This Impact Player Thrives on Contact : Raiders: In linebacker Kelly, a former Jefferson High star, they feel they have added versatility and toughness on defense.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It might have been a non-contact drill, but Raider linebacker Joe Kelly didn't hesitate tackling Nick Bell by the neck during a recent training camp practice.

The tackle upset some of Kelly's teammates on offense, but it underlined why he was signed as an unrestricted free agent this off-season by the Raiders.

"We brought Joe in because we had always heard that he was a tough guy who practiced hard and played hard," said Gunther Cunningham, the Raiders' defensive coordinator and linebacker coach. "There's never been any statement made about Joe Kelly other than positive things."

After being drafted in the first round out of Washington and playing four seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals and three with the New York Jets, Kelly was signed by the Raiders to help fill the void left by the retirement of inside linebacker Riki Ellison.

With Kelly, who has played both inside and outside linebacker during his seven-year NFL career, the Raiders feel they have more versatility and toughness.

"Riki Ellison was a good linebacker for us, but we want to have guys who can play different positions," Coach Art Shell said. "We want our inside guys to be able to move outside and (Kelly) is that type of player."

Kelly, 28, grew up in the Los Angeles area and attended Jefferson High, only a five-minute drive from the Coliseum.

"Growing up where I did made me a tougher person mentally," said Kelly, who recalled times when there was gunfire in the stands and games when opponents' fans would harass players as they walked to the team bus. "You had to be able to deal with a lot of negative stuff and still accomplish what you set out to do and that was to play football."

Fred Small, who played against Kelly in high school and with him at Washington, did not like Kelly when they first met but later learned that he was different.

"My first impression of him was not very good," said Small, who played four seasons in the NFL with Pittsburgh and Atlanta and now is a police officer in Westminster. "We were rivals in high school, and we almost started to fight on the field because he was throwing some cheap shots at me.

"But after I got to know him, I knew that he was a little different because he took care of business and went to school and stayed out of trouble."

Kelly's mother, Mary Heard, moved from Los Angeles to Eugene, Ore., to get away from the violence in their neighborhood after Kelly graduated from Jefferson.

She says that a turning point for Kelly came when his younger brother, Kirk, died in an elevator incident at a kitchen near a construction site. He was accidentally suffocated when an elevator button was mistakenly hit.

"He always was into getting an education, but he really had a focus once his brother died," Heard said. "Because, afterward I moved away from Los Angeles and Joe went to college. Once he was there he was determined to stay on course."

Kelly's childhood friend, Andre Harris, agreed.

"Joe was always good in ball, but when his brother died, you could tell it changed him," said Harris, who played with Kelly at Jefferson. "He made a promise to himself after that to go on, which is exactly what he did."

Kelly, valedictorian of his senior class at Jefferson, went on to play linebacker at Washington, but he never forgot his roots.

Every summer in college, Kelly and Small would work out with kids in their neighborhoods and help out with their high school programs.

"Joe has always been close to the people who he grew up with, and he hasn't changed since he got into the NFL," Small said. "He's not afraid to remember where he's from."

Kelly was a three-year starter at Washington and a Butkus Award finalist his senior year. Then, after being the 11th player selected overall in the 1986 draft, he started for four seasons with Cincinnati at inside linebacker.

Before the 1990 season, Kelly was traded to the Jets, where he started primarily at outside linebacker for two years. He played nine games with New York last season before he had a season-ending ankle injury.

After struggling at the linebacker position last season, the Raiders feel that they have upgraded the position this year with the addition of Kelly and Keith Traylor, who played with the Denver Broncos the last two years.

They join veterans Winston Moss, Anthony Bell, Mike Jones and Aaron Wallace to form a versatile group of linebackers with the same aggressive attitude.

"On defense you really can't take mess from anybody," said Kelly, who will compete with Bell for a starting job. "You have to stand your ground. Your attitude every time you take the field has to be three plays and out."

In training camp Kelly, who has been slowed because of a groin injury, has been impressive.

"He's really done well for us, and we're proud of the way he has responded here," Cunningham said. "He acts like he has been here his whole career.

"The thing that is so great about him is that he is so great in the huddle. On offense you always talk about the quarterback, but on defense it is the guy calling the signals and he does a great job at that."

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