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Tribute to a Hero

Sixty-one years after breaking the color barrier at San Angelo College and in Texas college football, Ben Kelly has been memorialized forever on the Angelo State campus.
  • Mr. Kelly in his 1953 yearbook photo.
    Mr. Kelly in his 1953 yearbook photo.

In a May 1 unveiling ceremony attended by Kelly and hundreds of family, friends, community members and ASU administrators, faculty, staff and students, the ASU Center for Human Performance (CHP) was officially renamed in Kelly’s honor.

Besides the unveiling of Kelly’s name on the north side of the building, the highlight of the ceremony was the re-telling of the Ben Kelly story by former SAC and ASU coach and athletic director Phil George. He took about 20 minutes to relate how Kelly joined both the Rams football team and the SAC student body in 1953 and persevered through two tough seasons in a still segregated society.

It all began when Kelly approached head coach Max Bumgardner about playing football, and the coach sent him to see SAC President Rex Johnston. Since the SAC Board of Trustees had already discussed integrating the college, Johnston encouraged Kelly to go to the registrar’s office and sign up for classes.

“The president of the Board of Trustees was a man named Porter Henderson,” George said. “So, Dr. Johnston picked up the phone and called Porter Henderson, and the way I was told, he said, ‘Porter, we just integrated San Angelo College.’”

Ben Kelly (seated below) greeting Phil George at the dedication of the Ben Kelly Center for Human Performance in May.Ben Kelly (seated below) greeting Phil George at the dedication of the Ben Kelly Center for Human Performance in May.George also relayed how Kelly was both a great football player and a popular member of the student body, winning All-Pioneer Conference honors for his performance on the field and the title of Class Favorite for his conduct and attitude on campus.

“This building is going to be called the Ben Kelly Center for Human Performance,” George said. “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.”

“I’m extremely grateful and deeply pleased,” he added, “that the administration of Texas Tech University System (TTUS) and Angelo State University made the decision to name this building after Benjamin Kelly. Thanks, Benjamin, for being the kind of man and human being that you are. We all love you.”

Also taking the podium at the ceremony were current Rams quarterback Kyle Washington; Joe Munoz, assistant to the president; Athletic Director Sean Johnson; and ASU President Brian J. May. May revealed that the process is underway to also install a bronze plaque inside the CHP that tells the Ben Kelly story and will include a relief of his face from his playing days at SAC. May also related how, in the TTUS Board of Regents Rules, there are normally only two ways a campus building can be named for someone. One is that the person be a longtime employee. The other is that the person donated enough money for at least half the construction cost.

“Well, Ben played here, but he never was an employee,” May said, “and he didn’t give us a dime to build this building. But what he gave to humanity was priceless. So I asked the Board of Regents to suspend their rules because this was a once in a lifetime chance to pay tribute to a hero. It was approved unanimously, and now all of our students are going to know about Ben Kelly.”

Then, speaking directly to Kelly, May said, “Ben, you’re my hero. You’re all these students’ hero. You’re this institution’s hero. You’re what good people are all about, and we are so blessed that you were able to come play football and be the first African-American to play college football in the state of Texas right here in San Angelo.”

Kelly played running back at SAC from 1953-54 and was a two-time All-Pioneer Conference first team selection. The Rams went 10-8-1 during his two seasons, and he received the Nathan’s Jeweler Award for football in 1954. After his two seasons at SAC, he was signed by the San Francisco 49ers and played one season before playing a year with the New York Giants under Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry. He then returned to San Angelo and spent 29 years running the Boys and Girls Club until retiring in 1996.

Based on the stories told about him at the CHP re-naming ceremony, Kelly’s humble reaction to the honor was completely in character.

“It’s kind of hard to put into words,” Kelly said, “but it’s a great thing. It means that you have been acknowledged for the sacrifices you have done and made, and that you tried to do the best you are able to do in your life span. It makes you feel real good. I feel real fortunate.”

Having the CHP re-named in his honor was also just the latest tribute to Kelly in 2014. In January, he was inducted into the Angelo State Athletics Hall of Honor, and in February, he was inducted into the Texas Black Sports Hall of Fame in Dallas.

A full account of Ben Kelly’s story was published over two issues of the former ASU Alumni Magazine in the summer and fall of 2006. Those stories, titled “Breaking the Color Barrier” and “Breaking the Color Barrier Again,” can be found in the online issues of those magazines atwww.angelo.edu/summermag2006 and www.angelo.edu/fallmag2006. A video of George telling Kelly’s story at the unveiling ceremony is available at www.angelo.edu/benkelly.

  • Tom Nurre

    Tom Nurre

    Tom Nurre is a news and information specialist at Angelo State University. 
    E-mail Tom at tom.nurre@angelo.edu.