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Club 46: Leroy Kelly carved a legendary career in lieu of his legendary predecessor

Kelly has always been remembered for following in Jim Brown’s footsteps, but he has always been a self-made legend

Jim Brown did not have any worries about the state of the Browns' run game when he announced his retirement from the NFL in 1966.

Brown, who is arguably the greatest running back in the history of football, surprised many around the league when he announced his retirement after nine years. He had been the league's rushing leader the last three seasons and made the Browns one of the fiercest teams in the game, but he wanted to devote the rest of his life on humanitarian efforts — not football.

Brown, however, did not believe the Browns were going to see any dip in talent at running back with his departure.

"I told (Browns coach) Blanton (Collier) he wouldn't miss me," Brown told Alan Goldstein of the Baltimore Sun in 1994. "I said that we had a great runner to replace me."

That runner was Leroy Kelly, and he proved Brown right.

Kelly, drafted by the Browns in the eighth round of the 1964 draft, replaced Brown and quickly became the Browns' next top rusher. After leading the league in rushing touchdowns in 1966 and running for 1,141 yards, Kelly led the league in rushing yards in 1967 and 1968 and continued to serve as a reliable, talented Browns running back for the next seven seasons. 

At the end of his career, Kelly had accumulated 7,274 rushing yards and 75 touchdowns — both are second-most in the franchise behind Brown. He is a six-time Pro Bowler, six-time All-Pro honoree and was enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1994.

Kelly followed a legend to start his career. Then, he became one himself.

"I was glad that I was the running back that was there at the time," Kelly told Jay Crawford in a recent Club 46 interview.

The Cleveland Browns Presents: Club 46 - player stories through generations of football

If it wasn't for Kelly, the Browns might not have been able to maintain the same level of success they had with Brown. Cleveland never had a losing season with Brown, and it never had a losing season with Kelly, who helped lead the Browns to five playoff appearances as a starting running back. 

Kelly, however, doesn't prefer to attribute his success to his otherworldly abilities of escaping tacklers and bursting through the trenches at breakneck speeds. He gave all the praise to the tremendous core of offensive linemen, many of whom blocked for his talented predecessor and helped make his transition to a starting running back look so great. 

With future Hall of Famer Gene Hickerson, Dick Schafrath and a batch of other talented lineman who spent time in Cleveland, Kelly became an instant star.

"It was just great running," Kelly said. "The offensive lineup we had, that it was still going to be there. That's what definitely helped me out."

Kelly's career is even more remarkable considering how late he became a full-time running back. He was a quarterback in high school at Simon Gratz High School in Philadelphia, his hometown, and became both a running back and defensive back in college at Morgan State. Kelly arrived at his first camp in Cleveland believing that his best shot at a professional career was by playing defense, but that all changed when he received an order from Collier.

"I want you to put some weight on," Collier told the rookie. "We're going to use you as a running back."

Cleveland, of course, already had a no-doubt Hall of Famer in its backfield, so Kelly wasn't needed yet, but he still showed his potential in his two years as a special teams player. He returned a punt 68 yards to the end zone as a rookie in 1964 for his first career touchdown, which he still remembers as his favorite NFL moment to this day.

"I slammed the ball down, for some reason," Kelly said. "I can't remember why I did that, but I guess it was, 'Hey, I can score touchdowns too.'"

That was only the first of many trips to the end zone from Kelly. Brown could see that Kelly had potential to be a star in his two years before he handed him starting running back duties, and his message of assurance to Collier was all he needed to give Kelly his chance.

Kelly will always be remembered for following in Browns' footsteps, but his achievements in Cleveland mark a career that was nothing short of legendary.

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