Home is Where His Heart is — and Former Husky LB Joe Kelly Deserves Thanks for That

The one-time University of Washington defensive leader gives back to the community in Cincinnati in a big way.
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Joe Kelly could absolutely take your head off. He might leave you crumpled on the ground, rolling around in agony, wishing you had never met him. He played like this for 11 NFL seasons, following four years at the University of Washington.

He was so fast and physical, Kelly arguably ranks as the greatest inside linebacker to ever play for the Huskies, one of the fiercest leaders to emerged for the vaunted "Purple Reign" defense of the 1980s.

At the same time, there is a definitive soft side to this man, who played for six NFL teams, most notably for the Cincinnati Bengals. He cares about kids. So much that he owns and operates five group homes in that Ohio city, saving them from the perils of homelessness, family abuse, the drug world and the sex trades.

On a day when people take pause and give thanks, Joe Kelly deserves everyone's widespread appreciation. We'll take a Thanksgiving moment here to salute him and his big heart. 

"It's something I always grew up," he said of his unwavering philanthropic ways. "Somebody was always living with us or we were helping somebody. That was the legacy of our life."

Goodwill runs deep through the Kelly family tree, with an abundance of caring role models reaching out to him and inspiring him to do all that he can for others.

His father Joe Kelly Sr., now 82, founded the North Valley Golden Bears in Pacoima, California, and still very active running an organization that has promoted youth football, basketball, cheerleading and more for five decades. 

Bob Kelly, Joe's uncle who was a two-way NFL lineman and died in 2014, spent his post-football days selflessly providing teaching and coaching support for Cincinnati youth.

In 1998, Joe created Kelly Services and he opened the first of his Ohio group homes, having seen them in use in his hometown of Los Angeles and choosing to get involved. 

"I didn't know what a group home was," he said. "But I always knew in some capacity I would be working with kids."

Kelly, 55, in a sense is like a dad with a big extended family. The youth in his county-supervised homes range in age from 9 to 21. The residences are divided by age, gender or services rendered.

"We have one for teenage pregnancy, which is usually for 16- to 21-year-olds," he said. "Unfortunately, we had a 14-year-old who was pregnant with her second child."

Kelly's organization not only provides a safe house for at-risk youth, it teaches them life's basic needs such as how to pursue a job, participate in a job interview, work, shop and budget money.

Four decades ago, Kelly left the Los Angeles area as a modestly recruited football player and made his way to Seattle. He had committed to Oregon, only to switch to Washington at the last minute, encouraged to do so by his California friend and then current Husky linebacker Fred Smalls, who's now deceased. 

He was a little overwhelmed and intimidated when he first arrived at the UW and was surrounded by great players. Yet he was up for the challenges presented by coach Don James' demanding football program.

Kelly would become part of a talented Husky inside linebacker triumvirate that included Tim Meamber and Joe Krakoski and was so good that these guys often played together in a specially designed Jim Lambright scheme instead of just two at a time.

Their high-water mark as Huskies came in beating Oklahoma 28-17 in the 1985 Orange Bowl in Miami, leaving them with an 11-1 record and No. 2 ranking in the national polls behind BYU.

"If we had played them, we would have beat BYU by 30 points," Kelly said.

He led the Pac-10 in tackles (151) and interceptions (6) as a UW junior, but All-American honors eluded him during his college career. He dealt with a constant string of injuries and he played alongside defensive linemen Reggie Rogers and Ron Holmes, who were All-Americans and you couldn't pick everyone off the Purple Reign defense. 

Kelly was properly recognized when the Cincinnati Bengals, his uncle's primary pro team, selected him with the 11th pick of the 1986 NFL draft — making him one of the highest chosen Huskies ever.

He reached the peak of his pro football career in 1989 in Super Bowl XXIII, where the Bengals lost 20-16 to the San Francisco 49ers in Miami. Cincinnati was widely considered the best team in the NFL that season, but it had the misfortune of losing one of its key players, running back Stanley Wilson, to a positive drug test the night before the big game, disrupting the team at the worst possible moment.

Kelly describes that Super Bowl situation of despair in great detail in the video below.

Once Kelly finished up with the NFL in his hometown, playing for the Los Angeles Raiders, he returned to Cincinnati where he had several business properties. It seemed only right to dive into these group homes and help others.  

He approaches this world with the same fervor that he did football. He's a team player still trying to give everyone around him a taste of success. 

"You're teaching them the basics," Kelly said of the kids. "We're just really getting them ready for life."

On Thanksgiving day, he deserves a second and third helping of thanks for that.

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