A Visit with Former Husky Joe Kelly

Go ask Joe Kelly about his first day of practice as a Husky in 1981, and he will chuckle. Then as he answers, you will hear the irony in his voice. To listen to the former team captain, it's startling to consider that he was an All Pac-10 linebacker, spent eleven years in the NFL, and played in a Super Bowl. I spoke with Kelly recently, and I couldn't believe what I was hearing as he described that first day on the practice field.

"I was 6-foot-1, 185 pounds, and about to play linebacker in the Pac-10," he said in a somewhat quiet voice. "That first Husky camp wasn't a good day. It was a humbling day, man. I wasn't a big time recruit, but EVERYBODY was bigger than me. Then we go to the weight room, and EVERYONE was definitely stronger than me. I was only benching 225 (pounds). Then we go to run the mile. I was supposed to make it in six minutes and I run it in 7:49, so I say to myself, `OK, I can compete with these guys running the 40 (yard dash).' And then I just happen to run the slowest 40. "At the end of the day I had to call Mom on that one, because that was a humbling day and a humbling experience. But by my senior year, I was up to 213, I was benching 400 (pounds), and I was running a 4.5- 40. So I matured physically. I also went from being a quiet person to a little more open. So I matured. But one thing I knew, even as a freshman, was that once we got on that football field, I could compete. Because I knew deep down that I could play football."

I told Joe Kelly that my most vivid memory of him was from the 1985 Orange Bowl, and his interception of a wounded duck thrown by Oklahoma quarterback Danny Bradley. "I remember that game like it was yesterday," he said.

"And I remember on that play, Holmie (Husky All-American Ron Holmes) knocked the ball in the air, and I caught it right around the Sooner 10-yard line and took off toward the end zone. I got so excited, I thought I was gonna run over this big 325-pound guard from Oklahoma. But after I hit him, all I remember is standing up from the ground and I was facing the other direction, so I knew I didn't make it into the end zone." Kelly and I both laughed heartily before he added, "I was about 208 (pounds). I could have easily dodged him, but it was that toughness in me. It was mano-a-mano. I wanted to run him over. But I lost that battle."

I told Kelly that I had heard stories that the Huskies and Sooners got into some heated exchanges on a casino boat that cruised for a few hours out on the Atlantic Ocean.

"We had a deal out on a yacht," he said. "I don't know why, but they put two teams about to go to battle on the same boat. I remember the arrogance of the Oklahoma players who were walking around. But being that we had a lot of guys from California, we weren't cocky, but we were confident. Well, the Sooners started mouthing off. We weren't going to cross the line because Don James wasn't going to accept that. But at the same time, Don James turned his head a couple of times. The guys on defense were like (toward the Sooners), `Hey, we're gonna whoop you in a couple days, but we'll whoop you tonight, too!' So they saw that we weren't just a bunch of northwest... I don't know, whatever they thought we were."

I asked Kelly about Oklahoma linebacker Brian Bosworth's confrontation with UW's Reggie Rogers. The story goes that Bosworth climbed up onto the table where Rogers sat, then started dancing in a mocking manner. Rogers reportedly kicked the table out from under him, and Bosworth landed on his feet, before the two converged and started going at it face to face.

"Bosworth was a show-off, but Reggie was the biggest showoff on our team," said Kelly, laughing. "Bosworth probably didn't know that about Reggie. But yeah, on a couple of occasions down in the bar, a couple of guys said words I can't repeat, and Don James would turn his head and then it was nose to nose. It didn't come to a physical altercation. It would (get resolved) without going there. Then Don James would come back, and we'd sit down like nothing happened.

"The fun part about the casino," he said, "was that while Don James was upstairs, (Oklahoma coach) Barry Switzer was down there with us. And he's cussing and fussing. We were in awe. I couldn't picture Don James with a gin and tonic, smoking, swearing and gambling. But that just wasn't U-Dub, that wasn't DJ. And with all the success he had, you can't argue with that.

"That particular Orange Bowl, we went into that game pretty confident. All the (media-related) buzz was if Oklahoma wins then they would win the national championship. I don't know if they took us lightly. But, we had a great time in Miami. We won 28 to 17, and it wasn't nearly that close. And we had a final chance to bond and finish off that era of the Purple Reign. It was great that it ended as it did. It was a special bunch of guys. We felt confident that we had earned at least a share of the national championship."

Washington finished the season ranked #2 in the country in both major polls.

Joe Kelly's senior season wasn't a glorious run to a major bowl but rather a frustrating 1985 campaign that ended with a 7-5 record.

"We had been ranked #1 in the nation at some point every year that I had been there," he said. "We were a pre-season #1 going into my senior season against Oklahoma State in the opener. In that game, I hurt my ankle. I missed about four games. I had never been any lower emotionally in my Husky career. That was the pits. We had several low points that year. We had a young team, and we choked."

The lowest of the lows came when Oregon State, a 37 point underdog, beat Washington 21-20. I asked Kelly about that horrible day at Husky Stadium.

"Oregon State? Oh, (expletive)," he said. "Whoa, excuse me for swearing. I had a play on the sideline with the fullback, man to man coverage, I had it read one-hundred percent, the QB threw the ball (deep down the right sideline), and being the linebacker I was - and showing the reason why I wasn't a running back - I jumped up and the ball went right through my hands and the fullback caught it for a touchdown. That was a tough day."

The Beavers ended up blocking a Husky punt with 1:46 remaining and recovering it for the historic, winning touchdown. It was one of only three victories that year. (Of note: A 2002 poll of Oregon State alums selected this as the greatest game in Beaver football history. This selection outranked even Oregon State's 2001 Fiesta Bowl demolition over Notre Dame, as well the 1967 upset over #1 USC).

I asked Kelly who had the biggest influence on him at Washington. He didn't hesitate to respond.

"Jim Lambright," he said. "To this day, after eleven years in the NFL, from Pop Warner all the way to the NFL, he was my best coach ever. He was a good teacher. Seeing Lambo and how intense he was, well I was that same kind of intense on the field. I saw in him somebody that actually acted like me on gameday. I remember the first time I made the traveling squad. Lambo was kind of calm, and went about his business. But then the night before the game, it was like he was a different person. I was like, oh yeah, alright! I fell in love with him that first time I made the traveling squad. You see that intensity in his eyes, and that's the intensity I tried to bring onto the field every time."

After Kelly's Husky career ended, the Cincinnati Bengals drafted him in the spring of 1986. He spent the next eleven seasons as an NFL linebacker, playing in the 1989 Super Bowl. These days, he lives in Cincinnati and runs a business called Kelly Services. His company consists of eight structured group homes for neglected kids who are wards of the state. "I feel like we're making a difference," he said quietly.

In closing, I asked Kelly if he still follows the Huskies closely from Ohio.

"Oh, yeah, I've been losing a lot of money on them the last few years," he said with a chuckle. "I'm a Husky, man. I'm a Husky until I die. Big games come up, and I get them on pay-per-view. Or I'm talkin' noise in the bar, even if we're down 35-12, or whatever. So I'm saying (to the TV), `well somebody give me a big hit or something!' I want to see them get things turned around and become a part of this BCS thing. We need our piece of that. We've been away for too long. This year will be a big turning point for U-Dub, with Tyrone Willingham. I think it is so much Notre Dame's loss (that Willingham was fired).

Joe Kelly and I were about to hang up, when he recalled something else.

"As a matter of fact, yesterday I almost chased a guy down, here in Cincinnati. He had the Husky emblem on his car. I have been living here forever, and that was the first time I have seen the emblem here, ever."

Then Kelly laughed again and added, "I would have chased the car down, but the stoplight caught me!"

Derek Johnson can be reached at uwsundodger@msn.com

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