Cleveland Brown great running back from Simon Gratz HS
Jim Brown rocked the football world in 1966 when he announced that he was retiring from the NFL to pursue an acting career. The news took everyone by surprise, especially Blanton Collier, the Cleveland Browns head coach, who suddenly had to replace the best running back in the game.
“I don’t expect anyone to replace Jim, runners like him come along only once in a lifetime,” Collier said. “But I do expect someone from this squad to make a name for himself.”
One player – Leroy Kelly – did just that.
Kelly stepped out of Brown’s enormous shadow and into his place in the starting lineup. Undaunted by the inevitable comparisons, Kelly won two NFL rushing titles, played in 6 Pro Bowls, and earned all-league honors five times. He was the recipient of the Bert Bell Award as NFL Player of the Year in 1968. Kelly ultimately joined Brown in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1994. Tonight, he adds the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame to his long list of honors.
“I’m just glad Jim quit when he did,” Kelly said. “If he had played a few more years – and he certainly could have done that – I might never have had the chance I had. All I ever wanted to do was to be Leroy Kelly and do the best job I possibly could.”
Kelly is a Philadelphia native who lettered in football, basketball and baseball at Simon Gratz High School. In football, he played quarterback on offense and middle linebacker on defense as well as handling all the kicking duties. His coach, Louis DeVicaris called Kelly “the best football player I’d ever seen.”
Kelly went to Morgan State, a small college in Baltimore where coach Earl Banks moved him from quarterback to running back. He had an outstanding college career – he was the Most Valuable Player in the Orange Blossom Classic as a senior – and Cleveland selected him in the eighth round of the 1964 draft.
The 6-0, 200-pound Kelly made the Browns team with his hustle and hard-nosed play on special teams. He became one of the best kick returners in the game – he was the league’s top punt returner with a 15.6 yard average in 1965 – and as a rookie in 1964, he helped Cleveland win the NFL championship with a 27-0 win over the Baltimore Colts.
Kelly saw spot duty in the backfield his first two seasons, but he showed enough potential for Collier to give him first crack at Brown’s position when the big man retired. It proved to be a wise decision.
In his first season as a starter, Kelly carried the ball 209 times for 1,141 yards, a 5.5 yard average, and scored a league-high 15 touchdowns. The next two years, Kelly won the rushing title, topping 1,200 yards in both seasons. In 1968, he led the NFL in scoring with 120 points on 20 touchdowns.
“Jim (Brown) played at 222 (pounds) to 228 and was a fullback type of power runner,” Collier said. “Leroy is 200 pounds and a halfback type of runner. But Leroy did a lot of things Jim was never asked to do. He played on our special teams. He is a fine team man – good tackler, blocker and pass receiver.”
Kelly played a total of 10 seasons in the NFL. He finished with 7,274 yards rushing and 2,281 yards on 190 pass receptions. Add in his kick returns and he totaled 12,329 yards in his career. When he retired, he ranked fourth on the all-time list in rushing and combined net yards. He scored 540 points on 90 touchdowns.
Kelly missed only four games due to injury and he never missed more than one game in any season. He had quite a career for a small college player who signed for $17,000 as a rookie – and that included his bonus.
“I have pleasant memories of all my individual accomplishments,” Kelly said, “but it’s not like any of them stand out on their own. They all sort of melt together into a feeling of, ‘Yeah, I did that.’
“You just never know how fate is going to play its hand. I’m just happy things worked out the way they did.”