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Kelcher lived large on and off the field

Discussion in 'Latest Chargers News & Headlines' started by robdog, Feb 27, 2006.

  1. robdog

    robdog Code Monkey Staff Member Administrator

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    Source: <a target="_blank" href="http://www.nctimes.com/articles/2006/02/27/sports/professional/22606183801.txt">North County Times</a>

    <img width="282" height="143" alt="Louie Kelcher" id="image1982" src="http://bolttalk.com/wp-content/uploads/2006/02/louie_kelcher_big_343x175.jpg" />

    By GARY HYVONEN

    SAN DIEGO -- Louie Kelcher says he weighs "pretty much the same'' as he did when he played for the Chargers from 1975-83, which means he will check in at more than 300 pounds even before dinner is served Tuesday evening when he is ushered into the Breitbard Hall of Fame at the San Diego Hall of Champions.

    Kelcher lugged 300 pounds of flesh and muscle to work with him each Sunday, long before 300-pounders were in vogue in the NFL. He was one of pro football's first mobile giants, patrolling the middle of the defensive line with such power and quickness that he became both an all-star and a folk hero.

    There are those who believe Kelcher also was something of a pioneer. His ability to play at a distinguished level and move as swiftly as he did despite his weight opened some eyes -- and some doors for larger athletes.

    Kelcher was strong enough to wrestle bears and agile enough to dance with them.

    "It was his feet,'' said former Chargers linebacker Jim Laslavic, sports anchor for KNSD-TV. "We used to marvel at how quick his feet were. Jackie Simpson, our defensive coordinator, would slow down game films and say, ‘Guys, look at what Louie is doing up front. Look at his feet.' ‘'

    His feet? You couldn't miss them. Size 16.

    "It's funny they talk about how quick my feet were because my wife will tell you I don't move them nearly fast enough now,'' Kelcher, a three-time Pro Bowl player, says in his Texas drawl, accompanied by that hearty laugh that endeared him to teammates and helped make him among the most popular players in Chargers history.

    Forget the feet. It was the hands that Dan Fouts remembers.

    They were so strong and so incredibly big, which was obvious from the moment the 6-foot-5 Kelcher arrived from Southern Methodist University as part of the Chargers' remarkable 1975 draft class that produced three future Pro Bowl defensive linemen, Fred Dean and Gary "Big Hands'' Johnson, being the others.

    "After we drafted Gary Johnson and Louie that year, Rick Smith, our PR guy, said, ‘They named the wrong guy Big Hands. This guy can't get his hands in his pockets,' ‘' recalled Fouts, the Hall of Fame quarterback who has maintained his close friendship with Kelcher.

    "Louie's a loveable giant. He was larger than life. Of course, you do have to be a pretty good player to be as popular as he was and he was every bit that.''

    You can look up Kelcher in the Chargers Hall of Fame, enshrined for the 577 tackles, 39 sacks and boundless leadership he provided in 100 games with them before finishing up with a season in San Francisco, long enough to earn the Super Bowl championship that eluded him here.

    Kelcher weighed about 310 pounds during his prime. Today that would make him one of the guys. Back then, Wilbur Young and Russ Washington were perhaps the only teammates from whom he could possibly borrow a shirt. Back then, being 300 pounds made you something of a novelty.

    It's clearly a different era now. Last summer, NFL training camp rosters listed more than 500 players who weighed at least 300 pounds.

    "I started out at 280 and didn't worry about it after that,'' Kelcher said. "I just went out and played. Everybody else seemed to be worried about it more than me. Being successful was more a matter of philosophy than anything else.

    "They wanted quickness and speed when I came into the league. Now it seems guys in the middle are big lumps, just looking to tie up people.''

    Kelcher was part of a trend-setting group. Soon more 300-pounders started finding their way into the NFL. Then the concept exploded in 1985 when William "Refrigerator'' Perry came along as a 350-pound star defensive tackle and goal-line running back for the Chicago Bears.

    "Louie had to convince everybody he could play at that weight,'' Laslavic said. "But he was so quick on his feet and very smart. He showed people that you could be that big and still play well.''

    Added Fouts: "When you have that natural size, I don't think weight matters. Measuring pounds doesn't matter. You're big, strong, agile, quick, fast, so what does it matter what the numbers on the scale say? It's what the game film says and they always said Louie was a very good player.''

    While size can be helpful for a football player, there are health risks associated with it. The recent on-field deaths of 335-pounders Korey Stringer and Thomas Herrion shed light on that.

    According to a Scripps Howard News Service study of 3,850 pro football players who have died in the past century, the heaviest athletes are more than twice as likely to pass away before their 50th birthday as their teammates.

    Kelcher, 52, is aware of this and says he is taking steps to slim down and maintain a healthy lifestyle. Part of his motivation, he says, is the joy he is experiencing raising his twin teenage daughters, Kelsey and Kaitlin in Austin Texas. (He also has a son and daughter from a previous marriage.)

    He also is proud of the fact that his warehousing and transportation business, ProLine, will celebrate its 10th anniversary next month.

    While Kelcher had the tools to disarm offensive linemen and crush ball carriers, he also had the smile and personality to charm everyone else, particularly fans. "Loooooo,'' they would chant each time he made a tackle, a ritual that was every bit as popular as "Hells Bells'' is for Trevor Hoffman.

    Kelcher proved to be popular with teammates as well. They elected him captain five times.

    "Louie always had us in stitches,'' Laslavic said. "He's such a great personality.''

    Fouts was known for being tight with his offensive linemen but from the start he forged a special, if unlikely, bond with a burly rookie lineman on the other side of the ball.

    "We were all young and crummy,'' Fouts recalls, laughing. "We lost 11 in a row that year; we had to be friends. Nobody else would be friends with us. We just hung out a lot together. You meet a guy like Louie and I don't know how you don't become friends with him.''

    Despite Kelcher's size and reputation for smash-mouth football, he was viewed as a teddy bear off the field. The quintessential Louie Kelcher snapshot is him escorting a frail and dying Rolf Benirschke onto the field prior to a 1979 home game against Pittsburgh.

    Benirschke, the Chargers' kicker, was fresh out of the hospital after undergoing major surgery for ulcerative colitis. He was at the stadium to watch the game despite the fact he was battling for his life and weighed only 127 pounds.

    Kelcher, sidelined himself with a knee injury, took things a step further, bringing Benirschke into the locker room and convincing coach Don Coryell to make him an honorary captain for the coin toss.

    "I could barely walk,'' Benirschke said. "I told Louie I didn't know if I could walk that far for the coin toss and he said, ëWell, I will just have to carry you if necessary.' It was one of those special moments, very spontaneous. He was out there without pads on and he still looked three times as big as me. Heck, he was three times as big as me.''

    Kelcher helped his frail teammate to midfield, a scene that sent a sellout crowd into a frenzy and later would be called by Gene Klein as the most stirring moment in his two decades as team owner.

    "That was a special moment in my life,'' said Kelcher, who keeps on his office wall a picture capturing the scene. "People still relate to that. I'm just glad he's still alive and doing well.''

    Looking back on it, Benirschke says that day played an important part in the fact he is alive today, enjoying a productive life in San Diego.

    "Louie was a great encouragement for me,'' Benirschke said. "He made that day special. You don't know how many times I remembered that as I was recovering and wanted to give up. I would think about that day and keep going.

    "That moment indelibly paired us.''

    Kelcher's ability to be so combative on the field and so compassionate off it continues to amaze people two decades later.

    "I was getting paid to do a job and I went out to earn it,'' Kelcher explained. "When the switch was turned off, it was just me. I don't put on airs and try to be someone I'm not. That's how I was raised. I am not a real formal guy and people related to that.''

    They still do.
     

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