IN HIS OBITUARIES, HIS LIFE SOUNDED SO TIDY.
Lawrence Morgan (Larry) Kelley, the Yale football star who won the first Heisman Memorial Trophy, in 1936, died on June 27 in his home in Hightstown, N.J. His death, by suicide, came four months after he turned over his beloved trophy to the owners of the Stadium, a bar and restaurant in Garrison, N.Y. The restaurant owners had bought the award at auction for $328,100. Before the sale, Mr. Kelley, who spent most of his career as a private-school teacher and administrator, said he was selling the famous bronze statue so that he could divide the proceeds among his 18 nieces and nephews. He also leaves behind his wife, the former Ruth Becker. He was 85.
Everywhere Larry Kelley went, the name Heisman went with him. At cocktail parties men would work their way to the corner where Kelley was holding court, just so they could say they had met the legendary Yale end. The Heisman, the Heisman, at some point conversations with him always turned to the Heisman. When Kelley won it—in its first year as a national award—he put on his best suit, stood beside the trophy and grinned incessantly while the photographers snapped away. He was 21, and famous.
Sixty-four years later, every Kelley obituary had the Heisman in its lead. In those final write-ups, Larry Kelley came off nothing like Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby, "one of the most powerful ends that ever played football in New Haven—a national figure in a way, one of those men who reach such an acute limited excellence at twenty-one that everything afterward savors of anticlimax." No, Kelley's life was a rich one. That's what made his suicide, even at age 85, such a shock. Larry Kelley was always sure of himself, confident to the point of cockiness. He was the central figure in the fraternity of Heisman winners, the life of their parties. Nobody saw depression in Larry Kelley.
He had been the center of attention all his life, starting in his middle-class boyhood in Williamsport, Pa., where he was nurtured by a doting, indulgent mother. A relative who knew Kelley then and for the rest of his life says, "Larry always did what he wanted to do, when he wanted to do it." After graduating from Williamsport High, he spent one year at Peddie, a boarding school in Hightstown, N.J., where he was a star on the playing fields and in the classrooms. From there he went to Yale, where he became a national figure, period, not just in a way.
In the fall of 1936, the Bulldogs were clinging to their historic role as a football powerhouse. Yale was ranked 12th in the country at the end of Kelley's senior season, when he was captain. There were frequent stories about him in the dailies: turning down a fantastic offer—an $11,000 signing bonus, in an era when players earned $150 a week—to play football for the Detroit Lions; turning down a baseball contract with the New York Yankees; turning down an offer to play himself in a Hollywood movie. He was smart, handsome, charming, an All-America in football and baseball, a member of Skull and Bones. He was a hero.
Much of his fame derived from a single play: a fumble, it so happens. In a 1936 game Navy was beating Yale 7-6 when a Midshipman fumbled the ball and Kelley kicked it—accidentally, he maintained for the rest of his life—downfield, chased it and recovered it. Two plays later, Clint Frank of Yale, the durable halfback who would win the Heisman in 1937, scored, and the Bulldogs won 12-7. That winter a rule was passed to address the so-called Kelley Kick: If a player kicks a fumbled ball, accidentally or not, the ball is dead at the point of impact and the opposing team gains possession. Kelley spent six decades retelling the story of his kick, with diminishing enthusiasm. But when he told it the first time, postgame, the writers loved it.
As a senior Kelley caught 17 passes for 372 yards and scored six touchdowns. It may not sound like all that much, but along the way—and more to the point—Kelley charmed people in influential places, men with typewriters and microphones, particularly. These were the men who made him the winner of the first Heisman Memorial Trophy.
These were the last days of the gentleman amateur. Kelley knew that an ordinary career as a paid player would only diminish what he had done in his three years as a varsity sportsman at Yale. He also knew that, in some measure, he was a creation of the press. His teammates knew the scribes fine-tuned many of his best quotations. Nobody cared. When he graduated from Yale in June 1937—not making Phi Beta Kappa, as he had hoped—Kelley made a decision to preserve his athletic accomplishments and thereby his standing. He headed back to Peddie, to teach and coach and take graduate classes at Princeton, to lead a graceful and tweedy life. Those who knew him weren't surprised: He was never a man to make a move to meet the expectations of others.
As a coach he was ordinary—he lost as often as he won—and as much as he loved playing football, he didn't love coaching it. He was more at home in the classroom. He thought of pursuing a Ph.D. in history or math, maybe becoming a university professor, but he never did. Sixty-three years later, he died in his Hightstown house, in the shadows of his old prep school.
The life and times of Mr. Chips. That's what it looked like and that's what it sounded like. But that's not what it was.