Goodbye, Mr. Kelly: Ticats legend dies
He didn’t say much, but he made all the difference to the greatest era in Hamilton football.
Ellison Kelly, who died Thursday at the age of 80, was the linchpin of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats’ offensive line for 11 seasons — beginning in 1960 — a stretch in which the Ticats went to six Grey Cup games and won the cherished chalice three times.
Kelly was known for his intelligence, perception and, even more so, for being quiet.
“Was he ever!” says his longtime teammate and fellow Canadian Football Hall of Famer Angelo Mosca. “He used to get into the locker-room and sit and listen to the stories. And he never said anything … just listened.
“He was a great offensive lineman, a real good guy and a helluva teammate.”
It was the era of Ticat superstars such as Mosca, John Barrow, Garney Henley and Bernie Faloney, but insiders knew that the Ticats’ offensive line was the workhorse which launched the payload. Some of those linemen — including Kelly until 1965 — also played some defence and they were all as tough as Hamilton’s reputation. The Cats recognized Kelly in 1998 when his No. 54 and Mosca’s 68 were both honoured by the team.
Born in Florida, Kelly played at Michigan State for the legendary Duffy Daugherty, then spent a year with the New York Giants — where he played with future Cat teammate and later Hamilton coach Don Sutherin — before coming north, where they actually paid more money at the time.
He played some tackle, especially after he was traded to Toronto (a referee once told him he didn’t look right in double blue) for the final two years of his career, but is best known for his work at offensive guard for the Ticats. He made the CFL all-star team four times in his career, the Eastern all-star team eight times and was named to the Tiger-Cats all-time team at both tackle and guard.
“The entire Hamilton Tiger-Cats Football Club sends our deepest sympathies to the Kelly family,” said Tiger-Cats’ chief executive officer Scott Mitchell. “He was a man of great class on and off the field, and his accomplishments as a Tiger-Cat speak for themselves. Ellison will forever be in the hearts of Hamiltonians and will truly be missed.”
Like many players, Kelly worked in the off-hours, and off-season, in correctional services, spending his post-football career as a recreation officer at the Hamilton Wentworth Detention Centre.
“He had a bond with the inmates because he could give them recreation time, a chance to build their bodies and to at least go out and release some stress in the yard,” says current Ticats’ defensive line coach Dennis McPhee, who was also an officer at the Barton jail during part of Kelly’s long career there.
“He had had a great rapport with every inmate. Black, white, native, it didn’t matter: they all loved Ellie. He stopped a lot of violent altercations by his presence and not because he was a big strong, hall of fame ex-Tiger-Cat or because he was a big, strong black guy. It was because they respected him to no end. He just had to show his face, didn’t say anything, and right away things calmed.
“Inmates and jail guards all called him Mr. Kelly.”
McPhee recalls how the guards at the detention centre found out that when Ellison was named to the Football Hall of Fame, rings weren’t awarded to the inductees.
“So Craig Smith, another guard, and I talked to Janice Smith at the Hall of Fame and ordered a ring made for him,” he says. “When he retired from the jail, we had a do at the Venetian Club. Elly thought it was just for his retirement but at the end of the night Smitty and I and some of the other guards presented him with his hall of fame ring. And he just melted.
“I’ve been on a lot of teams, worked a lot of places, and I never met a nicer man than Ellison Kelly.”
Kelly’s No. 54 will be on display in the new Wall of Fame at Tim Hortons Field.