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Heisman's First Winner Said No To The Pros

Larry Kelley was inducted into the National Football Foundation's College Football Hall of Fame in 1969.
Larry Kelley was inducted into the National Football Foundation's College Football Hall of Fame in 1969.

In 1936, a year in which the Ivy League was a hotbed of football talent, Yale end Larry Kelley was the first to win a Heisman Trophy. Well, technically Jay Berwanger was the first winner — the Downtown Athletic Club named him college player of the year in 1935 — but Kelley was the first to win anything bearing the name "Heisman."

After winning, Kelley took his trophy and set out not for Detroit, where the Lions had offered him a contract, nor for St. Louis, where baseball's Cardinals did the same. Instead, Kelley returned to his old high school to teach history and coach sports.

It was a coup for Kelley's alma mater, the Peddie School of Hightstown, N.J., if not for former Peddie fullback Bob Zenker, class of '43, who remembers Coach Kelley's taste for strapping the old leather helmet back on.

"He'd get me down in the crouch, and he'd get about 10, 15 feet away and then he'd charge me," Zenker says.

And how did Zenker handle that?

"Well, I tackled him," he says, laughing.

Kelley's time at the Peddie School was followed by a stint as a glove company executive, a gig at another boarding school, a few marriages and, finally, a return to Peddie.

Peddie football coach and English teacher Pat Clements says Kelley brought a certain aura with him.

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

Every year, Clements brings his team into the alcove of the athletic complex where Kelley's Heisman Trophy is kept. He tells his players about the trophy's history; about when the Ivy League was the pinnacle of football; about a time when the sport's best player could turn down a professional career for the classroom.

And he tells them the man who made that choice wore the same uniform they're wearing and played on the same field they play on.

"A lot of kids, when they hear it and begin to process it, just sort of get kind of quiet," Clements says. "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."

After winning the first Heisman Trophy, Larry Kelley (left) returned to his old high school, the Peddie School, to teach and coach sports.
/ Courtesy of The Peddie School
Courtesy of The Peddie School
After winning the first Heisman Trophy, Larry Kelley (left) returned to his old high school, the Peddie School, to teach and coach sports.

Clements will, of course, tell the students that they're not looking at Kelley's actual Heisman; like Yale, Peddie displays a replica. The real Heisman is almost 100 miles away at The Stadium, a sports bar in Garrison, N.Y. The bar displays a vast and eclectic array of sports memorabilia, but the first Heisman Trophy, according to Stadium owner James Walsh, is the creme de la creme.

"It's Larry Kelley's Heisman Trophy and then it's everything else," Walsh says. "To be honest with you, after meeting Larry Kelley himself, it just makes the trophy even more valuable to me."

Walsh remembers meeting Kelley when he was about 80 years old. Even then, he says, Kelley seemed to have bear claws for hands.

"I'm not a small guy and his hands reached all the way up to my forearm," Walsh recalls. "He had a presence about him that pretty much demanded respect."

According to Walsh, the $328,110 he paid 12 years ago for Kelley's Heisman has been justified many times over.

Kelley sold his trophy in 1999 to provide an inheritance for his many nieces and nephews. His niece Barbara Ficarro says the day the family rode up to Garrison was one they'll never forget, and the decision to sell the trophy is one they still support.

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 were many different explanations for the tragic end to a life like his. Old age, poor health and not wanting to be a burden to anyone may have been 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 — just like that ball carrier in his famous trophy.

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Mike Pesca first reached the airwaves as a 10-year-old caller to a New York Jets-themed radio show and has since been able to parlay his interests in sports coverage as a National Desk correspondent for NPR based in New York City.