Getting To Know A Real San Angelo Hero–Benjamin Kelly
I never met Benjamin Kelly.
I came across his incredible story online. Since reading the first few lines of his story, I've been motivated to learn more. Benjamin Kelly was a remarkable man who broke barriers while playing football at San Angelo College.
That's what Angelo State was called back in 1953.
The football season that started in 1953 made history because of this remarkable man. When Ben Kelly took the field, it was the first time a black athlete played for a previously all-white collegiate football team in Texas, perhaps in the entire south.
The story of how Benjamin Kelly got into San Angelo College and then onto the football field is legendary. I urge you to click the links to stories in the ASU Alumni Magazine titled "Breaking the Color Barrier" and "Breaking the Color Barrier Again" linked below.
Benjamin Kelly was a winner on the football field. He played 19 games in a Rams uniform. Often he endured dirty play, racial epithets, and abusive fans.
Former Angelo State Athletic Director Phil George, who was the Rams line coach during Kelly's years at the college, in an article in the Angelo State Alumni magazine, remembers the opposing players and fans calling Kelly unimaginable names.
Traveling with the team also was not easy. The Jim Crow South of the 1950s was a harshly segregated place.
Kelly was often beaten up and hurt on the field. He had broken bones and contusions. In a 1983 story in the San Angelo Standard-Times, Max Bumgardner, head coach of the Rams in 1953 said, "I couldn't have done it. He was a better man than I was."
When Dr. Martin Luther King gave his legendary "I Have A Dream" speech, he spoke of his hope that one day men would be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
It was the content of Ben Kelly's character that made people like and admire him. He made it easier for African Americans to be seen as individuals and members of our community. He wasn't trying to be a hero. He was a decent human who just wanted to play football. He ended up doing so much more.
Ben Kelly went on to play in the NFL and returned to San Angelo and spent 29 years running the Boys and Girls Club until retiring in 1996. In the Fall of 2014, the Center for Human Performance on the campus of Angelo State University was named in honor of Ben Kelly.
At that ceremony, former SAC and ASU coach and athletic director Phil George said,
This building is going to be called the Ben Kelly Center for Human Performance,” Well, the story I just told you is the greatest human performance I have ever witnessed – in character, in love, in respect, and in drive and achievement. That was Benjamin Kelly.”
Benjamin Kelly died on Saturday, November 15, 2014. He lives on in the hearts he touched and in the fabric of a community and nation that was made stronger by his strength and the "content of his character".
It is fitting that we remember great men like Benjamin Kelly during Black History Month and every month of the year. We should re-dedicate ourselves as a nation to remembering even the painful and dark moments in our history that define what it is to be an American.
It is not just Black History, but AMERICAN history. There is unspeakable peril in forgetting. Truly, those who do not learn from history, are condemned to re-live it.
LOOK: 28 Modern Black History Makers & Moments