Ellison Lamar Kelly
Born: May 17, 1935 (Butler, Georgia)
Died: February 11, 2016 (Hamilton, Ontario)
Ellison Kelly, an ironman on the offensive line, helped his Hamilton Tiger-Cats win three Grey Cup football championships in the 1960s.
He never missed a game in his 13-season Canadian Football League career, suiting up for 175 consecutive games before retiring at the end of the 1972 season.
Mr. Kelly, who has died at 80, was known as a quiet, spiritual man both on the field and in the locker room. Away from the stadium, he worked as a substitute teacher in Hamilton during his playing days and later became athletic director at a jail.
He was a perennial all-star in the Eastern conference, winning honours eight times in 13 seasons. He was also named to the league’s all-star team three times.
The Ticats were a powerhouse during his tenure with the team, advancing to six Grey Cup games. The team was known for its stingy defence and the fearsome hitting of such stars as Angelo Mosca.
Football’s offensive line is a front-line trench for large men whose job it is to protect the quarterback and open paths for runners. When guards and tackles fail, a quarterback is sacked, or a running back tackled.
When a play unfolds as planned, all eyes are on the attacking player, not on the anonymous behemoth who executed the perfect block. The 6-foot-3, 250-pound Mr. Kelly was a stalwart as both a guard and a tackle with a reputation for having excellent technique. It was his burden that the better he was at his job the less he was noticed by fans.
Twenty years after he retired, Mr. Kelly was at last inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame.
Ellison Lamar Kelly was born on May 17, 1935, in Butler, Ga. He was the first of five children and the only son born to Maggie (née Collier) and John West Kelly, a Baptist deacon. The family later moved to Lake City, Fla., where the boy enjoyed a bucolic childhood despite the lack of electricity and running water in the family home and the occasional run-in with central Florida’s exotic wildlife. One night while visiting the outhouse, he heard a rustling outside. Fearing an alligator, he hid within the outhouse until daybreak, only to emerge to discover his concerned parents had called the police to search for a missing son.
The Kelly family later moved to Sandusky, Ohio, where the father worked on the assembly line of a Ford factory before becoming a supervisor. Young Ellison starred at Sandusky High in the classroom and on the field, earning all-state honours as a tackle for the Blue Streaks. He was also a superb basketball player, boxer and track athlete in the discus and shot put, the latter in which he set a school record that would last 20 years.
A football scholarship took him to Michigan State University in East Lansing, where he played a key rule as a two-way player with the Spartans under coach Duffy Daugherty. He became a first stringer towards the end of his sophomore season before being named to Big Ten all-conference teams at guard in 1957 and 1958. Mr. Kelly also earned academic honours for combining scholarship with athleticism before graduating with a degree in business administration.
The New York Giants of the National Football League drafted the guard in the fifth round (No. 59 overall) of the 1959 draft. He signed an $8,000 US contract with a $1,000 signing bonus and saw spot duty in 12 games for the Giants that season. He roomed with Roosevelt (Rosey) Grier and enjoyed some of the entertainments available for a professional athlete in New York, attending shows at Manhattan night spots, where he met the likes of Tina Turner and Louis Armstrong. He also formed a friendship with the singer Sam Cooke, both men sharing a background as African-American PKs (preacher’s kids) from the South.
The Giants cut Mr. Kelly just before the start of the 1960 NFL season, a decision he felt unfair and the result of an unacknowledged quota on the number of black players on the roster. Four days later, he made his Canadian debut with the Ticats, who were midway through a rebuilding campaign. He became a fixture in the team’s bumblebee livery for the next decade.
“I bleed Black and Gold,” he said when his uniform No. 54 was added to the Wall of Honour at Ivor Wynne Stadium in a 1998 ceremony.
He was named to the league’s all-star team as a guard in 1964 and as a tackle in 1969 and 1970.
In May, 1971, he was traded to the Toronto Argonauts for linebacker Mike Blum. Mr. Kelly played in his seventh and final Grey Cup title game that fall, a contest settled in favour of the Calgary Stampeders after an untouched Leon McQuay slipped, fell and fumbled on the slick Vancouver turf.
Years later, Mr. Kelly testified in a lawsuit by a football player who alleged clubs encouraged drug use among players. He said coaching staffs looked the other way and that “pills were an invisible thing” in team clubhouses. In 1972, Mr. Kelly had told a reporter that benzedrine and dexedrine were common in the league in the 1960s, when “everybody was all bennied up.”
Even after retiring as a player, Mr. Kelly remained a fixture at home football games in Hamilton. He served for many years as one of the judges in the awarding of weekly CFL awards.
Mr. Kelly was a popular figure among inmates at the Hamilton-Wentworth Detention Centre, as he provided opportunities for recreation and exercise. He loved the job, as the prisoners dared not cross the recreational director for fear of losing their privileges. The former pro athlete spent his working days playing ping-pong with violent criminals while telling them stories about his playing days.
Mr. Kelly died of heart failure on Feb. 11. He leaves two sons, three daughters, a step-daughter, five grandchildren and four sisters. He was predeceased by his first wife Donna (née Bryant), whom he divorced and who died in 1989, and his second wife, Sheila (née Clarke), who died in 2014 at 71.
A memorial service for Mr. Kelly will be held at noon on Saturday at the Marlatt Funeral Home in Hamilton.
In 1964, Mr. Kelly was invited by Vince Lombardi to try out for the Green Bay Packers. Settled in Hamilton with his children in school, Mr. Kelly decided not to take the risk, a decision which haunted him for years. Only his induction into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame nearly three decades later at long last eased his mind. “The ghost had been released,” he said at the time.