The best player to wear 44 for the Cleveland Browns had huge shoes to fill
The countdown to the 2020 NFL season is upon us. With 44 days remaining until the Browns season opener, we continue the countdown by celebrating the best Cleveland Browns player to ever wear number 44: Leroy Kelly.
Leroy Kelly was selected in the eighth round of the 1964 NFL draft out of Morgan State University. While at MSU, Kelly was the team’s leading rusher and point scorer in a season that culminated in the team winning the 1962 CIAA Championship. In 2014, Kelly was inducted into the Black College Football Hall of Fame.
Kelly was drafted in Cleveland during the zenith of Jim Brown’s powers. Brown had just set the record for rushing yards in a single season the previous year, ripping off a staggering 1,863 yards in only 14 games. If Kelly was going to see the field as a rookie, then he was going to have to do it on special teams.
Kelly only saw six carries on offense in 1964, but he did split kickoff and punt return duties with Walter Roberts. The rookie returned 24 kickoffs for 582 yards, and nine punts for 171 yards including a 68-yard touchdown.
In his sophomore season, even though he was still splitting the return duties with Roberts, Kelly led the NFL in punt returns. Kelly returned 17 punts for 265 yards and two touchdowns in 1965. He also returned 24 kickoffs for 621 yards. Although he was still seeing limited offensive snaps, Kelly proved he could make plays when called upon.
Kelly’s call to greatness came sooner than anyone could have predicted. Following the sudden retirement of Jim Brown during the 1966 training camp, the Browns were left with very little time to figure out who would take the lions share of snaps in the backfield. The Browns’ answer was to slide Ernie Green over to fullback and run the offense through Kelly at halfback.
Over the course of the next three seasons, Kelly was the best running back in the NFL. From 1966 to 1968, Kelly carried the ball 692 times for 3,585 yards averaging just under 5.2 yards per carry. Kelly led the NFL in rushing touchdowns in three-straight seasons, from 1966 to 1968, as well as leading the league in rushing yards in both 1967 and 1968.
Kelly was named first-team All-NFL in each of his first three seasons as the starting halfback. In addition, Kelly was also named to the Pro Bowl six straight times between 1966 to 1971. Although Kelly never eclipsed the 1,000 rushing yards mark in a single season after 1968, he did go over 800 rushing yards in three separate seasons. Kelly also made his mark as a receiver out of the backfield, hauling in 190 receptions over the course of his career for 2,281 yards and 13 touchdowns.
Kelly’s career totals of 7,274 rushing yards, 12,330 all-purpose yards, and 90 total touchdowns were enough to land him a spot in Canton, Ohio. Kelly was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1994, and he was named to the 1960s All-Decade Team. Kelly was also inducted into the Cleveland Browns Ring of Honor and the Browns Legends Program.
One of the hardest things to do in all of sports is to be the man who follows the man, and Kelly did that better than almost anyone in the history of professional football. Leroy Kelly is the best player to ever wear the number 44 in the history of the Cleveland Browns.
Honorable Mention: Earnest Byner.