P .J. Kelly: A legend in his own time
By Matthew Rice
Excerpted from the July 19, 2006, Granville Sentinel
Celebrated Granville football coach Sam Eppolitto was asked once if he could, or would, name the best football player who ever laced up cleats under his watch and it is said he answered without any difficulty: P. J. Kelly.
Known to many as the “Mayor” of Middle Granville, Kelley died Dec. 9 at the age of 83.
He was a bar owner, General Electric Co. worker, Norton Plastics worker, and also worked at the Great Meadow Correctional Facility.
He played semi-professional football over the course of several years back in the days the area supported a large league.
Asking around about Kelly’s prowess on the field usually produced one of two reactions. Some would exhale and roll their eyes, others would wince as if they were feeling the blow at that moment from a man who played last for the Golden Horde in the 1940s, but all gave a similar “Oh man that guy could hit.”
Passed down from father to son, tales of Kelly’s hard hits have become the stuff of legend.
Kelly, who was proud of what he accomplished on the football field, often said it was just one facet of a fascinating life.
Born to Patrick and Mary Kelly, Kelly said in a July 2006 interview: “We always knew we had the best parents in town; the only thing we lacked was jingle.”
He was one of 16, 10 boys – including Ed, John, Jim, Marty, Billy, Tim, Tom, Craig and Phil – and six girls, Kitty Mae, Margaret, Josephine, Ann, Mary and Betty.
Family was something Kelly credited for not just his toughness, but also his quality of life.
“We had a good family, there was no question you didn’t have to turn to too many people for help – you had them all right here,” he said in 2006.
Work was something Kelly said he learned to enjoy early on in life.
“I was working in my dad’s quarry as soon as I could pick up a piece of slate,” he recalled.
When the kids weren’t working in a quarry they were doing something else to help the family. Kelly recalled selling fruit and vegetables door-to-door or mowing the lawn of the church and bringing all of the money back home to give to his mother.
“There wasn’t any time to lay around in my family,” he said.
It wasn’t all hard work though.
Kelly recalled spending hours throwing a football against the family barn, over and over again, always working to catch it with one hand, despite the odd caroms and unusual bounces.
Kelly said his brothers all used to “wallop” each other. “It was just what you did,” he said with a laugh.
He credited that roughhousing for toughening him up, but as a tough kid, he said he was never a bully.
“We always looked out for the underdog,” he said.
“My dad always used to tell us, ‘Go as high as you can but always remember from where you sprang,’” Kelly said, “My dad always had a lot of good advice.”
As a tough kid who was willing to help out other, smaller kids, Kelly said, he often defended his friends – when he wasn’t hurting them.
He recalled with a chuckle breaking the shoulder of one of his best friends, Leo Pauquette, in a football game during school recess.
“He came through and I got him good,” Kelly said, smacking his hands together.
“When he got up one shoulder was up here and the other was down here,” Kelly said, doing a hunchback impression.
Although he said both men still laugh about the collision, Kelly said the principal thought it less funny and he lost recess privileges for some time after that.
Later in school, partly because his older brother Tom did also, Kelly began to hang around the football field.
“He used to call me Skippy,” Kelly said with a smile, adding that no one called him P.J. in those days, it was always “Shorty.”
He said Eppolitto initially took one look at him at about 5 feet, 5 inches and 135 pounds, and thought he was too small for the game of football, but Kelly hung around the field waiting for a chance to prove himself.
It would be another punishing hit in gym class that would convince the coach to give him a try.
“He put me down in the pit and had them all come at me,” Kelly said.
After he had hit the entire team, Kelly said the coach asked him if had enough yet, and when Kelly told him he had not, he was in.
The uniform he took home was many sizes too big for him, but he said his mother split the pants and jersey up the back and re-sewed the uniform to fit.
Kelly credited Al Berkowitz as being a football hero of his and an inspiration as a Granville kid who went on to play football at Michigan.
He said Berkowitz used to help out with the football program and taught him a lot about the game and would later help him out a lot in life.
“He was my idol and turned out to be one hell of a friend,” Kelly said.
When Kelly finished high school, semi-professional football beckoned and he went to play for a team that still exists today – the Greenjackets, then based in Hudson Falls. In April 2001 Kelly was inducted into the Greenjackets’ Hall of Fame.
It was after a game in Johnstown, Kelly recalled, that a man who had refereed the game came to the locker room and pulled him aside.
The Granville native coached college football and he wanted to know if P.J. was interested in going to college.
Kelly said Pete Hatch asked him to come to the Queensbury Hotel the next day to meet with him. Kelly said he would, but not until later in the day because he had a game.
Hatch was head coach at Ithaca College and when the two met the next day he offered Kelly a full ride at the central New York college.
“That’s what gave me my chance – that was my beginning, anyway,” he said.
Kelly spent two years playing football at Ithaca before he said he decided to return to Granville and help out the family as his father’s health declined.
“I chose to come back and help the family, no one said ‘come home,’ it just looked like the best thing to do at the time,” he said.
“I always wanted to finish,” he said, “and I finally did a few years ago.”
Kelly kept his 1997 diploma from SUNY Oswego behind the bar, near the cash register among the years of collected memorabilia.
Kelly continued to play football locally for the Greenjackets, Whitehall and Granville after returning to the area.
It was while hitchhiking back to Granville that he ran into someone who wanted to sell a building that just happened to be in his hometown.
Kelly bought the building because it was a rental property that contained the Post Office, but a few years later he would open his bar in that space.
“I had a beautiful business, a beautiful business,” Kelly said.
“Kelly’s” was the place Granville met to socialize, he said.
Berkowitz helped him get his liquor license, Kelly said, adding that at the time he was the youngest person in New York to hold a license.
When he wasn’t working one of Kelly’s favorite pastimes was hunting. He said liked to camp in the “Irish Alps” just outside of Granville whenever he could. Reminders of past hunting successes looked out over the bar from every wall.
His work at the prison involved teaching floor covering. Kelly said he liked “the kids” the most about the job.
“It’s a good challenge, every day,” he said.
In all of those years, Kelly said he was never worried within the prison walls because the prisoners liked him and the skills he taught, and the work they did helped pass the time.
One liked him so much and felt he owed Kelly so much that he came all the way from New York City to thank him for all he had done for him.
“The superintendent told me as far as he knows that was the only time that had ever happened,” Kelly said.
“He’s got a business and a wife and kids – he’s on top of the world now,” he said.