Former Sterling star awaiting Hall induction

Ken Kelley captained Penn State's national champion squad in 1982.
Ken Kelley captained Penn State's national champion squad in 1982.
Posted: October 14, 2013

Bo Schembechler wanted Ken Kelley to be an option quarterback.

Joe Paterno looked at the former Sterling High School star and saw something else.

"Defensive athlete," Kelley said of the former Penn State coach's classification of him during his recruitment.

At Linebacker U, "defensive athletes" usually became linebackers. A high school quarterback who starred during the greatest era in Sterling football history, Kelley went to Penn State, put on 25 pounds, and became captain of the Nittany Lions' first national championship team.

"I was so lucky," said Kelley, 53, who will be inducted into the Camden County Sports Hall of Fame with 12 others on Oct. 24 at the Crowne Plaza hotel in Cherry Hill. "Not many people get to play for the kinds of coaches that I got to play for."

During Kelley's four seasons at Sterling, the Silver Knights won four Colonial Conference titles and reached the first four South Jersey Group 3 championship games, winning three of them.

Under legendary former coach Jim Combs, Sterling was the signature program of the dawn of the modern era of South Jersey football in the mid-1970s: the first sectional championships, the first 11-game seasons.

"I played for a great coach in Jim Combs," Kelley said. "We had great assistant coaches, great guys on the team, great guys around the team. It has to start somewhere. That's where it all started for me."

In Kelley's senior year, Sterling went 11-0 and beat Cherokee, 32-27, in the 1977 Group 3 title game. It was a pivotal moment in South Jersey football history - the end of an era for Sterling and the beginning of Cherokee's rise to prominence, which continues to this day.

"It was an amazing season," Kelley said. "We weren't the greatest group of athletes. But we were a great group of guys who played together and supported each other and found a way."

Kelley narrowed his college choices to Penn State, Michigan, Notre Dame, and Maryland. Schembechler, the Michigan coach, thought he could run the wishbone in big games against Ohio State.

"I liked the fact that Penn State was only about 31/2 hours away and my family and friends could come and see me," Kelley said of his decision.

Kelley redshirted as a freshman, gained weight ("They fed me pretty good"), and developed into an instinctive outside linebacker who was elected captain by his teammates before the 1982 season.

Kelley led Penn State to the program's first national title, clinched with a victory over Herschel Walker and Georgia in the Sugar Bowl.

"My freshman year, I was a redshirt but I went down to New Orleans and we lost to Alabama in the Sugar Bowl," Kelley said of a famous game on Jan. 1, 1979.

"Four years later, we went back to New Orleans and won the Sugar Bowl and the national title. Only one team can be Penn State's first national champions, and that was us."

Kelley played for Marv Levy with the Chicago Blitz of the USFL in 1984. Levy, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, later led the Buffalo Bills to four consecutive Super Bowls.

Kelley credits his coaches and teammates with his success, as well as the support of his family. He said there was something special about the bond between those Sterling guys; about a dozen of them still get together for a golfing trip to Myrtle Beach, S.C., every September.

"I'm a big team guy," said Kelley, who lives in Washington Township, works in medical sales, and is the father of two adult daughters. "It's individuals who sometimes get recognized, but it's the team that makes that possible. I learned that from some of the best coaches a guy could ever hope to play for."


If You Go

What: Eighth annual Camden County Sports Hall of Fame dinner.

When: Thursday, Oct. 24, 5 p.m.

Where: Crowne Plaza hotel, Cherry Hill.

This year's inductees: Ken Kelley, Gary Williams, Kevin Walls, Laraine Stiles Flynn, Todd Azar, Jim Ryan, Rosemary Deniken Blankley, Ralph Ipri, Kelli James Precourt, Meghan Bolger Stasi, Al Mattern (deceased), Larry Mauriello (deceased), and Bill Narleski (deceased).

Ticket information: Call 856-401-2451 or e-mail halloffame@

camdencounty.com.

- Phil Anastasia


panastasia@phillynews.com

@PhilAnastasia

www.inquirer.com/

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