Larry Kelley

Yale Bulldogs end (1934-1936)
(May 30, 1915 – June 27, 2000)

  • First winner of the Heisman Trophy in 1936 after it was renamed from the DAC Trophy
  • Drafted in the ninth round of the NFL Draft by the Detroit Lions with the 87th pick
  • Inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1969

Larry Kelley CardLawrence Morgan “Larry” Kelley was the second winner of the Heisman Trophy and the first after it was renamed from the DAC Trophy in 1936 and expanded to include players from west of the Mississippi River. For that reason, some historical references refer to Kelley as the first true winner of the Heisman Trophy. Jay Berwanger won the DAC Trophy the previous year and is recognized by the Heisman Trust as the award’s first winner, but he won it under a different name and different criteria (only players from East of the Mississippi were considered in 1935).

Kelley was the first of back-to-back Heisman winners from Yale as halfback Clint Frank would win the award in 1937. A native of Ohio, Kelley played high school football in Williamsport, Pa., then attended the Peddie School in Hightstown. His high school coach was a Yale alumnus who steered him to New Haven where Kelley also starred in basketball and baseball at Yale while graduating as an honor student.

Kelley starred on both offense and defense where he became noted for his ability to come up with a catch when Yale needed it the most and often it would end in a Bulldogs touchdown. In his 1936 Heisman season, he hauled in 17 passes for 372 yards and four touchdowns to lead Yale to a 7-1 record. On defense, he added an interception that he returned 54 yards, and he also contributed on special teams returning two kickoffs for 38 yards. For the season, he scored a total of 37 points. His career totals at Yale include 49 catches for 889 yards and 13 touchdown receptions with a total of 16 touchdowns overall.

A story in Sports Illustrated after his death indicated that much of his fame derived from a single play versus Navy. The Midshipmen fumbled, and Kelley kicked the ball – accidentally, he always maintained – downfield, chased it and recovered it. Two plays later, his Heisman successor Frank would score to give the Bulldogs a 12-7 win. That led to a rule in the offseason that if a player kicked a fumbled ball, accidentally or not, the ball is dead at the point of impact and the opposing team gains possession.

Post career and death

After graduating from Yale, Kelley reportedly turned down a signing bonus of $11,000 to sign with the Detroit Lions, and like Berwanger before him, he never played professional football. Instead, he entered the educational field, teaching and coaching until World War II broke out. A punctured ear drum reportedly kept him out of World War II, but not by his own design. Wanting to be involved in the war effort, he took a job with a military aeronautical supplier until the war ended. In 1946, he moved to upstate New York and began a 12-year career in glove manufacturing.

In 1958, however, he returned to the education field as a math teacher and alumni director for Cheshire Academy, another boys’ boarding school. When Cheshire passed him over for the headmaster position in 1970, he soon returned to his beloved Peddie School as the alumni director where he stayed until he retired in 1975 at the age of 60.

Along the way, Kelley was married four times, and it was his fourth wife, Ruth, who found his lifeless body in the basement of their home on June 27, 2000. Kelley had committed suicide by shooting himself in the head.

Where’s the trophy?

Just four months prior to his death, Kelley chose to have his Heisman Trophy sold at auction reportedly to benefit his many nieces and nephews. His alma mater Yale bid on the trophy, but ultimately, Joe Walsh, whose wife owns a restaurant named The Stadium in Garrison, New York, submitted the winning offer of $328,100. Kelley’s Heisman is now on display in the restaurant’s sports museum.

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