Constable: When childhood hero dies, memories warm the soul

A loved one's passing, even when it's a welcome relief after a long and happy life, always delivers a blow. The deaths of friends, neighbors and co-workers also take a huge toll.

But when your childhood idol dies, well, that delivers a slap of reality and brings back happy memories.

Leroy Keyes was my hero when I was a boy. He was the greatest football player I ever saw. He died Thursday at his home in West Lafayette, Indiana, at age 74, while in hospice with cancer and congestive heart failure.

Most of you have never heard of Keyes. For years, the only press he would get would be in annual Heisman Trophy stories that noted the most lopsided voting for the best football player in college was in 1968, when Keyes finished a distant second to the runaway winner, O.J. Simpson.

"God has really blessed me," Leroy said in 1995, when I tracked him down at his desk in room 510 of an antiquated building that housed the Philadelphia school administration. The greatest football player I ever saw worked there as a desegregation liaison, fighting racism and trying to educate our youth, one kid at a time.

"What horse was second to Secretariat in all three Triple Crown races?" Leroy asked. "Nobody remembers second, but seconds go on with their lives."

I first "met" Leroy in 1966, when he was a sophomore at Purdue University and I was a lucky kid whose family had season football tickets in the first row behind the Purdue bench because my grandfather, who graduated from Purdue in 1903, was an early fan. In his first big game as a starting defensive back, Keyes returned a Notre Dame fumble 95 yards for a touchdown, which is still the longest fumble return in Purdue history. At times that season, Keyes also played halfback on offense, where he averaged 8.4 yards on 12 carries and threw three passes, all complete and two for touchdowns. And he returned kickoffs and also kicked off. In 1967, the All-American Keyes led the nation in scoring by rushing for 13 touchdowns and catching six TD passes. He also threw three touchdown passes, finishing third in the Heisman race.

The only person who racked up more points than Keyes that fall was me, pretending I was Keyes. I caught more touchdown passes that rolled off our garage roof, and I ran for more touchdowns in our front yard against my little brother, Bill, and in the den against a defensive line anchored by a large Cuddly Dudley stuffed animal.

Growing up in Newport News, Virginia, and unable to play college football in the Jim Crow South, Keyes thrived at Purdue, leading the Big Ten school to a 25-6 record and a Rose Bowl victory in his three years. All of Ross-Ade Stadium loved Leroy. Fans shook their car keys during kickoffs, whether Keyes was kicking the ball or returning it. They chanted en masse, "Give the ball to Leroy!" when Purdue had the ball. When I wrote him a fan letter, Keyes signed his name with his jersey number, 23, and added, "Thanks very much for the words of praise."

A 1968 book titled "Black Champions of the Gridiron: O.J. Simpson and Leroy Keyes" hailed both men as heroes, but it was O.J.'s photo on the cover. Leroy was front and center in the turmoil of the Civil Rights Movement. Keyes was one of 41 Purdue students arrested during a peaceful protest. While O.J. was quiet, Keyes supported the 1968 Black Power salute by U.S. Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who each raised a black-gloved fist during "The Star-Spangled Banner."

O.J. went on to win the Heisman Trophy, enjoy a Hall of Fame pro career, become TV pitchman and movie star, win an acquittal in his trial for brutal murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Buffalo Grove native Ron Goldman, but spend nine years in prison for convictions of kidnapping and armed robbery in a botched burglary.

Named the greatest player in the first century of Purdue football, ahead of NFL Hall of Famers Bob Griese, Len Dawson and Rod Woodson, Keyes returned to the school in 1995 to be a running backs coach, then became an ambassador for the John Purdue Club until his retirement in 2011.

"I've made more money working for the school system than I made playing football," Leroy told me during our time together in Philly, when he drove around in his Chevy Lumina with 95,000 miles on it. "I don't have any problems with that. I had my day in the sun."

He bowed his head in silent prayer before meals, was president of just about every youth group, sports league or church group he belonged to, and received the NCAA's Silver Anniversary Award for his work off the field. He was my boyhood hero because he was Leroy Keyes the football player. Now he remains a hero to me simply because he was Leroy Keyes.

Purdue University star player Leroy Keyes was a strong voice for civil rights. The Heisman Trophy finalist was one of 41 students arrested during a peaceful protest in 1969 on the Purdue campus. Courtesy of Purdue Athletics
While quarterback Bob Griese, right, is known for being an NFL Hall of Famer, his teammate Leroy Keyes, left, was selected as the greatest football player in the first 100 years of Purdue football. During Keyes' career, the stadium would chant en masse, “Give the ball to Leroy!” Courtesy of Purdue Athletics
  Still floating on air after a Rose Bowl victory, Purdue fans at Ross-Ade Stadium in West Lafayette in 1967 saw Purdue star Leroy Keyes catch a touchdown pass and make a crucial interception to clinch a 28-21 victory over No. 1-ranked Notre Dame. Burt Constable/
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