The most coveted prize in college football for an individual is the annual Heisman Trophy. Every season, there’s this one player that the media seems to push towards the Heisman, but as the year progresses the favorite player for the highly desirable trophy sometimes changes.
Gary Beban of UCLA had won the 1967 Heisman Trophy with three juniors following along and finishing in the top 10. USC’s O.J. Simpson had finished 2nd in the voting with Purdue’s Leroy Keyes finishing 3rd.
Notre Dame quarterback Terry Hanratty finished in 10th place.
Hanratty had been the quarterback of Notre Dame as a sophomore in 1966 when the Irish had won a national title. They were now two years off of a national championship and they were ranked in the
top 5 going into 1968.
O.J. Simpson had a great shot for many reasons. The USC running backs were about as well loved by voters as Notre Dame quarterbacks. However, at this time, only USC tailback Mike Garrett had won the Heisman.
But, also, a lot of people felt as if Simpson should have won the 1967 Heisman Trophy over winner Gary Beban and they certainly had a good point.
An early Heisman Poll might have had Simpson at number one and maybe Hanratty at number two.
But, Leroy Keyes of Purdue had to play in there somewhere. The guy was a star.
Keyes had finished in 3rd place in 1967 as already written, but the guy was really valuable to his team. As a running back, he only ran for 986 yards for 13 touchdowns in 1967 which pales compared to O.J. Simpson’s 1,543 yards and 13 touchdowns. However, Keyes also caught 45 passes for 758 yards and 6 more touchdowns.
Keyes also played cornerback in goal line situations, or when he was needed.
Simpson is a Pro Football Hall of Fame member and I am not saying Keyes was better. But, as a college player, Keyes was a little closer than some might think. Also, the Boilermakers had more running back talent than just Keyes and they shared the football more than Simpson. Fullback Perry Williams ran for 746 yards and 11 touchdowns in 1967 taking a lot of carries away from Keyes.
When 1968 rolled around, the Purdue Boilermakers were the top ranked team in the country. Their young and talented quarterback Mike Phipps was now a junior with a year of experience already. The Boilermakers had a lot of other talent returning, but probably the biggest reason was their star running back, Leroy Keyes.
In the Midwest, the push was on to get Leroy Keyes the Heisman Trophy.
Young college football fans don’t even realize how lucky they have it these days. Games just weren’t televised frequently back in those days. Usually one game a week was on the tube, but a game like Purdue against Notre Dame when they were ranked 1 and 2, respectively, was going to be shown that week. I recently wrote about that game here: Purdue vs Notre Dame
The commentators in that game spoke of Keyes for the Heisman fairly frequently and deservedly so. Keyes had a big game, running for two scores and throwing for another in a halfback pass. The most impressive part of Keyes’ game in my eyes was near the goal line and the end of the game. The Purdue coaches put Keyes on Notre Dame All American wide receiver Jim Seymour and Keyes would shut him down forcing Irish quarterback Terry Hanratty to throw elsewhere.
Not to take anything away from Purdue quarterback Mike Phipps, or fullback Perry Williams, but Leroy Keyes was easily the heart and soul of this team and a major reason why they started off 1968 ranked number one.
Newspapers were huge back then, there was no internet. The papers called Leroy Keyes the Heisman candidate. Any time he was mentioned on the television, he was called the same thing.
If he had a lead in the Heisman race, or OJ Simpson had it all along, it all came screeching to a halt on October 12th, 1968 when the Boilermakers traveled to Columbus, Ohio. The Buckeyes and their
Super Sophomores jumped Purdue and beat them 13-0.
Meanwhile, Simpson was crushing it out west and the Trojans of USC were destined to win the Pac 8 Conference and represent in the Rose Bowl. O.J. went on to rush for an amazing 1,880 yards and 23 touchdowns and he ran away with the race.
Leroy Keyes finished in second place and it was not even close. Notre Dame’s Terry Hanratty finished a distant third.
Keyes ran for just over 1,000 yards and 14 rushing touchdowns. His receptions dropped off from 1967, but he still caught 33 for 428 yards and another score. Keyes was also an outstanding passer. During his career, he attempted 22 passes and out of those attempts he threw 8 touchdown passes. On his throw against Notre Dame in 1968, it was a bullet like a great quarterback could have thrown. 3 of those touchdown passes came in 1968. Keyes was much more than just another 1,000 yard rusher.
Defensive statistics were not kept back in those years, so there’s no telling what he did on defense. We do know that he could shut down the opponents best receivers if necessary. When a game got tight, and the opponents were near the end zone, you could count on Keyes being in the game at
cornerback facing the best receiver on the field.
Keyes would continue to finish behind Simpson when O.J. was the very first pick in the 1969 NFL draft. Notre Dame offensive tackle George Kunz was picked 2nd and then Leroy Keyes was taken by the Philadelphia Eagles at number 3.
Television football commentator and former Oklahoma head coach Bud Wilkinson said it best about Leroy Keyes. Wilkinson said something to the effect of ‘Keyes could place a glass of water on his head and not spill a drop. He is so smooth’.
He was exactly that. He was a very athletic and fluid runner and was a legitimate Heisman contender for 2 straight seasons. He didn’t win it, but that’s nothing against the man himself.
Leroy Keyes was just so smooth and a sign of the future of college football.