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Mark Kelso '85: Keeping his head, and helmet, in the game

  • Mark KelsoMark Kelso '85 graduated from the College and was originally drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles to play free safety, but wound up spending his entire professional career in Buffalo. Along the way, he and his Bills, achieved something that may never be matched by any team in the National Football League.

    Mark Kelso

Mark Kelso ’85 graduated from the College and was originally drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles to play free safety, but wound up spending his entire professional career in Buffalo. Along the way, he and his Bills achieved something that may never be matched by any team in the National Football League.

Mark Kelso '85“There were years when we didn’t lose a home game,” says Kelso about the teams he played for which reach the Super Bowl four times in a row (from 1990 to 1993). “Just being there four times was pretty special (but) I think that I would have traded those four for a couple of victories.

“It doesn’t come up too often, but with the lack of success recently in Buffalo, people think a lot about those times when the team was perennially good,” he says.

Kelso made his home in the Buffalo area after retiring after the 1993 season, and has since moved into realm of media, helping to give color to Bills’ radio broadcasts. He also serves a local high school as a development officer and has coached both youth football and baseball for some time.

“It’s nice to be plugged into the organization again,” says Kelso of his current role with the Bills. “It’s a lot of fun to be around some of those players. I do have a good relationship with a few of them. And I do like this city a lot and it’s great to be a part of something that is so important to the people who live around here, and the Bills certainly are that.”

One connection that Kelso shares with both the College and the Bills was his head coach while a player in Buffalo. Marv Levy guided the Bills from 1986 to 1997 and coached the Tribe from 1964 to 1968.

“Marv and I used to reminisce about Williamsburg all the time,” says Kelso. “He has a great affection for William & Mary. One of the years that he was at the College we beat the Naval Academy back when they had Roger Staubach and were ranked pretty highly at that point. We’d talk a lot about William & Mary especially on the sidelines during practice or during a light practice on a Friday afternoon.”

To may NFL fans back in his playing days, Kelso was the guy with the “giant helmet.” He played with a “pro-cap,” or an additional layer of foam padding on the exterior of his helmet, which attracted a whole lot of attention. Television commentators used to pause game action to point out and circle the helmet. But Kelso was actually quite grateful for what the extra padding gave him.

“With great encouragement from the medical staff from the Bills, they had me wear something that did not look too fashionable at the time, but they were convinced that it would help alleviate some of the problems I have been having with concussions, and it did,” says Kelso. “I wore it for five years and I would credit it for saving my career.”

And now, as the NFL has tried to make helmet-to-helmet hits a focus, and as concussions have become more widely detected in all levels of football, Kelso and his pro-cap are once again being talked about. This is something which he embraces.

“I try to communicate (to current players) that your long-term health is important,” says Kelso. “I know it’s different when guys get paid, and (Pittsburgh Steelers’ receiver) Hines Ward said that ‘no one forces you to play the game' and that’s true. But we don’t want players, especially younger players, to have any long-term effects due to concussions.

“I think we need to have the best technology on the field and I advocate that players be able to try things that might not look as pretty but are more protective,” says Kelso. “I am trying to coordinate football with the engineering and medical professions and get some better collaboration so that we can produce the best possible helmet that science will allow.”

Kelso is working with a company to develop a new helmet, based on his pro-cap, which would combine the exterior padding into every player’s helmet, hopefully cutting down on concussions.

“Traditional poly-carbonate helmets deflect the impact, while an energy management helmet, or a soft helmet, which was what I wore, would do the same thing, but it’s also got some memory so it can absorb some of the force and prevent it from impacting the skull,” says Kelso. “Theoretically, this could help prevent any concussion symptoms.”

Though Kelso has not been back to campus for a while, he still follows Tribe athletics quite closely, and the recent football success has made him proud.

“The Tribe has a truly great tradition of athletics, and not just football,” says Kelso. “You combine this with the quality of education and it’s an incredible value. Those kids should be recognized as the purest form of student-athlete. You can go to William & Mary, play extremely competitive sports, and get an outstanding education. Some can go on to play in the professional ranks, and some move onto coaching, obviously like (Pittsburgh's) Mike (Tomlin ’95) and Alan Williams ’92 for the Colts and a bunch of other William & Mary guys. In my estimation, you have to give a lot of credit to Coach Jimmye Laycock ’70 that William & Mary football is one of the top-ten programs in the country.”

As far as Super Bowls go -- even the most recent one, where he was friends with Tomlin --  Kelso says that he watches them now strictly for their entertainment value. He wants to see a really good game, one that comes down to the last two possessions.

“I would enjoy that, but I’ll turn it off right before the end of the game. I don’t watch the celebration.”