SAN ANGELO, Texas (KLST/KSAN) — The legendary story of Benjamin Kelly can’t be told in one setting. There are a number of articles written online and in magazines about the life and legacy of Kelly during the 1950s Jim Crow Era.
Ben was a graduate of San Angelo’s Blackshear High School and famously known as the football phenomenon that broke the color barrier for Angelo State University, then called San Angelo College. His story is not only one of black history but also a story of American history that changed right here in Concho Valley.
“Trailblazer and pioneer, there’s always someone that has to open the door for others to follow and that is certainly what he did,” says Dudra Butler, San Angelo Community Activist.
98-year-old Phil George was a former basketball coach at San Angelo Junior College and a former football Linemen Coach for the Rams.
“Benjamin Kelly was a guy you’d like to meet, and he’d normally have a big smile on his face, and when you talked to him it was never about him…it was always positive and most of the time happy,” says George.
He shares the story of how Ben walked into the coach’s office right before preseason training and asking head football coach, Bum Gardner, to join the all-white football team.
“He said, ‘Benjamin, you know I can’t do that, we’re not an integrated school. We don’t have black students in school, there’s no way I can do that’,” George recalls. “Ben, in his thoughtfulness and intelligence, said, ‘Coach Bum, who can let me come in here?’, he said ‘I don’t know, but I would imagine the President of the University could.'”
A trip to President Rex Johnston’s office and one conversation later with the chairman of the Board of Trustees, San Angelo Junior College became integrated.
Phil George remembers the day Ben Kelly stepped onto the field. “So, the first week, we were concerned about what was going to happen about team harmony, companionship, and respect for each other and if they would accept him,” said George. “We had two or three scuffles by the end of the week in total, every player had accepted Ben Kelly for who he was, not for the color of his skin. And boy was it like a hallow coming over the coaches. You couldn’t orchestrate this scenario, and Ben was super, he was a starting fullback, he started defensive end, he played both ways.”
Kelly would go on to play over a dozen games and was a two-time All-Pioneer Conference first team selection, but it didn’t come without the pain and suffering on and off the field.
“And I would never have been the man he was to take the type of punishment he took and walk through it with such an approach to life, never retaliated. He couldn’t eat with us in restaurants, he couldn’t stay with us in hotels, he was called every name in the world, none of them favorable.”
Through it all, his success would lead him to play on a collegiate level and then for the National Football League.