As 70,000 chilled-to-the-bone spectators at Highmark Stadium in Orchard Park, N.Y. looked on in early January, Jim Kelly grabbed the microphone from longtime Buffalo Bills teammate Thurman Thomas. Clad in a blue, No. 17 Josh Allen jersey, the legendary quarterback invoked the familiar pep-talk words of his former coach, Marv Levy.
“Where would you rather be,’’ Kelly boomed over the loudspeakers, “than right here, right now?”
Had there been a roof on the stadium it surely would have blown off.
The current-day Bills then proceeded to turn in a performance reminiscent of Kelly’s glory days, as Allen threw five touchdown passes in a 47-17 rout of Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots — a team that had owned Buffalo and the AFC East for nearly two decades.
“That was a special moment for me, for sure,’’ Kelly said afterward. “Of course, it’s always special when I’m in that stadium in front of Bills Mafia.”
It’s hard to believe now, given the enduring love affair between Kelly and Bills fans, but there was a time when he would have given anything to be anywhere but Buffalo. In fact, he cried tears of sadness not joy when the Bills drafted him in the first round in 1983. He was so intent on not playing for them that he signed a contract with the upstart United States Football League and played two years with the Houston Gamblers. Even after the league folded in the summer of 1986, Kelly continued to diss Buffalo, telling the Bills to trade him to a contender like the Oakland Raiders or Pittsburgh Steelers, or he’d sit out the entire season and become a free agent.
Fortunately, for him — and the Bills — owner Ralph Wilson didn’t listen to his demands.
Instead, he and general manager Bill Polian convinced Kelly to sign a five-year, $8.5-million contract, at the time the most lucrative deal in NFL history. In the first week following Kelly’s signing, the Bills sold an additional 10,000 season tickets. And after a few rough seasons, Kelly delivered on his promise to take the Bills to the Super Bowl.
He would take them to four, in fact, and although Buffalo lost each of them, Kelly and his teammates would come to be admired over time for their resilience and perseverance. No team has ever matched that feat of four straight appearances, and it’s a big reason Kelly, Thomas, Levy, Wilson, Polian, Bruce Smith and Andre Reed have busts in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.
“As I learned back in 1986, sometimes the best thing that can ever happen to you is not getting what you want,’’ Kelly said.
A NEW MISSION
Interestingly, the bond between Kelly and one of sport’s most passionate fan bases has only grown stronger since his retirement following the 1996 season. Part of it has to do with his Hall of Fame career. He truly saved the franchise at a time when interest in the team had plummeted to an all-time low. And his legacy only grew in stature as the Bills cycled through 17 different “err apparents” before discovering Allen, who in four seasons has established himself as an MVP-caliber QB and has developed a special relationship with Kelly.
But much of it also has to do with the remarkable courage Kelly has displayed while battling so much adversity since retiring. Whether it was the tragic, premature death of his son Hunter to a horrible neurological disease or Kelly’s numerous major surgeries and near-fatal struggles with cancer, he’s been forced to overcome obstacles far more daunting and significant than fourth-and-long. He has lost count of how many operations he’s undergone and how many metal pins and plates he’s had inserted into his body.
“After my second ankle replacement last fall, my brother Ray and I sat at the kitchen table one night and started adding things up,’’ Kelly said. “I think it was something like 17 surgeries. And as far as the metal, I now call myself the ‘Titanium Man.’”
As a quarterback, Kelly was known for his toughness. That toughness, though, has taken on a whole new meaning since leaving football.
“There’ve been times when I’ve said, ‘Dear Lord, enough’s enough,’’’ said Kelly, a devout Christian. “But the great thing about it is that when I’ve faced some really, really hard times, I’ve always had people showing up to help me out. My wife, Jill. My daughters. My brothers. Friends. Even total strangers. I know how good that made me feel. So, I want to give that same support and feeling of hope to other people.”
And that’s why he devotes so much of his time traveling the country, delivering motivational speeches and talking one-on-one to people battling cancer or some other crisis.
“This has become my main mission in life,’’ he said. “I have a saying, ‘Make a difference today for someone fighting for their tomorrow.’ That’s my goal in a nutshell. I’ve met so many people through my travels who are ready to give up. I understand completely where they are coming from. I try to share my story in hopes of convincing them to keep plugging along. I didn’t understand it before, but, over time, I’ve come to believe this is why I’ve had to go through much of the stuff I’ve been through. I’m meant to use my experiences to help others. I want to be a difference maker.”
In 2018, ESPN presented Kelly with the “Jimmy V Award for Perseverance,” named in memory of late college basketball coach Jim Valvano, who, while dying of cancer, gave his famous, inspirational speech encouraging people “to never, ever give up.”
Kelly clearly embodies Valvano’s spirit and mantra. The Hall of Fame quarterback’s speaking engagements, along with his work with his Kelly For Kids and Hunter’s Hope foundations, are making differences in the lives of many.
“Everybody’s dealing with something,’’ he said. “And everybody has the power to help out those who are struggling.”
Kelly, who turns 62 on Valentine’s Day, attends about six or seven card shows a year, and enjoys them because they give him a chance to interact one-on-one with fans and connect with other sports celebrities. A native of East Brady, Pa., a dot-on-the-map, coal town 70 miles north of Pittsburgh, Kelly grew up rooting for the Steelers, and he’ll never forget the thrill he felt when he met his idol, Terry Bradshaw, the first time.
“I was 10-years-old and had won a Punt, Pass & Kick competition, and Terry was there to congratulate the winners,’’ he recalled. “He signed a program for me, and it was like someone had handed me a hundred-dollar bill. The other thing I remember is that you could read his autograph. That’s not always the case with athletes’ signatures today.”
That’s one of Kelly’s pet peeves. He hates autographs that are scribbled and incomprehensible.
“I remember my Dad telling me, ‘Jim, if you ever become famous, make sure you sign like you are proud of your name and make sure you sign so that kids can read it,’’ Kelly said. “That’s what I try to do, even during those long sessions when I’ve been signing stuff for hours and hours.”
Kelly is a collector, too, and early in his playing career, he began trading game-used jerseys and equipment with other athletes. His collection is so huge that much of it is in storage. In addition to jerseys from the likes of Dan Marino, John Elway, Joe Namath and Tom Brady, he has game-worn sneakers from Michael Jordan and Shaquille O’Neal. (Shaq’s shoes, by the way, are size 23s.) One of Kelly’s most prized and unique collectibles is a signed guitar used in concerts by rock star Eddie Van Halen.
Kelly fans will find his memorabilia quite affordable, especially his football cards. At the high end, though, is his 1984 Topps USFL rookie. A mint condition, grade 10 version of that card recently was listed on eBay for $5,995.
“Here’s a funny story about that,’’ he said, chuckling. “When I was getting ready to move from Houston to Buffalo in 1986, I probably threw out about 100 of those rookie cards. Ten years later, I saw they were through the roof. Foolish me.”
“Through the roof” is an apt description for some of Josh Allen’s memorabilia, too. Last March, his 2018 National Treasures card with an NFL jersey patch fetched $210,330 at Goldin Auctions. And if the 25-year-old quarterback’s career continues to ascend the way it has the past two years, his collectibles could soar to even greater heights.
No one is happier about Allen’s rapid rise on the field than Kelly, who took the young man under his wing shortly after the Bills selected him seventh overall in the 2018 NFL draft. The two have spent a lot of time together since, and Allen appreciates the friendship and mentorship.
“It’s been great to have someone of Jim’s stature teach me the ropes,’’ he said. “He’s counseled me about football things, like not trying to be a hero on every play and about taking what the defense gives you. But it goes beyond football. He told me to embrace Buffalo and its people and its food and its traditions, and I’ve tried to do that. He’s really helped me develop not just as a player but as a person, too. I couldn’t have asked for a better role model.”
Allen already had obliterated Kelly’s single-season club records, and the Hall of Famer’s career marks of 237 touchdown passes and 101 wins as a starter figure to go by the wayside, too, down the road. That’s fine with Kelly, who played in an era when passing was more difficult because rules didn’t protect quarterbacks and receivers the way they do now.
“The kid’s a hell of an athlete, blessed with great size (6-foot-5, 237 pounds) and a great arm,” Kelly said. “I just enjoy watching him. The play’s never over with him. You never know when he’s going to take off running, which has to scare the hell out of those defenders trying to tackle him. There are a lot of very good quarterbacks in the league. But there’s only one Josh Allen. He can do it all.”
And Kelly likes the way Allen performs off the field, too. The young quarterback’s philanthropy includes raising more than a million dollars for a Buffalo children’s hospital where Hunter Kelly spent much time.
“Josh has a huge heart,’’ Jim said. “He’s done an awful lot for Hunter’s Hope and Kelly for Kids. Whatever we’ve asked him to do, he’s been there. He’s just a quality individual.”
No one is rooting harder for Allen to bring a Lombardi Trophy to Buffalo than Kelly, who occasionally still loses sleep over his and his teammates big-game futility.
“I don’t like to talk about them winning the Super Bowl because I don’t want to jinx them,” he said. “But if that were to happen, that would be awesome. Not only for the players, but for the fans who have stuck with the team since way back in the day. Bills Mafia so deserves this.”
It would touch off a celebration to end all celebrations in Buffalo — a place Kelly once wanted nothing to do with but has come to love.
— Nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the best-selling author of more than 25 books, including several on the Buffalo Bills. They can be purchased at amazon.com.
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