NFL Honors HBCU Series- Part II

By Lenny Moon

The Pro Football Hall of Fame is slated to install the Black College Football Hall of Fame wing within its confines in Canton, OH later this year. It stands to reason that a large chunk of the NFL’s legacy has been contributed by proteges of Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

PART II OF OUR SERIES PROFILING HBCU MEMBERS IN THE PFHOF

RUNNING BACKS

Leroy Kelly (Class of 1994) 

  • 8th round pick of the 1964 NFL Draft by the Cleveland Browns (1964-73)                                                                                           
  • Led Morgan State to CIAA Championship in 1962
  • NFL Champion (1964)
  • 6-time Pro Bowl (1966-71)
  • 2-time NFL Rushing Leader (1967,68)
  • 3-time NFL Rushing TD leader (1966-68)
  • NFL 1960s All-Decade Team

Leroy Kelly smoothly converted from being a “BMOC” or Big Man on Campus in Baltimore over at Morgan State University to the ultimate spotlight at the highest level with the NFL championship contending Cleveland Browns in the fall of 1964. The Philadelphia, Pa native asserted himself early as one of the top return specialist in the NFL while backing up the legendary Jim Brown. Kelley vastly contributed to Cleveland’s 1964 NFL Championship as a rookie. This championship would remain the city’s most recent world title until Akron, Oh native LeBron James came along in 2016 to finally end the drought.

Brown suddenly retired shortly before the launching of the 1966 season to pursue his acting career, propelling Kelly to the starting position in his third NFL campaign. Faced with the unenviable position of replacing arguably the best football player that the game has ever witnessed, Kelly accepted the challenge and concentrated on becoming the best Leroy Kelly he could become. The now featured back in the Browns backfield promptly rushed for over 1,000 yards for the next three seasons while also leading the NFL in rushing touchdowns those same campaigns.

Walter “Sweetness” Payton (Class of 1993)

  • 4th pick of the 1st Rd of the 1975 NFL Draft by the Chicago Bears (1975-87)
  • Super Bowl Champion (XX)-1986
  • 9-time NFL Pro Bowl
  • Career rushing total of 16, 726 yards was an NFL record until broken by Emmitt Smith in 2002
  • College Football Hall of Fame (1996)
  • NFL All-Decade Team 1970s
  • NFL All-Decade Team 1980s
  • NFL 75th Anniversary All-time Team

If ever there was a “bigger than life” personality in pro sports, then small town Mississippi product Walter Jerry Payton would certainly fit the bill. On the down side of Payton’s story, his life ended at the tender age of 45 from bile duct-related cancer. Athletically speaking, it was apparent from a very early stage that he was an extraordinary athlete. Walter wrapped up his final two seasons at the prep level at recently integrated Columbia High (Ms) where he starred in football, basketball and track.

He selected Jackson State University in his home state, primarily because his older  brother Eddie was a member of the football team. Once there, he was now amongst a contingent of future NFL stars such as Pro Football Hall of Famers Jackie Slater and Robert Brazile. Among others stars on the JSU squad were Leon Gray, Rickey Young, Jerome Barkum and Don Reese. Payton would earn All-American status and became one of the early legitimate Heisman Trophy candidates from an HBCU in 1974. The Chicago Bears selected “Sweetness” with the fourth pick of the 1975 NFL Draft (teammate Brazile was taken two picks later in the same draft).

His breakout season with Chicago was his sophomore campaign in 1976 when he rushed for nearly 1,400 yards on a struggling franchise, 13 TDs and MVP honors in the 1977 NFL Pro Bowl. From there he never looked back, accounting for 1,852 rushing yardage that very next season with 16 TDs. Included in that total was a then NFL record 275 yds vs Minnesota, eclipsing the 273 held by O.J. Simpson. Collectively the mercurial 5-10, 205 halfback rushed for 1,200 yds or more in 10 of his 13 seasons in the NFL.

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