As a 9-year-old fourth-grader sitting in the horseshoe bend at Municipal Stadium, impervious to schoolbook history lessons, we weren't entirely sure if Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin, drank from it or merely allowed his first name to be used as a point of reference for Yale University athletic teams. Old Eli.
But we sure knew, even in the mind of a child, that Larry Kelley was one of the most famous and colorful players in all of football. He seemed to invent controversy. The game we were watching, played Oct. 17, 1936, in Baltimore between Yale and the Naval Academy, had a bizarre devlopment that distinctly changed the rules of the sport.
As time went by and one season telescoped into another, the Yale-Navy meeting and Kelley's involvement provided a dimension of intrigue that could only be further fulfilled by talking to the man responsible for the action - in what was to be known as "Kelley's Kick" or "the soccer ball version."
It was 1961, when Kelley was on the faculty at the Cheshire Academy teaching "new mathematics," when he was asked to reflect on what had happned 25 years before in Baltimore.
Was it accidental or intentional? Had it been planned or was it as unanticipated as a lightning bolt? To this almost innocuous inquiry, because no penalty was going to be stepped off or charges assessed in a court of law, he answered, "I don't know." His reply was in a voice that sounded, simultaneously, as if it could be both guilty and innocent.
"I don't think about it too much anymore. To be perfectly frank, it was an involuntary thing. I had been lucky going down under punts all day and wanted to be right after him. The ball was there bounding free, and so was I."
We once talked with Clint Frank, the Yale triple threat who won the Heisman Trophy in 1937, the year after teammate Kelley did. "So Kelley wouldn't open up and talk with you about it," said Frank. "Wait until I see him. He ought to be ashamed of himself."
It sounded as if Frank had a desire, almost playful, to embarrass Kelley into revealing the truth. After all, it was only an instance in a football game that Navy should have won since it dominated the play.
A Yale punt was either fumbled or muffed (it's not the same) by Sneed "Dutch" Schmidt on his 25-yard line in the third period. Kelley was moving downfield on the coverage, saw Schmidt lose the ball and, instead of falling on it for a recovery, kicked the ball to the 2-yard line. At first he picked it up and carried it into the end zone, but the officials nullified any such score. They placed the ball on the 2, from where Frank powered to the score, which turned into a 12-7 Yale win.
Kelley was noncommital, refusing to say if his role was deliberate or unintentional. The play, in a national vote among sports reporters, was called the oddest happening of the season, and Bill Slocum, a New York writer, sugested Yale give up the victory.
The footwork demonstrated by Kelley forced the change in the rules, meaning a loose ball could not be propelled. "A player shall not deliberately kick a free ball or otherwise illegally kick the ball," reads Section 5, Article 2.
As far as we were able to determine, Kelley never talked about any of the details - taking to his grave the personal version of what evolved
After his Yale days, Kelley was a ninth-round draft choice of the Detroit Lions, but wasn't interested. The New York Yankees and St. Louis Cardinals thought of him as a baseball prospect, but he said, "I had trouble hitting the curveball in college. They don't know it, but I know it."
Kelley never seemed to achieve what he should have, considering his intellect, an IQ of 140 and an engaging personality. He coached at the Peddie School, where he had prepped for a year before going to Yale, and seemed to enjoy working with youngsters, and they felt the same being with him.
Kelley, singing his own version of "Boola Boola," was never one to keep his thoughts to himself unless it was a long-ago play in a Navy game. He once said, "... Yale went to hell under Kingman Brewster, the university president from 1963 to 1977." He also said when he was a student, the professors were in class. "Now they sit in their ivory towers doing research and writing."
At age 85, he had suffered a stroke and his wife was having physical problems, too. Kelley said he wanted to leave something for family members. What did he have other than his good name? He decided to sell the Heisman Trophy and placed it up for auction.
The winning bid brought $328,110. It's regrettable that a friend or former classmate, and Yale has a lineup of rich alumni, didn't attempt to buy it and save the award for Kelley or donate it to the university. Something as coveted as the Heisman, and Kelley, too, deserved a softer landing.
Kelley, according to authorities, committed suicide. Grief and torment, no doubt, consumed him. A regrettable ending.
And about the "Kelley Kick." It now seems so inconsequential. If he had an answer to give, he took it to his grave. Nothing could be emphasized with more finality.