Nine years ago, the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame inducted Tyrone Keys for all his considerable exploits onthe football field — at Callaway High, at Mississippi State and in the NFL.
He was deserving.
Now then, on July 29 of this year, Keys will receive the Hall of Fame’s award for lifetime contributionsto Mississippi sports — The Rube — named in honor of Michael Rubenstein, the long-time sportscaster and first executive director ofthe Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum.
And, man oh man, is Keys deserving of this one.
This honor is mostly for what Keys has done after football — and that is lot. Literally hundreds of at- risk youngsters across the South, but mostly in Missis- sippi and the Tampa area, have attended and graduated from both high school and college, at least in part because of Keys, a gentle giant if there ever was one. Keys is the seventh winner of The Rube, following Boo Ferriss, Ben Puckett, Archie Manning, George Bryan, Gov. William Winter and Ron Polk. At 58, he is the youngest to receive an award based on lifetime achievements. He is the first African-American.
When asked which award means most to him — going into the Hall of Fame or the lifetime achievement award— Keys thinks about it and then chuckles.
“Well I’d just say that one is the cake and the other is the icing,” he answered. “It was nice to be recognized for what I did in football because that was my life for so long. But it’s just as rewarding, maybe more so, to be recognized for what I’ve done outside the game.”
Twenty-five years ago, in 1993, five years after his retirement from the NFL, Keys founded All Sports Community Service, a non-profit organization with a goal of helping challenged youth and student athletes get accepted to — and graduate from — college, become productive citizens, community servants and mentors for others.
Since then, the program has helped more than 1,000 at risk youths graduating from college.
“And many of those young people have come back to serve as mentors to others who are in the situation they once were in,” Keys says.
“My ultimate goal in life all along has been to help young people the way my coaches and teachers helped me,” Keys says. “What I accomplished in football has helped me achieve what I have always wanted to accomplish in life.”
I first covered Keys when he played defensive end for Emory Bellard at Mississippi State. At 6-foot-7, he was the tallest of the Bulldogs. Along with teammate Kent Hull, he always seemed about the nicest. He always had a smile on his face and something pleasant to say, no matter the circumstances.
When State defeated Alabama and Bear Bryant 6-3 in 1980 in one of the greatest victories in Mississippi sports history, Keys was the guy who made the tackle and forced a fumble on Alabama’s final offensive play.
Later, in the NFL, he started at defensive end for the great Chicago Bears team of 1985, on what many experts consider the greatest defense in Super Bowl history. When those Bears came out with their famous music video “The Super Bowl Shuffle,” Keys was the guy playing the keyboard while teammates like Walter Payton and Jim McMahon danced.
To hear Keys talk, all that was a means to an end. Football helped jump-start his second and most rewarding career.
Keys’ work with youth, you see, is a pay-it-forward deal. And it never stops.
Since 2009, when he was inducted, Keys has been a fixture at Hall-of-Fame induction weekends. He’s always the big guy accompanied by a group of teens from Jackson inner-city schools. He takes them around the museum, introduces them to the Hall-of- Famers, shows them where hard work and perseverance can lead.
For the big man, the one with a warm smile on his face, the work is never done.
Email syndicated columnist Rick Cleveland at rcleve- land@mississippitoday. org.