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Keyes had 'eighth sense'

Leroy Keyes is parked outside his oncologist's office.

Eight months ago, doctors diagnosed this Peninsula sports legend with Stage 2 prostate cancer. Keyes had ignored warning signs, and surgery was necessary.

"My doctors are optimistic," Keyes says via cell phone, "though you never know with cancer. I feel good, and I look good."

Keyes laughs. He may look good at 61, but he never looked better than during the '60s.

That was his athletic prime at Purdue University and Newport News' Carver High School. That's when he sprinted and stutter-stepped past defenders.

And that's why we consider him the best running back in Peninsula history.

The designation humbles Keyes, but he does not object.

"I used to think if I got a linebacker or defensive back one-on-one in my space, it was all over," he says.

Often it was.

A 1965 Carver graduate, Keyes rushed for more than 1,000 yards as a senior, 178 on just nine carries in his final game, a victory over Richmond's Maggie Walker. This in an era when few backs cracked four figures.

His career at Purdue was storybook. He led the Boilermakers to No. 1 in the national polls and was a consensus first-team All-American as a junior and senior.

Keyes played tailback, flanker and defensive back in college, and in 1968 was runner-up to Southern California's O.J. Simpson in Heisman Trophy voting.

"He may be the best athlete Purdue has ever seen," former Boilermakers quarterback and Keyes teammate Bob Griese told RivalsRadio. "Not only was he a great running back, but if you needed him to, he could go over on defense and shut down a receiver."

Forty years after his final collegiate game, Keyes still owns school single-season records for yards per carry (6.6), touchdowns (19) and points (114).

Keyes remains Purdue's career leader in yards per rush (5.9) and is the only Boilermaker to have, in separate games, more than 200 yards rushing and 180 yards receiving.

How'd he do it?

"It's not about speed," says Keyes. "It's about awareness and vision, seeing the play develop, seeing the entire field, knowing who you can juke-fake, who you can stiff-arm and who you can just run over."

Those talents, Keyes adds, are "God-given."

"I think you can be taught how to run on the heels of your linemen," Keyes says. "What's instinctive is: When do I put the pedal to the metal? When do I decelerate? When do I cut across the grain?

"That's what I call the eighth sense."

Keyes rattles off some of the game's great tailbacks. Walter Payton and Jim Brown, Barry Sanders and Tony Dorsett, Emmitt Smith, Eric Dickerson and Simpson.

Their styles ranged from Brown's brutality to Sanders' ballet, but all possessed that added sense.

"I always tell young running backs, 'When your number's called, you have to be ready to deliver,' " Keyes says. "We're like the Postal Service. We have to deliver the mail regardless of the weather."

Keyes considers 1967 road games at Illinois and Iowa his finest performances

Against the Illini, Keyes had a career-high 225 yards on 21 carries. Against the Hawkeyes, he ran 14 times for 145 yards and caught five passes for 120.

"I felt like a frisky pony who just got out of the barn," Keyes says of the Iowa contest.

Keyes averaged about 12 carries per game at Purdue, meager for today's generation of workhorse tailbacks. So the mere accumulation of 1,000 yards does not impress him.

"Any back can average 2 yards a carry," Keyes says. "Any good back needs to average 4 yards a carry. Any great back needs to average 5 or 6 yards a carry."

Mighty tough standard there. Of the seven Hall of Famers Keyes named above, only Brown (5.2) and Sanders (5.0) averaged 5 yards or better in the NFL.

His career cut short by a ruptured Achilles' tendon, Keyes averaged 3.0 yards as a pro. He then spent 16 years as a desegregation specialist for Philadelphia public schools before returning to Purdue in 2000 as an athletics fund-raiser.

Keyes returns often to Newport News to visit his mother, sisters, cousins, uncles and friends.

"I can find 25 to 30 guys to play golf every time I come home," he says.

As a fund-raiser, Keyes spends an inordinate time on the golf course, where he plays to an 8-handicap. But the latest addition to his routine is far more serious: quarterly cancer screens in Indianapolis.

In fact, Keyes' wife is approaching the car. His appointment beckons.

Time to hang up the phone.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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