ALBANY — Former Albany businessman Brady Keys Jr., a former NFL All- Pro defensive back who in 1967 became one of the first African-Americans to form a national restaurant franchise group, died Tuesday in New York. He was 81.
Keys, a native of Austin, Texas, operated Keys Group in Albany for a number of years and owned radio stations WJIZ-FM and WJAZ-AM in the city. He had nearly a dozen fast-food restaurant franchises before selling most of his Albany holdings around 2002 and moving his operations to Orlando, Fla., where his business had been a vendor at the city's airport since 1992. Keys opened three locations in Orlando in 2002.
According to 1992 Herald articles on Keys, he grew up in a single-parent home in a poor neighborhood. His mother remarried when he was in high school. He played varsity football while still in junior high and, when his family moved to Los Angeles, he became involved in high school sports.
After high school, Keys played semi-pro football and caught the attention of the Pittsburgh Steelers, but opted to attend Colorado State rather than accept a spot on the Steelers' taxi squad. Pittsburgh drafted him in his third year at the college and he was named to the All-Pro team in 1967.
In 1967, with help from the Steelers' owner, he bought his first restaurant, All-Pro Chicken. After two more NFL seasons with the Minnesota Vikings and the St. Louis Cardinals, he left the NFL to pursue a successful business career. Keys joined with Kentucky Fried Chicken to form Brady Keys Fried Chicken that pioneered developing fast-food franchises in inner-city areas. In the early 1980s, KFC bought Keys out in the Detroit market and he relocated to Albany.
In 1982, he formed the Brady Keys Athletic Foundation offering scholarships to Albany State University students, and the next year he launched the Albany High KFC Christmas high school basketball tournament that has continued in Albany under various names.
His business, Keys Group, was featured as the cover story of Black Enterprise Magazine in 1988, and in 1990 he helped form the KEYS (Kids Enjoy Yourself Without Drugs) Kids substance abuse prevention program for elementary students.
In 1992, he formed Keys Communication and bought radio stations WJIZ-FM and WJAZ-AM. When Keys sold the stations five years later, WJIZ had a leading 29 percent prime-time market share in Albany, triple the market share of its nearest competitor. That popularity came even though Keys forbade his DJs to play rap music that included lewd lyrics or incited listeners toward anti-social behavior.
In a 1992 interview with The Albany Herald, Keys explained his position, saying that if a song didn't "fit with my morals and the children of this city don't need to hear it, we won't play it."
In 1994, Keys released a study showing a disparity in local government spending with minority-owned firms. That same year, he conducted buy-back programs in an effort to get guns off the streets of Albany.
In 1997, Keys, who had frequently been mentioned as a possible mayoral candidate, indicated he was starting to look outside the Albany area, foreshadowing his move to Orlando five years later. He stated that Albany media and banks in particular were biased in dealing with African- Americans.
"I am finding other cities embrace me as a black businessman more readily and other cities are less polarized, thus producing a more conducive atmosphere for business," he said in a 1997 Herald interview.
In 2002, Keys worked to bridge the digital divide that already was forming with HIP — Helping Involve Parents for Better Schools — through his Keys Technology group. The system, which could be used through photo or over the internet, allowed students and parents to connect with teachers and schools.
In the 1992 Herald interview, Keys explained his business motivation, saying he had a desire "to take care of people who have helped me get where I am. ... I feel like that's what God wants me to do. I'm not out to make a lot of business conquests. I turn down deals all the time."
He also said he had a strong employee retention rate.
"I don't lose people, they stay with me forever," he said. "With me, you get a chance to make a real difference."