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Purdue ICONS #9: Leroy Keyes

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It's been awhile since I have written an ICONS post, but real news and a major holiday weekend got in the way. That doesn't temper my excitement as we're getting into rarified territory now. The next ICON on the list might be the best pure athlete in the history of Purdue football

Leroy Keyes is a legend in his own right. A member of a Big Ten championship team and a Heisman Finalist, Leroy was so good that an injury limited game against Indiana cost us an outright Big Ten title and possibly a National Championship. He played on both sides of the ball, was a two-time All-American, played in a Rose Bowl and even more than 40 years later his exploits on the gridiron are the stuff of legend in West Lafayette. With 422 votes, Leroy Keyes is the #9 Purdue ICON.

Before Purdue:

It is rare that we can consider racism a benefit, but in this case, Purdue took advantage of the close-minded nature of the South. Keyes, a native of Newport News, Virginia, was a solid high school athlete in his home state. Unfortunately, no one would recruit him because he was black. Many major colleges in the South were fighting desegregation at the time and preferred to keep lilly-white rosters because of their close-minded nature. The Big Ten was not that way, and his high school coaches encouraged him to look north.

Being the height of the Civil Rights Era, Keyes was seeking an equal opportunity for himself. Purdue coach Jack Mollenkopf didn't care about his color. Marv Levy, then coach at William and Mary, wanted to recruit Keyes, but did not want to deal with breaking the color line. He contacted Purdue assistant Bernie Miller, who started the process that eventually brought Keyes to West Lafayette. The rest, as they say, is history.

A Hall of Fame career

If not for the outdated rule that freshmen were ineligible during Keyes' time, he would likely still hold several records. As it is, he was a nice defensive addition in 1966 as Purdue went to its first ever Rose Bowl with Bob Griese at the helm. Purdue went 8-2 that season, losing to co-National Champs Michigan State and Notre Dame. Since the Spartans had played in Pasadena the previous season they were ineligible, sending Purdue in their place. Keyes primarily played defense that season. He returned a fumble 94 yards for a touchdown in his first collegiate game against Notre Dame, which was also on national television.

Purdue's defense was outstanding that year. The Boilers posted three shutouts (Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin) and gave up just six points in the final three games of the season combined. Those six points came in a 51-6 blowout of Indiana in West Lafayette as the Bucket had roses in it for the first time. Purdue headed to Pasadena and beat USC 14-13 for our only Rose Bowl title to date. Keyes was named to the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame in December for his efforts.

As a junior, Keyes played both ways and was the most dominant player in the Big Ten. Purdue spent part of the season ranked #1 in the country and Keyes finished the year as the Big Ten MVP. He averaged a school record 6.6 yards per carry and scored a school record 114 points on 19 touchdowns. He rushed for 986 yards and 13 scores while racking up an astounding 1,870 all-purpose yards. That was a record that stood until 2007 when Dorien Bryant, in 13 games as opposed to ten, had 2,121 all-purpose yards. Keyes was so dynamic that we tried to get him the ball as much as possible. Even when other teams knew that they could not stop him.

The climax of the season was the Bucket game, where John Pont pulled off a small miracle and turned the Hoosiers around from 1-8-1 the previous into an 8-1 juggernaut. The Hoosiers' lone loss was to Minnesota, whom Purdue defeated 41-12. Purdue's only loss was to a solid Oregon State team 22-14 at home, but the Beavers went 7-2-1 in their own right. Ironically, the same rule that benefitted Purdue the previous season would hurt them in 1967. With a win over Indiana, Purdue would win the Big Ten at a perfect 7-0 record, but they couldn't go to the Rose Bowl. Minnesota, who had one conference loss, would go in their stead. Indiana, with a win, would force a three-way tie with the Boilers and Golden Gophers, and send the Hoosiers to Pasadena. While Purdue couldn't go to a bowl, a win over a very good Indiana team would give them an outside chance at being named National Champion.

Unfortunately, Keyes was limited with an injury against the Hoosiers, and Indiana, a two-touchdown underdog, won 19-14 to go to their lone Rose Bowl. Purdue's final drive stalled at the IU 22, and the Hoosiers won just their second (and most recent) Big Ten crown. Even in the loss with an injury Keyes still ran for 114 yards, but his presence was missed on defense.

Keyes was named as an All-American for the 1967 season, and coming back for the 1968 season he was favored to win the Heisman. Sports Illustrated even went as far as to declare Purdue with quarterback Mike Phipps the #1 team in the nation going into the 1968 season. Keyes remains one of the very few Purdue athletes to appear on the cover of SI. Keyes had finished third in the Heisman voting the previous year, so he was generally considered to be the top player in the country.

His senior year didn't disappoint. He became the first Purdue player ever to rush for 1,000 yards (1,003) and he set a school record with 14 rushing scores. His final career game, a 38-35 win over Indiana, was a masterpiece. Keyes rushed for 140 yards and caught passes for 149 yards to have the fourth best total yardage game in school history. At the time his 289 yards was the best before Otis Armstrong topped it a few years later against the Hoosiers. Keyes remains as the only Purdue player ever to have 100 yards rushing and receiving in the same game, and he did it twice. He also rushed for four touchdowns (completing the Al Bundy) in that game as Indiana had no answers for him. It is one of just 12 Al Bundys in school history, with Mike Alstott doing the Bundy three times (one a five TD game) and Kory Sheets twice

Unfortunately, the preseason #1 ranking did not translate into a National championship. Now eligible again for Pasadena, Purdue lost 13-0 to eventual National Champ Ohio State and 27-13 at Minnesota. Purdue still had a career record of 25-6 with Keyes in the lineup. Keyes would also get hosed for the Heisman, as O.J. Simpson took it home in largest margin of victory ever. Considering where the two men are now, I think Keyes is happy with second place and another All-America nod.

Keyes' career numbers still stand up very well considering that he played in ten game seasons vs. 12 game seasons today and he was unable to play as a freshman. He has one of just eight 1,000 yard rushing seasons in school history. He is still tenth in rushing with 2,094 yards (in just two years as a halfback), and fifth with 29 career rushing touchdowns. His 37 career touchdowns of all kinds was a record until Alstott broke it in 1995 and Sheets broke Alstott's record in 2008. His 19 during the 1967 season remains a school record.

Pro career:

Keyes was the third overall pick in the 1969 NFL Draft, and he would enjoy a five year career that saw him play mostly on defense. He had over 600 yards of total offense and three touchdowns for the Eagles and Chiefs, but he was primarily a defensive back and kick returner for most of his career. The Chiefs employed him in his final year in the league, which was the only year other than his rookie year in which he was used on offense.

Post Playing Career:

Keyes has maintained his loyalty to Purdue by coming back to West Lafayette to serve as coach and general ambassador for the football program. He was the longtime assistant Director of the John Purdue Club before his retirement earlier this year. In addition to being named to the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame in December he was also inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1990. In 1987, as Purdue celebrated the 100th year of Boilermaker football, Keyes made the all-Time Purdue team as a running back and defensive back. He was also named the All-Time Greatest Player in Purdue history, something that can only be challenged since by Alstott and Drew Brees.

While Purdue is known as the Cradle of Quarterbacks there is no doubt in my mind that Keyes was the most dynamic player to ever wear gold and black. If you extrapolate his career offensive numbers over four seasons instead of just the two in which he was a halfback, plus to add two or three games per year as the new schedules allow, the totals would be just staggering. In theory, he could have been a 5,000 yard rusher with over 70 career touchdowns if he played today. Then you consider the fact that he is also one of the great defensive backs in school history. Honestly, I think he deserves to be higher on this list and I cannot believe he was left off of four ballots I received.