Louie, Louie

From 1972-74, big Louie Kelcher from Beaumont, Texas, roamed SMU's defensive front like an oversized tomcat: big, quick and mean. An All-America nose guard for the Mustangs and Southwest Conference Defensive Player of the Year in '74, Kelcher drew attention wherever he went – and wherever he lined up.

KEAUHOU, Hawaii – From 1972-74, big Louie Kelcher from Beaumont, Texas, roamed SMU's defensive front like an oversized tomcat: big, quick and mean. An All-America nose guard for the Mustangs and Southwest Conference Defensive Player of the Year in '74, Kelcher drew attention wherever he went – and wherever he lined up.

The story goes that during an SMU-Texas game in Austin, after the 285-pound Kelcher had blown up a Longhorn play, UT coach Darrell Royal demanded to know from his press box coaches, "Who recruits Beaumont?!"

Kelcher earned first-team All-SWC honors twice and still holds the school record for tackles-for-a-loss in a season (22). The Mustangs were 19-8-2 in the Kelcher years, (7-4, 6-4-1, 6-4-1), but bowl games weren't handed out like Halloween candy in those days.

Shake hands today with the six-foot-five Kelcher and you're glad to get yours back in one piece. Kelcher's huge hands are one reason opposing linemen rarely got to his body.

Last month, Kelcher, 55, was on Hawaii's Kona coast for the June Jones Foundation Celebrity Golf Classic, a charity fundraiser now in its fifth year.

From an open-air lounge overlooking the Pacific Ocean at the Sheraton Keauhou Bay Resort, Kelcher took time before his flight home to talk about his time on the island, a little about his career and lot about SMU football.

"June's foundation put on a great show here," Kelcher said.

Kelcher called the golf course they played "a little heaven on earth." "It looked like something from Fantasy Island," he said. And it was "quiet, except for the ocean and the guys cussing after they hit their balls."

The two-day event also allowed Kelcher to catch up with fellow SMU All-American and Beaumont native Jerry LeVias (1966-68).

"For me," Kelcher said, "it's kind of interesting to hear first-hand what went on. The one thing that I guess this sport and life does is kind of harden you to what really went on before. It's so self-centering sometimes. You forget how it came to be, you know? So, it's been fun."

Today, Kelcher lives in Austin with his wife of 22 years, Mary Lynne, who joined him in Hawaii, and their twin 17-year-old daughters. (He has a son and daughter from a previous marriage.) Kelcher is a managing partner of Central Texas Warehouse Solutions.

Two Wins

A standout defensive lineman for Beaumont French High, a team that won two games over Kelcher's three seasons, Kelcher also played center on short-yardage downs. "Duh," he said. "Figure that one out. You think these other teams didn't realize that when I came in for center on offense that we were going to run a quarterback sneak?"

Because of French's record, Kelcher was surprised by all the recruiting attention he garnered. "I wasn't even really sure if I wanted to play football," he said. "I mean, I'd just had my ass handed to me for three years."

Kelcher figured he'd play for the Arkansas Razorbacks when they called because his mother's family was from there. To be first in the family to play football for Arkansas would be "kind of neat," he thought.

After visiting the Hogs, the University of Houston and other schools, SMU was the final stop on Kelcher's list. "I didn't want to come to SMU," Kelcher said. "I said, you know, I'm just going to go to Arkansas and make it easy. [SMU] said, ‘No, come up. Just get a free visit. Just come up and see Dallas.'"

Indeed, seeing Dallas - and meeting SMU coach Hayden Fry – sold Kelcher on the Mustangs. "I looked at Beaumont and then I looked at Fayetteville," Kelcher said. "I looked at Beaumont and I looked at Dallas. And I decided, boy, I'm not really making an upward move here, [going to Arkansas.]"

"I do remember Hayden was easy to talk to, believable and authentic. … He could sell ice to Eskimos. He was a great PR guy and that's what he did well. But he believed in himself, he believed in the kids and he believed in the program. So I felt that."

"And having Bum Phillips as a defensive line coach and defensive coordinator was not a bad back-up, you know?"

"[Kelcher] was a great one," said Phillips, the famously down-to-earth former Houston Oilers coach, by phone from Goliad, Texas. "He was stronger and quicker than anybody we had [at SMU]. He was a pro prospect, physically, when he was a sophomore in college."

"You couldn't get to his body," Phillips said. "He could just naturally put his hands on you. You didn't have to teach him anything. You just had to say, ‘Sic ‘em,' and let him go."

Said Fry, by phone from the road, "[Kelcher's] personality changed once he put on a headgear and stepped on the football field. He was as mean and as tough as any football player that's ever played football. And off the field he was the most polite gentleman that you could imagine."

"When Louie Kelcher lined up to the right or to the left, we knew that we could overload or stack to the other side, because they were going to run away from him."

"Louie was not only a great player," Fry said, "but he was a great leader and a great person."  

Fry Out

Fry was fired by SMU after a 7-4 campaign in ‘72 and former SMU assistant Dave Smith was handed the reins. The firing still doesn't sit well with Kelcher.

"I went to SMU because of Hayden," Kelcher said. "We had a great thing going. My sophomore year we were 7-4. We had all the players coming back. We were building a really good program."

"[The firing] yanked a lot of rugs out from under a lot of guys. They'd committed to SMU because of Hayden. I think it was a no-win deal for Dave to come in and try to fill those shoes. And he just had a hard time doing it."

A highlight from Kelcher's SMU days was the Mustangs' 18-14 win over No. 4 Texas A&M in a soggy, overcast day at the Cotton Bowl in ‘74. Kelcher recorded 24 tackles, recovered a fumble and was basically the Aggies' worst nightmare.

"That was one of those games where I could stumble and fall forward and I'd land on somebody that had the ball," Kelcher said. "It just seemed like everything worked."

For his dominant performance, Kelcher was named national Defensive Player of the Week by both the Associated Press and Sports Illustrated. "It was probably one of the proudest days in my life," Kelcher said. And his parents were there to see it.

San Diego picked Kelcher in the second-round of the '75 NFL draft and he went on to an All-Pro career with the Chargers. After nine seasons in San Diego, Kelcher finished his career in dream-like fashion – winning a Super Bowl ring with the '84 San Francisco 49ers.

Epic Battle

Another pro highlight for Kelcher was the epic four-hour divisional playoff between Miami and San Diego in January of '82, one of the greatest games in NFL history.

The Chargers led, 24-0, early only to lose the lead before forcing overtime. The Chargers' Dan Fouts and the Dolphins' Don Strock passed for a combined 830 yards.

Rolf Benirschke's 29-yard field goal late in OT gave San Diego the 41-38 win in the highest scoring NFL playoff game in history at the time.

"Emotionally and physically it was probably one of the longest games you'd want to play in," Kelcher said.

The game's iconic image remains the gassed Chargers tight end Kellen Winslow being helped from the field by teammates when it was all over. Kelcher said he and offensive guard Ed White still joke about not getting similar treatment. "Ed and I are always saying we laid out there and they started turning the lights off and people started stealing our socks and shoes waiting for people to come drag us off, but nobody came."

"That picture of Kellen obviously represented how everybody felt," Kelcher said.

Kelcher called his years in San Diego "probably the best time of my life."

"The fans at San Diego are some of the best ever," he said. "We bonded real quickly so it was fun for me, just to be playing at home." Charger fans took to Kelcher's imposing presence and lovable good nature in a flash, but their chants of "Lou-ie, Lou-ie" confused him early on. "I remember the first time I heard it I couldn't figure out why they were booing me all the time," Kelcher said. "It just seemed like every play."

After pro football and a divorce, Kelcher said he needed a "change of venue." He moved in with buddy and fellow NFL alum Doug English on Lake Austin. "I had friends in Austin and had been going back for golf tournaments and stuff," Kelcher said.

Kelcher later moved back to San Diego to be near his kids. There, he met and married Mary Lynne and in '92 they moved back to Austin where they've been ever since.

"It's a great town," Kelcher said, "except for the fact I've got to listen to UT [stuff] every day. It's brutal."

Kelcher has resisted going over to the Dark Burnt Orange Side. "I've never been to a game," he said, adding his daughters should forget about ever going to UT.

Straight Talk

Talking to Kelcher, it's obvious he cares deeply about SMU football and wants success for the program. But his frustration is also apparent.

"We just have a real crappy legacy to get over," Kelcher said. "It doesn't seem to go away. It doesn't. I don't know what it is. … It's just a scar we have and no matter how much makeup we put on it, we just can't get it to go away."

"The guys that are there are athletes and they're giving it everything they've got. Bless their hearts."

"There are a lot of great guys, a lot of great history, at SMU," he said. "We just can't win games."

"If we get beat by Stephen F. Austin [in the September opener,]" Kelcher said with a laugh, "it may be time to just cancel the program. I'm scared to death about that one. They're a good little football team."

Kelcher said he's not the "rah-rah"-type to speak to the team before a game. "Some guys are made for that kind of stuff," he said. "I mean, I don't mind talking to the guys one-on-one or off the record."

"It's one of those things where I just remember as a player it really didn't do a lot for me."

"I think we've got to realize who we are. We're a really, really fine private school in Dallas that has a hard time filling up a 36,000 seat stadium on campus, that has all the funding necessary to push a school to big-time. … It's just not happening."

"If you want a football team, then commit to the football team," Kelcher said. "Do the students at SMU want it? Well, if they're winning and it's a fun party, [they do.] If The Boulevard's rocking."

"Guys are paid a lot more money than me and you to figure this [stuff] out and we're going to let them do it. All we can do is support them." With that, Kelcher headed off for his all-night flight back to Texas. Aloha, Louie, and thanks for the memories.

*** Gerry York of SMU's Heritage Hall contributed to this report.

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