Leroy Kelly wasn’t just one of the greatest running backs in Cleveland Browns franchise history. He was also one of the best late-round picks the team had ever produced.
The Browns drafted the unheralded Kelly in the eighth round of the 1964 NFL Draft on the recommendation of Baltimore Colts scout Buddy Young.
Kelly’s impressive running style impressed Young, who quickly tipped off Browns owner Art Modell.
When Modell and the Browns took Kelly’s name off the draft board, they had no idea they just found Jim Brown’s successor at running back.
After Brown retired following the 1965 NFL campaign, Kelly picked up the slack and promptly led the league in rushing touchdowns for three straight years.
Kelly also led the NFL in scoring and won the Bert Bell Award in 1968. Better yet, the Browns never had a losing record with Kelly as their primary ball carrier from 1966 to 1973
Kelly eventually earned his much-deserved gold jacket and bust at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in the summer of 1994.
This is Leroy Kelly’s incredible football story.
Leroy Kelly was born in Philadelphia, PA on May 20, 1942. He has three brothers: Samson, Ulysses, and Harold Patrick. He also has three sisters: Dorothy, Elizabeth, and May.
Leroy Kelly attended Simon Gratz High School in his hometown of Philadelphia, PA. He was a three-sport star who excelled in football, baseball, and basketball for the Gratz Bulldogs.
Kelly did a little bit of everything at Simon Gratz High. He played quarterback, linebacker, punter, and kickoff return specialist. He also served as the Bulldogs’ team captain during his high school days in the late 1950s.
He played well enough to earn honorable mention honors on Pennsylvania’s All-Star Team. His teachers named him his graduating class’s best athlete.
Kelly’s high school football coach, Lou DiVicaris, considered him the greatest football player he had ever coached.
“Leroy was the best football player I’d ever seen,” DiVicaris told the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Don Smith in 1994. “Besides being a great runner and a leader, he also was the most vicious tackler on the squad.”
Kelly’s performance earned him looks from some major college football programs, including the Michigan Wolverines.
— Eric Barnes (@ericcbarnes) October 9, 2021
Unfortunately, Leroy admitted to The Baltimore Sun’s Alan Goldstein (via the Los Angeles Times) in the summer of 1994 that his grades were far from impressive.
Leroy grew despondent when his prospects of playing college football grew bleaker by the day.
Fortunately, DiVicaris, who Leroy fondly called “Mr. D,” reached out to several colleges and universities inquiring about a possible football scholarship for his protégé, per ProFootballHOF.com.
DiVicaris eventually hit paydirt when Morgan State University, a historically-black university in Baltimore, MD, offered Leroy a half scholarship and a job. He gladly accepted the school’s offer.
Leroy eventually loved the thought of playing college football in the Charm City. Coincidentally, his sister, Dorothy, was living in Baltimore at the time.
Before long, Leroy Kelly became one of the greatest running backs in Morgan State Bears football program history.
College Days with the Morgan State Bears
Leroy Kelly attended Morgan State University from 1960 to 1963. Kelly, who majored in physical education, played for Morgan State Bears head football coach Earl Banks.
Kelly played on both sides of the ball. He played running back and defensive back for Morgan State in the early 1960s.
Banks converted Kelly to running back and defensive back because of a logjam at quarterback. The Bears already had Pete Pompey as their quarterback, per The Baltimore Sun.
Pompey told Goldstein about one of Kelly’s most memorable games in the collegiate ranks almost three decades later.
It was a game against the North Carolina A&T Aggies in Pompey’s senior season. He recalled it was tough to win a road game in the Aggies’ home stadium.
Worse, it was the Aggies’ homecoming game, so the adrenaline was soaring in the players and the fans.
Pompey’s worst fears became a reality when North Carolina A&T burst out of the gate and scored 21 unanswered points.
Fortunately, Leroy Kelly came alive in the second half. He had two receiving and one rushing touchdown as the Bears scored 28 points and completely shut down the Aggies’ offense in the second half.
With Leroy leading the Bears in rushing yardage, scoring, and punting, Morgan State clinched the CIAA title in 1962.
Happy Birthday Leroy Kelly, #MorganState, #ClevelandBrowns. NFL Champion (1964). Morgan State coach Earl Banks said Leroy is one of the finest backs he have ever coached. #HBCU @InsideHBCUFball @elevenbravo138 @SportVoiceJW @TheYardHBCU @THEHBCUNATION @ClintKPoppe pic.twitter.com/t0O7rMNw7D
— History of College Football (@HistColFootball) May 20, 2022
Kelly averaged five yards per carry as a senior the following year. He played in the 1963 Orange Blossom Game and eventually earned MVP honors.
It was merely a glimpse of Leroy Kelly’s enormous potential as a running back.
Kelly credited part of his emergence at Morgan State to several Baltimore Colts players who watched Bears practice occasionally.
One Colts player, George Taliaferro, gave Leroy some valuable advice. He told the young player to never close his eyes after he burst through the line of scrimmage.
Taliaferro also told Kelly to trust his instincts and run through that seam he thought could produce the most yardage, per Smith.
Kelly listened and the rest was history. It was valuable advice he took to heart throughout his college days and his pro football career.
Little did Leroy Kelly know he would break into the NFL ranks as an unheralded draft pick and become the heir apparent of one of the greatest running backs in Cleveland Browns franchise history.
Pro Football Career
The Cleveland Browns made Leroy Kelly the 110th overall selection of the 1964 NFL Draft.
Kelly, an eighth-round draft choice, told Goldstein he’d thought he had no shot at making an NFL roster.
He thought he would play in the American Football League (AFL) all along. However, after none of the AFL teams drafted him, he thought his chances of playing in the NFL were slim to none.
“When I wasn’t selected, I figured I had even less of a chance of being chosen by the NFL,” Kelly told The Baltimore Sun (via the Los Angeles Times) some 30 years later.
Kelly’s fears were not unfounded. Pro scouts thought that, at just 188 pounds, he was too small for a running back. They felt he was better off playing defensive back in the pro ranks.
Leroy Kelly’s saving grace was former Baltimore Colts halfback, Buddy Young.
According to the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s official website, the Browns drafted Kelly on the recommendation of Young, who was scouting for Baltimore at the time. He told Cleveland about Kelly because the Colts weren’t interested in him.
“This guy is smaller than Jim Brown,” Young said back then (via the Pro Football Hall of Fame). “But Kelly has many of the same moves. He’s got speed, can cut, and never gives you a full piece of himself. He also keeps those feet close to the ground.”
Browns owner Art Modell told Goldstein his team scoured many of the major college football programs. However, they’d overlooked Kelly’s alma mater, Morgan State University.
An Unlikely Pick
Modell was thankful Young intervened at the perfect moment.
“He kept calling me to tell me about the kid named Kelly at Morgan,” Modell told The Baltimore Sun in 1994. “If it had’t been for that, we’d have probably missed out on one of the truly great running backs.”
After Young tipped off Modell, the latter relayed the information to his scouting director, Paul Bixler.
When the eighth round kicked off, Collier had left the Browns’ war room and called it a night. He reached out to Bixler the following morning and asked him what had happened in his absence.
Bixler told him the Browns nabbed a halfback surnamed Kelly in the eighth round.
“Who the heck is Kelly of Morgan?” Collier asked Bixler (via The Baltimore Sun and the Los Angeles Times).
Leroy Kelly had huge shoes to fill:
He had to replace Jim Brown.
— NFL Legacy (@NFLLegacy) July 24, 2019
Cleveland signed Kelly, the diamond in the rough, to a $17,000 contract that came with a signing bonus.
When Kelly entered the NFL ranks in the mid-1960s, he didn’t know what side of the ball he would play on. He’d played both offense and defense for the Morgan State Bears during his college days.
Browns head coach Blanton Collier approached Leroy at his first mini-camp in the spring of 1964. Collier asked him to put on more weight because he was going to play running back.
Leroy did as Collier asked and added ten pounds of muscle to his frame within two months.
Injury and Recovery
To Kelly’s dismay, he pulled his hamstring on the third day of Browns training camp in the summer of his rookie year.
No less than Leroy’s predecessor, the great Jim Brown, came to his rescue.
Brown, who was entering his eighth pro football season the year Leroy broke into the pro ranks, asked Collier to rest Kelly’s injured hamstring.
Kelly remembered it was an unusual request for a rookie like him. Collier somehow agreed.
After Kelly received the go-signal from his head coach, he went to Browns trainer Leo Murphy, who helped rehab his pulled hamstring.
Kelly’s hamstring eventually healed. He played mainly on special teams in his first two NFL seasons from 1964 to 1965.
Collier thought Kelly’s excellent running, kick coverage, and tackling skills would come in handy on special teams. He knew the Browns had unearthed a precious gem.
Hall of Fame wideout Paul Warfield, Kelly’s fellow rookie roommate in 1964, echoed Collier’s sentiments.
Warfield marveled at Kelly’s punt return skills. The Browns typically began their scoring drives somewhere near the 50-yard line.
That, and the fact the great Jim Brown was Cleveland’s main ball carrier, made the Browns an unstoppable force in the 1960s.
Warfield also noticed NFL teams adjusted their kick coverage strategies because of Leroy Kelly.
Warfield told The Baltimore Sun in 1994 teams that received the punt typically formed a wall so that the ball carrier would scamper for yardage near the sidelines.
However, Kelly had a different approach.
Kelly’s lightning-quick jab step to the left or right threw defenses off and allowed him to return punts the unconventional way: at midfield.
“Jim Brown used to say that anyone could run outside, but it took a great one to run inside,” Browns head coach Blanton Collier said (via the Pro Football Hall of Fame).
Leroy Kelly was one of those great ones Brown was talking about. The former singled out his first touchdown as his most memorable moment in the NFL.
It wasn’t just any touchdown. Kelly scored on a 68-yard punt return for a touchdown in a game against the New York Giants on October 25, 1964. He told himself, “Welcome to the NFL,” and spiked the ball emphatically after he crossed the end zone.
Another memory Kelly never forgot was starting alongside Brown in his rookie year.
Kelly picked up the slack for injured Browns fullback Ernie Green in a home game against the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1964.
Leroy caught several clutch passes in the waning moments. His heroics ultimately carried Cleveland to victory.
“Walking off the field that day with my arm around Jim Brown was something I’ll never forget,” Kelly told Goldstein in1994.
Kelly scored on two more punt returns for touchdowns in the 1965 NFL season.
The Browns were a juggernaut that averaged eleven wins from 1964 to 1965. They eventually won their eighth NFL Championship in 1964.
Kelly’s Career Takes Off
Although Cleveland reached the title game the following year—Brown’s last—the team lost to Bart Starr’s Green Bay Packers, 23-12.
After Brown retired from the National Football League, Leroy Kelly not only picked up the slack, but his pro football career also took off.
“I don’t expect anyone to replace Jim,” Browns head coach Blanton Collier said at the time. “Runners like him come along only once in a lifetime. I do expect someone from this squad to make a name for himself, and Leroy is going to get his chance.”
All Kelly did from 1966 through 1968 was finish second, first, and first in the NFL in rushing yards, while leading the NFL in rushing touchdowns all three seasons. pic.twitter.com/CnjYFjpsw3
— Kevin Gallagher (@KevG163) February 26, 2022
For his part, Brown told Collier he had nothing to worry about. The Browns were in good hands with Kelly.
“I told Blanton he wouldn’t miss me,” Jim Brown told The Baltimore Sun‘s Alan Goldstein in 1994. “I said that we had a great runner to replace me.”
It turned out Collier’s premonition of Leroy Kelly becoming a top-tier running back was right all along.
Kelly made it clear he didn’t try to imitate Brown’s running style. Instead, he studied it intently during his first two years in the National Football League.
Brown’s ability to break free from defenders after just a few steps simply took Kelly’s breath away.
Collier emphasized Brown and Kelly had two completely different running styles. While the 232-lb. Brown ran like a fullback, the 200-lb. Kelly ran like a halfback.
Kelly also did some of the things Brown never did such as taking on punt returns duties on special teams.
Leroy took a page from Brown’s book and racked up three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons and a combined 42 touchdowns from 1966 to 1968. He led the NFL in rushing touchdowns during that memorable three-year time frame.
Backing Up Another Legend
Kelly’s resurgence would also bode well for Paul Warfield’s eventual Hall of Fame career.
Kelly’s excellent pass-catching abilities helped take the load off Warfield’s shoulders on offense. Defenses had to seriously think about employing double coverage schemes on Warfield when Kelly was around.
With Leroy Kelly at the top of his game, Cleveland averaged ten games per season from 1966 to 1968.
Kelly helped the Browns finish the 1968 NFL campaign on a high note. He scored four touchdowns in Cleveland’s 45-10 romp over the Giants, the team he had scored his first career touchdown against four years earlier. It was the Browns’ seventh consecutive victory.
Kelly eventually ramped up his touchdown total that year to 20—the second-most in Browns’ franchise history behind Brown’s 21 just three years prior.
It was also the third straight year Leroy Kelly led the NFL in touchdowns. He also led the league in rushing yardage from 1967 to 1968.
Unfortunately, the Browns lost to Earl Morrall’s Baltimore Colts in the 1968 NFL Championship Game in humiliating fashion, 34-0.
Nevertheless, Kelly earned an impressive six consecutive Pro Bowls, four First-Team All-Pro selections, and one Second-Team All-Pro berth from 1966 to 1971. Kelly also won the prestigious Bert Bell Award in 1968.
It was truly the pinnacle of Leroy Kelly’s memorable ten-year pro football career.
November 28, 1971: Leroy Kelly 6th all-time🏈
50 yrs ago OTD #Browns HOF Leroy Kelly becomes #6 leading rusher in #NFL history in W vs. Oilers. Kelly now #61 on list; others Brown (11), Byner (42), M. Pruitt (58), G. Pruitt (108), Mack (131), Motley (161), Chubb (181) #CLE #RBs💪 pic.twitter.com/G1XYBSt7U3
— On This Day: Cleveland Sports (@CityfanC) November 28, 2021
Kelly had several salary disputes with the Browns as his pro football career took off. According to Smith, Kelly balked at Cleveland’s salary raise before the 1967 NFL season, his second as the Browns’ starting running back.
Consequently, Kelly and four of his Browns teammates held out for several weeks. Cleveland eventually traded two of those players who went on strike.
For his part, Kelly played out his option, turned down a raise of $12,000, and accepted the 10 percent cut in salary, per Smith.
Although Kelly never rushed for another 1,000-yard season from 1969 to 1973, he still averaged six touchdowns per year as his playing days in the National Football League wound down.
Cleveland averaged nine wins in the last five years of Kelly’s pro football career. Although the Browns made two postseason appearances in the immediate aftermath of the historic AFL-NFL merger in 1970, they never advanced past the AFC Divisional Round.
The Browns eventually released Kelly following the 1973 NFL campaign.
After Kelly failed to land a spot on the Oakland Raiders roster, he played one season for the World Football League’s (WFL) Chicago Fire in 1974.
Leroy Kelly retired after his brief stint in the WFL. He had 7.274 rushing yards and 74 touchdowns on 1,727 carries in the National Football League from 1964 to 1973.
Cleveland never had a losing season with Jim Brown as running back from 1957 to 1965. Leroy Kelly continued that winning tradition when he picked up the slack for Brown in 1966.
The Browns never had a losing season with Kelly as their starting running back from 1966 to 1973. They also made five postseason appearances during those eight seasons.
Kelly’s uncanny quickness and elusiveness made him one of the NFL’s most durable running backs in the 1960s and early 1970s. He missed just four games and never sat out more than one game in a season from 1964 to 1973.
“A lot of it is luck,” Kelly told the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1994. “Good physical condition helps, of course.”
Leroy Kelly earned the moniker “The Great Mudder” during his ten years with the Browns because of his uncanny ability to run in inclement weather conditions.
Leroy Kelly and his family currently reside in the Willingboro, NJ area. He has three sons and one daughter.
Leroy Kelly entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, OH in the summer of 1994. Cleveland Plain Dealer sportswriter Chuck Heaton was his presenter.
Part of Kelly’s enshrinement speech reads:
“So many people, like teammates in high school, in college, professional, that is the reason why I am here today. I’m not going to start naming names because I would be up here all day.”
Leroy Kelly is also a member of the Morgan State University Athletics Hall of Fame, Black College Football Hall of Fame, Cleveland Browns Ring of Honor, and the NFL 1960s All-Decade Team.
Kelly’s son Leroy II earned a tryout with the Cleveland Browns in 2012. The latter was a running back and defensive back during his college days, just like his father.
Leroy Kelly II recalled the first time he met his dad’s former teammate and fellow Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown in 1994.
The younger Kelly was just nine years old that year. He approached Brown and told him he was going to eclipse all of his football records.
Brown just smiled and said, “Okay, son.”
Leroy Kelly II never lived up to his promise to the great Jim Brown.