Gold Jacket Spotlight: Kellen Winslow went from 'chess nut' to 'all-world'

After several years of coercing from East St. Louis High School football coach Cornelius Perry, and receiving permission from his parents, KELLEN WINSLOW joined the football team entering his senior year.

Prior to that, Kellen filled his time working at United Parcel Service part time to earn money for college, and he enjoyed playing chess. In fact, he enjoyed the challenge of chess so much he and his friends wore T-shirts imprinted with "Chess Nuts."

In the 1982 story "Kellen Winslow Knows Who He Is," Perry recalled, "We’d been after him since he was a freshman. From what I saw of him in my gym class, I realized that he had all the tools, the potential to be a great athlete. We thought if we could get him out there the sky would be the limit."

Perry once told Kellen, "You belong on a football field whether you know it or not."

Kellen’s journey from football latecomer to Pro Football Hall of Fame member is recalled this week in the Gold Jacket Spotlight.  

Following a successful collegiate career at the University of Missouri and a last-second draft day trade with the Cleveland Browns, the San Diego Chargers selected Kellen in the first round of 1979 NFL Draft.

"It isn’t often," said Gene Klein, Chargers owner at the time, "that you get the best player in the draft without your team having the worst record."

The Browns had selected future Pro Football Hall of Fame tight end OZZIE NEWSOME in the 1978 NFL Draft. Reflecting on the 1979 trade with San Diego, former Browns coach Sam Rutigliano acknowledged, "We could have had two of the greatest tight ends in the history of the NFL."

Chargers wide receiver coach Ernie Zampese added, "If Kellen went to another team, no matter what kind of offense it had, he simply would be the best tight end in football."

In a "Salute to Champions" story provided by "Chargers Football Weekly" in 1995, Winslow’s efforts and impact on the tight end position were compared to Hall of Fame tight end MIKE DITKA'S influence.

"If I defined the position, then he redefined it," Ditka said. "There’s only one Kellen Winslow every 50 years."

Don Smith wrote in the "Coffin Corner" publication, "Although he was listed as a tight end, Winslow was used in many ways, particularly early in his San Diego tenure when the Chargers were stunning their foes with a seemingly unstoppable attack. Kellen sometimes lined up as wide receiver, slot back, man-in-motion and even on occasion at halfback. The defense never knew from where he was coming from or where he was going." 

Kellen played at such an elite level throughout his career that legendary sports announcer Howard Cosell referred to him as "All-World."

While Kellen played nine NFL seasons and was selected to five Pro Bowls by his peers, he arguably is known best for his performance in a 41-38 overtime playoff victory against the Miami Dolphins in January 1982. 

Kellen amassed 13 receptions for 166 yards, a divisional playoff game record at the time, scored a touchdown and blocked Miami’s game-winning field goal attempt near the end of regulation.

Exhausted yet continuing to play with a shoulder ailment and a split lip that would require stitches, Kellen earned the respect of players and fans for his valiant effort.

"I guess it was the most dramatic game I’ve ever played," Kellen offered, "but I don’t think it was the best game I’ve ever played."

Enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1995 as the fourth tight end to earn a Gold Jacket, Kellen was selected to the NFL’s All-Decade Team of the 1980s, the NFL’s 75th Anniversary All-Time Team and the NFL 100 All-Time Team.

"The one thing I always wanted to do was to give my parents a reason to be proud of me, outside of the fact that I was their son," he said. "I tried very hard to do that on things I did on the field and off the field."