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Leroy Keyes Purdue Football Legend

I grew up in the armpit of America. It was a long time ago and seemingly a life time away. Television was not such a big thing back in those days and we had two channels to watch.

I have zero recollection of what television shows I watched but I have a pretty strong memory of watching Purdue’s Leroy Keyes.

I have no idea why my area showed Purdue games or highlights, but it seemed like they were on constantly.

They also had Notre Dame highlights on weekly. The Purdue Boilermakers and Leroy Keyes, plus Quarterback Mike Phipps and the rest of the team upset number one ranked Notre Dame in their traditional rivalry.

Leroy Keyes grew up in Newport News, Virginia. He was a standout football player in high school, obviously.

But, he was a senior in the 1964 football season and he lived in the South and he was black. Schools in the South were segregated in those years so the big schools were not recruiting Keyes even though he was an obvious talent.

The situation was a little different with Northern schools. The Big 10 didn’t have a problem accepting black players on their teams and other Northern schools like Penn State and Notre Dame.

Jack Mollenkopf was the head coach at Purdue in those years and up until Joe Tiller came along was the most successful coach in the history of Purdue football.

Mollenkopf took the Purdue Boilermakers to their one and only Rose Bowl appearance.  Mollenkopf and the Purdue coaching staff had no problem bringing in Leroy Keyes to play for Purdue.

True freshmen football players were not eligible to play on the varsity back in the 1965 season when Leroy Keyes arrived at Purdue. That rule would not change until 1973.

Keyes played mostly Cornerback during his sophomore season in 1966 when the Purdue Boilermakers went to the Rose Bowl. The Michigan State Spartans actually won the Big 10 Championship and a share of the National Championship in the 1966 season, but were not allowed to go to the Rose Bowl due to a strange Big 10 rule. The Big 10 had a no repeat rule in place in those years which kept the Spartans at home for New Year’s Day, and only one team was allowed to play in a bowl game from the conference.

Purdue, with Quarterback Bob Griese, were only too glad to take their spot.

The Boilermakers opponent in the Rose Bowl was USC who was there under controversial circumstances. UCLA beat USC, 14-7, but the Trojans played one more conference game than the Bruins. The 9-1 UCLA Bruins were ranked #5 and the 9-0-1 Michigan State Spartans were ranked #2. Instead of a marquis match up the game featured the 8-2 Purdue Boilermakers and their #7 ranking and the 7-3 USC Trojans and their #10 ranking.

Purdue beat USC 14-13

Leroy Keyes played a big part of that Rose Bowl Championship team. He started at Cornerback and played a little at Running Back.

Fullback Perry Williams was their leading rusher in 1966 with 698 yards. Future NFL Hall of Fame Quarterback Bob Griese was their main offensive star in 1966 and he finished as the runner up in the Heisman Trophy race.

Keyes was used sparingly on the offensive side of the ball and only rushed for 101 yards.

Like I have written already, I do not even remember 1966. I was 7 years old.

But, I do remember 1967 and Leroy Keyes was a junior and no longer used sparingly.

As good as the 1966 Purdue Boilermaker football team was, the 1967 version may have been better. Mike Phipps stepped up and took over for Bob Griese and as a college sophomore was the much better player.

At Running Back, the Boilermakers also had Fullback Perry Williams who ran for 746 yards and 11 Touchdowns. Not many people remember Mike Phipps or Perry Williams. Phipps would be the 3rd player picked in the 1970 NFL Draft and played for 12 years for Cleveland and then Chicago. Phipps also finished in second place in the 1969 Heisman race.

Perry Williams was a big Running Back at 6-2, 220. He never put up huge rushing stats, but very few did back in those years. He was drafted by the Green Bay Packers and played there for 5 years. Unfortunately, the Packers also had John Brockington from Ohio State and he was one of the better Running Back/Fullbacks of those times, so Williams was a career back up.

Then, there was Leroy Keyes. If you have been watching college football only the last few years, Keyes stats are not going to blow you away. But, also remember that he played both ways and the times were just different. Offenses were way more conservative back then and you didn’t see any of the really wild passing games or even the real power running days as of yet.

During Keyes junior season, he was a first team All American running for 986 yards and 13 Touchdowns in 10 games. That may not seem like much, but he also caught 45 passes for 758 yards and 6 Touchdowns.

Keyes finished 3rd in the 1967 Heisman race behind winner Quarterback Gary Beban of UCLA and Running Back OJ Simpson of USC.

 

With the return of Leroy Keyes and Perry Williams at the Running Back position and with Mike Phipps returning at Quarterback the Purdue Boilermakers entered the 1968 season ranked #1 in the entire nation.

That has never happened before or since, so this was a unique season for the Boilermakers.

Purdue beat Notre Dame impressively in game 2, 37-22 and won their other 2 games by an average score of 43.5 to 6.

They were riding high until they went into Columbus, Ohio and got beat 13-0 by the 4th ranked Buckeyes. The Boilermakers also lost to the Minnesota Gophers and finished the season at 8-2. The Purdue Boilermakers have never been #1 in football again since October 12th, 1968.

 

Purdue Quarterback Mike Phipps had a bad season and battled through some injuries.

But, Leroy Keyes was his normal self rushing for 1,003 yards and 13 Touchdowns. He still caught 33 passes for another 428 yards and a Touchdown.

Keyes finished up in 2nd place in the Heisman race to the infamous OJ Simpson.

Purdue coach Jack Mollenkopf loved to use Leroy Keyes out of the backfield as a receiver, but they also loved to use him on the Halfback pass. Over his 3 year career at West Lafayette, Indiana Keyes threw 22 passes and completed 12 of those. Out of those 12, 8 of them went for Touchdowns.

Never mind the stats, but in 2 full seasons as a Boilermaker Running Back Keyes ran for 2,000 yard and caught 80 passes for about 1,200 yards. He also played Cornerback and at 6-3, 210 he was way ahead of his time.

Keyes was a 1st round draft pick by the Philadelphia Eagles with the 3rd overall pick.

Keyes was never a huge star in the NFL with the Eagles, but he did also play both ways and returned punts and kicks. His best season on offense was in his rookie season when he rushed for 361 yards and caught 29 passes for 276 yards.

On defense he picked off 6 passes in 1971. Keyes only played 4 years in Philadelphia and another season in Kansas City before he was out of football for good.

 

Leroy Keyes, Bob Griese, Mike Alstott, Drew Brees, Rod Woodson and Jim Everett were some of the best players to come out of Purdue over the years.

Leroy Keyes was a Purdue Boilermaker legend and one of my first memories of college football which will always make him larger than life.