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Brady Keys, Steelers Cornerback, 1961-1967

November 1, 2011

Brady Keys:

First, can you let readers know what you’ve been doing with yourself these days and about the Keys Group?

The Keys Group is the parent company of Airport Concessions – it’s what I have left of the many restaurants that used to be part of the Keys Group.

It started in 1968 as a fried chicken franchise. It grew to 135 restaurants – which then grew into Kentucky Fried Chicken and Burger and King franchises.

It was a concept I developed – my own fried chicken batter – when I played for the Steelers. I called Art Rooney in the offseason from Los Angeles and told him what I did – about the idea and asked if he’d help me with money to start the business. All I heard was silence on the line. I had to ask if anyone was still on the line. Mr Rooney answered back “I am. I’m just trying to figure out how fast to get you the money!”

He gave me $10,000 – which was like 1 million in those days. And in 1969 people just didn’t loan that kind of money – especially to a Black man trying to start a business. I built my first two restaurants with that money.

How did you juggle the game and business and how did others take your success?

When I came back to Pittsburgh the Rooneys were ecstatic for me. Then I went to training camp where it was nothing but football. But Mr. Rooney came up to me and said “Brady, tomorrow there’s going to be a press conference. You’re going to tell everyone about your franchises.” I told Mr. Rooney it was training camp – and he said not to worry, you’ll do it at noon between the two-a-days.

Well, Coach Austin heard about it and was upset. He told me to call the Rooneys and cancel the conference. I told him I couldn’t tell the Rooneys what to do, and you can’t either. He told me if you don’t, “I’ll get you.” Well, we had the conference and that day I got written up in Forbes and papers all over the country.

Then, I got hurt. Coach Austin made me play knowing it would hurt my knee. I asked him not to make me – I had an operation on the knee. He accused me of being over the hill. I told him I just need healed! He used that to convince the Rooneys to trade me. So the Rooneys reluctantly traded me to Minnesota.

How did that go?

Bud Grant didn’t speak to me for two days. He wasn’t told I was being traded to Minnesota. Grant said that I didn’t play football, I “Played business”. He said I had to get out of the business to play for him.

So, at the end of the year he traded me to St. Louis. They had racial issues there for a while but they called me two weeks before camp and said I could play. I said I couldn’t – I wasn’t in shape. They gave me two weeks to get in shape. I said ok – they gave me lots of money and bonuses.

But I did a few stupid things. I sent the whole team fried chicken when I got there. Then after my first exhibition game in New York, on the off day afterwards, I met with the bank there and didn’t travel back with the team. Then when we were in San Francisco I advertised for franchises and met with some possible franchisees.

When I got back I got a tip from a buddy – he said I was done. He said the NFL was not happy – I was creating the image the NFL didn’t want – that a Black person could play and run a business.

He said I was blackballed – I’d see when I showed up on Tuesday.

So what happened afterwards?

I called the bank and told them what happened – that I was blackballed. They said we can’t make the NFL keep you but we can make it worth your while to leave. They told me not to talk to anyone – even Pete Rozelle- that they would get lawyers and file a $50 million dollar lawsuit against the NFL. They’d have it all ready when they blackballed me, they said.

So when I get back I was called into the owner’s office. He said I had a call from Pete Rozelle. I called the bank first and went in. Pete Rozelle was on the phone and told the owner the bank called him. That they’d have to negotiate with me. I had to stay on the team, but I couldn’t play or talk to anyone.

After that season I went home. I couldn’t play anywhere after that.

They are making a movie on my life as we speak – a documentary.

What made you decide to play professional ball – especially when the pay at that time was not exactly stellar?

Well, how else was a Black man at that time going to make that much money in half a year? I was making more than most Black men were.

When I was eight I said I’d be a football player first then go into business. And that’s what I did.

The Steelers were a team still struggling when they drafted you. How did you feel getting drafted by a team with such a long history of losing?

The Steelers were a very poor team. But the Rooneys were good people – very good people.

Mr. Rooney was too nice – he had to get out of the business of running the team. He and George Halas were friends and kept trading and loaning players back and forth until Dan Rooney took over and the team started drafting much better players.

Who took you under their wing as a rookie and helped mentor you – and how did they do so?

Fred Williamson was my second roommate – he took me in and showed me the ropes. Then he was promptly traded to Oakland – to Al Davis.

The key thing he told me was that I needed to stick to my self. “Don’t be patronizing with veterans” he said. And that’s what I did.

What kind of player were you  and how did you adjust to the NFL game?

The specialization of the game. They made me a halfback when I first got there. But I couldn’t adjust to the game. I was a scat back and the coach didn’t like that – he wanted power backs. So, I had to play defense.

My style of play was suited to cornerback. I was very fast and was an intimidator. I liked to intimidate receivers – I did bad things to them sometimes.

I used to love playing the Browns and Jim Brown. He and I had a grudge like you would not believe. Lots of people were scared to tackle him – and he hurt me once. But he used to call me the Black Missile.  We fought a lot then but became big friends after we were done playing football.

What do you think of the NFL today with it’s changes and emphasis on the passing game?

It’s a sissy game now. Defenses can’t do anything. We would clothesline guys and hit guys out-of-bounds. It’s a sissy game now. The Steelers are trying to continue the tradition of being tough but it’s hard.

Who were some of the characters on those 60’s teams?

Bobby Lane and John Henry Johnson. They were big characters. They would drink and drink and drink and drink. But not on Sundays!

What are some of your best memories of your time in Pittsburgh?

I have many, many good memories. Mellon Bank helping my business.

And nothing but good memories of Pittsburgh and the Steelers. The last day I cried was when Mr. Rooney died. I haven’t cried since. I would not be who I am without him.  The town and country were not ready for me – a Black man who wanted to run  a business and play football. But he was.

Any last thoughts for readers?

I just want readers to know  the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Rooneys – I owe them everything I am today. They gave me $10,000 and never let me pay it back. They gave me one charge – to be successful. It’s been on my mind ever since.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. November 30, 2011 6:58 am

    I really did not know about this, thanks a lot!.

  2. David Albert permalink
    March 26, 2012 11:14 am

    When I was a young man Mr. Keys stayed at a tourist resort in Northern Ontario ,my parents managed, good to hear of him and his success. I have never forgot him nailing money to a tree and saying, “I think people around here are so honest it will be here when i come back next year.” My dad took money off tree and placed it back just before he came back…

  3. October 19, 2012 3:48 pm

    Great article. I’d love to read more.

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