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Heisman's First Winner Said No To The Pros

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Heisman's First Winner Said No To The Pros


Heisman's First Winner Said No To The Pros

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Lynn Neary.


And I'm Robert Siegel. The winner of the Heisman trophy is announced this weekend. And, as the world of college football awaits the crowning of this year's best player, we bring you a tale of a past Heisman winner.

Seventy-five years ago, the Ivy League was a hotbed of football talent and Larry Kelley of Yale University was the best. NPR's Mike Pesca picks up the story from there.

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: Jay Berwanger is the answer to the trivia question, who first won the Heisman? But if you want to be clever in a nobody is technically buried in Grant's tomb sort of way, Berwanger didn't win the Heisman. He was the downtown athletic club's first college player of the year, but his award wasn't called the Heisman and the iconic trophy wasn't handed out until the next year, 1936.

The winner then was Yale end Larry Kelley, who took his trophy and set out not for Detroit, where the Lions offered him a contract, nor St. Louis, where baseball's Cardinals did the same. No, Kelley returned to his old high school to teach history and coach, a coup for the Peddie School of Hightstown, New Jersey, if not for former petty fullback Bob Zenker, class of '43, who remembers Coach Kelley's taste for strapping on the old helmet.

ROBERT ZENKER: He'd get me down in a crouch. He'd get about - I don't know - 10, 15 feet away and then he'd charge me.

PESCA: So how did you handle that?

ZENKER: Well, I tackled him.

PESCA: Kelley's time in the Peddie School was followed by a stint as an executive with a glove company, a period in another boarding school, a few marriages and, finally, a return to Peddie. He brought with him an aura, remembers football coach and English teacher Pat Clements.

PAT CLEMENTS: I think he occupied a bigger space talking to him then - his body took up. He just had a powerful male Heisman trophy guy, alpha male presence that just sat at the table that way.

PESCA: Every year, Clements brings his JV team into an alcove of the athletic complex where Kelley's Heisman trophy is kept. He talks about history, about when the Ivy League was the pinnacle of football, when the sport's best player could turn down a pro career for the classroom. And he says, that man who made that choice wore the uniform you wear on the field where you play.

CLEMENTS: A lot of kids, when they hear it and begin to process it, just sort of get kind of quiet and look at it. It's not like they're genuflecting or anything, but they definitely know that they're looking at something that is significant in the sport that they are new to. And every once in a while, some kid will reach over and kind of touch the case. That gets a snicker, but I think all the other kids who are snickering would have liked to have done it themselves, too.

PESCA: Clements, of course, will tell the students that they're not looking at Kelley's actual Heisman. The real Heisman is almost exactly 100 miles away. This is The Stadium sports bar - Garrison, New York - home to a vast and eclectic array of sports memorabilia, a gold glove, actual Hall of Fame plaques, Stanley Cups.

But the first Heisman, according to The Stadium's owner, James Walsh, is the creme de la creme.

JAMES WALSH: It's Larry Kelley's Heisman trophy, then it's everything else. And to be honest with you, after meeting Larry Kelley himself just makes the trophy even more valuable to me.

PESCA: What was he like?

WALSH: Picture an 80-somewhat year old man with bear claws for hands. I'm not a small guy and his hands reached all the way up to my forearm. He had a presence about him that pretty much demanded respect.

PESCA: Walsh says the price he paid 12 years ago of $328,000 has been justified many times over. Kelley wanted to sell his trophy to provide an inheritance to his many nieces and nephews. Kelley's widow, Mary Ruth, is still alive, but in poor health.

I spoke to one niece who said that the day the family rode up to Garrison was one they'll never forget and the decision to sell the trophy is one the family still supports. Six months after the sale, Kelley, who had suffered a stroke a year earlier, committed suicide in the basement of his home two blocks from the Peddie School.

There are many explanations for the tragic end to a life that was anything but. Old age and poor health, a burden to anyone, seemed especially unbearable to a man like Kelley, a man whose life was marked by an abiding sense of agency as he sprinted past expectations and warded off dictates like that ball carrier in his famous trophy.

Mike Pesca, NPR News, New York.

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