athletic scholarship.

"I had a couple feelers from other colleges, including Michigan, but my grades weren't good enough. I wanted to prove myself at Morgan," Kelly said. "I also was attracted to Baltimore because my sister Dorothy was then living on Clifton Avenue."

In Cleveland, for his first two years, Leroy played behind Jim Brown, who was then on his way to becoming the leading ground gainer in NFL history.

When Brown retired, Kelly got the call. For three straight seasons he gained in excess of 1,000 yards.

Except for an injury, he came close to leading the league in rushing three straight years. He won the title in 1967 and '68 and barely missed in 1966, when on the final day he had bruised ribs and Gale Sayers of the Chicago Bears, another Hall of Famer also signed by Young, went past him.

Kelly had outstanding consistency and was at his best, for reasons he can't fully explain, on wet and heavy fields.

"Maybe it was because I wasn't afraid to wear that extra long mud cleat other backs didn't bother with," he said. "I also wore a heavy Riddell shoe, but a low-cut that gave me a lot of support."

Kelly, 51, now lives in Willingboro, N.J., and says the Hall of Fame surpasses anything that ever happened to him. He's the father of four boys, ages 6 to 22, and is especially elated his mother, 87, is still living to share the latest honor.

His brother, Pat, chose baseball and played 15 years in the American League, four with the Orioles. He resides in Lutherville, where he's Leroy's leading cheerleader.

Frank Ryan, the Browns quarterback when Kelly played, said, "I never saw a back hit the hole any faster than Leroy. You had to be quick getting him the ball on a handoff, or there was a chance he'd go right by you."

Kelly joins Willie Lanier as the second Morgan grad to gain the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Kelly works as a public relations representative for Kiwi Airlines and says had it not been for Morgan's interest in him there is no chance a 10-year pro career and the Hall of Fame would have materialized.

Yes, and he gives credit to Lou DeVicaris, the high school coach who recognized the natural ability that could be developed.

Six times he made the Pro Bowl, was All-Pro in five of those years, twice led the league in touchdowns, and when he retired in 1973 was the fourth highest rusher in history, behind only Jim Brown, Jim Taylor and Joe Perry.

All have preceded him into the Hall of Fame, which underlines the kind of player Leroy Kelly was and the standing he has attained in being voted to football's most exclusive club.

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