The face of 'The Brawl'

The face of 'The Brawl'

Former Clemson running back Yusef Kelly (right) kicks a USC player during the infamous brawl that marred the Tigers' 2004 victory.

As Yusef Kelly pulls the squad car out of the Easley Police Department parking lot, past an adjacent graveyard, across railroad tracks and onto Main Street, his presence encourages order. The 32-year-old veteran cop knows each dutiful shift will bring recognition, sometimes for the badge and often from acquaintances in this Pickens County town between Greenville and Clemson.

But usually it's about The Picture.

"Most of the time, that's how people start introducing me," said Kelly, a Walterboro High School graduate. "It's like, 'Hey, do you remember that picture of the Clemson player kicking the South Carolina player in the head? That's him right there.' "

Palmetto State football fans won't forget the name attached to an enduring photo that captured one of the ugliest moments in the South Carolina-Clemson football rivalry.

Kelly was "Clemson's No. 5, kicking a defenseless South Carolina player" in newspapers across the state and beyond, including the New York Times and Washington Post. The photograph was taken during a brawl that marred the Tigers' 29-7 victory over the Gamecocks in 2004.

Widespread fighting broke out on an overcast afternoon at Death Valley with 5:48 remaining in the game and lasted for more than 10 minutes. Law enforcement personnel had to intervene. No players were seriously hurt in the melee, but national embarrassment made administrations at the two schools ban their football programs from 2004 bowl trips.

A decade ago, Kelly had no regrets for his actions, immediately called "unacceptable" by Clemson Athletic Director Terry Don Phillips.

Now he's a 32-year-old married father of two children. Kelly formally apologized to Clemson, and Phillips, in 2005.

"We should have controlled our actions," Kelly said this week.

The Brawl resulted from a combustible confluence:

Some Gamecocks, frustrated by a 63-17 home loss to Clemson in 2003 and the resignation of head coach Lou Holtz the week before, came looking for trouble. A few players waited at the base of The Hill to wave the Tigers down for their traditional entrance.

"You probably shouldn't announce your retirement the week that you're playing your rival," Kelly said. "I just felt like their players were like, 'If he isn't going to be here, he can't punish us.' But, at the same time, there were cheap shots thrown back and forth on both sides throughout the game."

The NBA's Indiana Pacers and Detroit Pistons were involved in a brawl that spilled into the stands the night before. That incident was the lead sports story around the country on the morning of the game.

"(The Clemson and South Carolina players) watched it and watched it," Clemson coach Tommy Bowden said right after the game. "You know they did."

An SEC officiating crew completely mismanaged the game, failing to properly address unsportsmanlike conduct activity that took place early and often.

"They didn't punish anybody," Kelly said. "If something happened, it was just off-setting penalties, so no one really got punished."

The tipping point was a hit on South Carolina's Syvelle Newton. Clemson defensive lineman Bobby Williamson admittedly roughed up the South Carolina quarterback after an incomplete pass, wrestling began and sidelines emptied.

Kelly left the bench area with peacemaking in mind but was punched and choked from behind by South Carolina offensive lineman Woodly Telfort, as clearly seen in brawl video.

"Believe it or not, I was actually fully surrounded (by Gamecocks) just before that picture was taken," Kelly said. "Then it was like the gates opened up and the guy was on the ground in front of me."

Kelly said Telfort was swinging his helmet "trying to hit people."

"That's why his helmet was off," he said. "I remember him grabbing me by my neck and shaking me. Then another Clemson player hit him and that's how he ended up on the ground. And then I saw the helmet rolling and as I went to get it, I tried to kick him before I picked it up."

Ken Ruinard of the Anderson Independent-Mail was there to take one of the most unique photos in college football history.

"Perfect timing for him," Kelly said.

After briefly admiring the shiny black helmet with a distinctive block "C" and Gamecock logo, Kelly showed it off in the end zone. Fans cheered as he heaved the thing into the student section on The Hill.

The helmet toss comes up almost as often as The Picture. Kelly was in the Bi-Lo on Highway 123 in Easley a few years ago when a woman gleefully approached.

"Do you know me?" she said.

Kelly: "Uh, no."

Glee persisted.

"Me and my daughter were the ones that got that Gamecock helmet when you threw it into the stands," she said.

Kelly, a 2003 Clemson graduate, has been with the Easley Police Department for over five years.

Sometimes he tickets Gamecock fans, and talks football when they ask about the brawl.

"They just make the usual Clemson-Carolina jokes," Kelly said. "We just laugh it off and have a good time with it. Nothing serious."

As familiar as Yusef Kelly has become within the state's biggest football rivalry, he's still Keith Kelly to many friends from Walterboro. He asked to be known as Yusef - his actual first name - while at Clemson.

"It was part of a Marketing class where we had a project on how to market ourselves," Kelly said. "I figured I'd go by my first name, since not many people knew what my first name was."

A lot of people know now.

The Picture will stay with Yusef Kelly forever, even as he talks to school children - which he has done on several occasions - about the importance of sportsmanship, law and order.

"Looking back, it's funnier now than it was then," he said. "But it should have never happened."

Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff

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