SECOND TO NONE WITH PRO FOOTBALL'S HIGHEST HONOR AWAITING HIM, JIM KELLY PUTS SUPER BOWLS AND HIS CAREER IN PERSPECTIVE - The Buffalo News

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SECOND TO NONE
WITH PRO FOOTBALL'S HIGHEST HONOR AWAITING HIM, JIM KELLY PUTS SUPER BOWLS AND HIS CAREER IN PERSPECTIVE

Jim Kelly was in Hawaii for 18 hours, but it seemed like 18 minutes. It was a whirlwind few days in February for the former Bills quarterback, starting with the flight from New Orleans to Buffalo after Super Bowl XXXVI. He was home long enough to kiss his wife and kids before jetting across the country en route to the Pro Bowl.

Kelly had played in five Pro Bowls, but this visit to Honolulu was different. This time, he and the rest of the 2002 Class of Pro Football Hall of Fame electees would be introduced. During his career, he always took a step back and appreciated the Hall's newest members. He thought about their careers, how they earned their day in the spotlight and a place in football history.

In a sense, it took him back to his days as a boy in East Brady, Pa., along the banks of the Allegheny River, where the railroad tracks across town overlooked the playing fields and boys played long after dark. Looking back, it was a slice of heaven, where pro football was little more than fantasy.

Now, it was Kelly's turn. He was joining a select group of modern-day quarterbacks chosen for the Hall on his first ballot. George Blanda. Johnny Unitas. Bobby Layne. Bart Starr. Terry Bradshaw. Roger Staubach. Dan Fouts. Joe Montana. And now Jim Kelly. He could bask in the glory without apology, for this was a day he had worked for all his life.

Kelly had been fitted for the yellow jacket he will wear for the induction ceremony in Canton, Ohio. They were measuring his head and facial dimensions for the bust that will sit inside football's grandest museum. It's the likeness of a young Jim Kelly, one who would never age, never cry, never feel an ounce of pain. It all seemed surreal.

Before reality called from home.

Hunter had taken a turn for the worse. He was being rushed to the hospital. In a matter of seconds, football became minuscule. Touchdown passes and Super Bowls, fame and fortune were trivial with his son again looking into the eyes of death. And just like that, his priorities were back in place.

"Just standing there in the middle of the field when they introduce all the Hall of Fame players is what everybody dreams about," Kelly said. "But when they called me that day, all I was thinking about was trying to find the next flight out. I put everything aside. The Hall of Fame was second to me. I had to be with my son."

James Edward Kelly.

He might not have been the best player in Bills history, but he unquestionably was Buffalo's greatest Bill. He was both the most celebrated and most scrutinized athlete in Western New York history. For 11 years, he led this community on one whale of a journey, the best times this town ever had in athletics.

They say he saved Buffalo, and perhaps it's true, but Buffalo also helped save him. They will forever be linked, no matter where Kelly lands, no matter what Buffalo's future. They celebrated in victory and agonized in defeat. And they will be together again this weekend when Kelly walks into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, surrounded by friends and family and fans.

"It doesn't get any better," Kelly said. "I really haven't had time to think about it. People ask me, "Has it sunk in yet?' Sunk in? What does that mean? My life hasn't changed one bit."

But, oh, how it has.

There are so many layers to him now, strange only because at the core is a simple man often misunderstood. He was a quarterback who played like a linebacker. He was brash and full of sass when he first arrived in 1986, up to his neck in cockiness and over his head in ego. But he was tough, a true competitor, a leader, and, no matter what Super Bowl history shows, a winner.

He's 42 now, the wrinkles in his face more apparent every year, the swagger no longer what it was. We watched him marry a local, the former Jill Waggoner. We watched them raise their daughter, Erin, and suffer through Hunter's illness. We watched them welcome another girl, Camryn, into the world. His basement, once the scene of wild parties, is now the best playroom a child could imagine.

He became what everybody wanted, a good father and respected citizen. Now, 16 years later, it seems people have grown to adore him as much as a man as they did as a player. And that's saying a ton.

"Buffalo was part of his transformation," former center Kent Hull said. "A lot has to do with the humbling the city gave him. If they see him in a bar, they're going to buy him a beer because he's Jim Kelly. But if he turns his nose up at them, they're going to tell him to go to hell. Buffalo, the character of the people there, they don't give a damn who you are. They applaud you, they laud you, and they put you on a pedestal. But if you get out of line, you're right there with them. It was an important part of his transformation."

Kelly's place in the Hall of Fame comes without argument. He's among the best quarterbacks in NFL history, and he led the Bills into the playoffs in eight of his 11 seasons. He completed 60 percent of his passes for 35,467 yards and 237 touchdowns in the NFL. He had another 9,842 yards and 83 TDs in two years in the United States Football League. He was a pioneer in the K-Gun offense, the no-huddle attack that helped the Bills to four consecutive Super Bowls. Forget quarterbacks. He's one of the toughest players in NFL history.

"It's why I still call him Heathcliff," former Bills linebacker Darryl Talley said. "He's a cat who thinks he's a dog."

It started from the day he stepped off the plane and hopped into a limousine headed down the Kensington Expressway for perhaps the most memorable news conference in Buffalo sports history before continuing down the Thruway to Fredonia for training camp. Fittingly, it ends with another ride down the Thruway, from Orchard Park through Western Pennsylvania and into Ohio.

Welcome, Jimbo

Remember, Kelly had shunned Buffalo for the USFL after the Bills made him their second first-round pick (14th overall) in the '83 draft. He was the third of six quarterbacks selected in the first round that year, behind John Elway and Todd Blackledge, ahead of Tony Eason, Ken O'Brien and Dan Marino.

The Bills were drowning in consecutive 2-14 seasons with the likes of Vince Ferragamo, Bruce Mathison and Joe Dufek taking turns behind center. Under first Kay Stephenson and then Hank Bullough, the Bills were an NFL laughingstock. Kelly was off lighting up the USFL for the Houston Gamblers.

Bills owner Ralph Wilson signed Kelly to a five-year deal worth $8 million shortly before the USFL folded in 1986. It was then the biggest contract in NFL history. Fans quickly forgave Kelly for his two seasons in Houston and, on Aug. 18, 1986, gave him the biggest welcome of any newcomer in local sports history. Kelly was going to Buffalo, newsy enough for mention on national television.

Buffalo had arrived.

Fans lined the route from the airport to downtown Buffalo, holding signs and waving flags celebrating his police-escorted arrival. Hull was riding behind the parade in the back of an equipment truck watching the events transpire. Nobody realized how quickly his entrance would gain momentum, how it would affect a starved sports town.

"I look back on it now and look at what Buffalo was going through at the time," Hull said. "You look at Bethlehem Steel and the work crunch. Everybody in Buffalo needed something they could hold onto and rally around. I'm not sure the pope would have got the welcome he got. He was held up as the savior of the franchise. In my opinion, he might have saved Buffalo, the city. I look back on it, and it was like, "Here comes Superman. He's going to put us on the map.' And he did. He actually did it."

What Kelly carried was hope. He was not simply this town's biggest sports figure, but its biggest figure, period. Hope was around for 11 years, and hope had a way of splitting town the day he retired. There will be other sports heroes in Western New York, but there will never be another Jim Kelly.

"I don't think any city has ever rolled out the red carpet for an arriving athlete like Buffalo did for Jim," former special teams ace Steve Tasker said. "Nobody ever welcomed an athlete like that. It's not just that, but he came through. The guy lived up to it. He saved the franchise. I mean, that's unbelievable. He was it from the word go."

Finding his way

Kelly was a great player because he was overflowing with confidence, but the same trait didn't exactly endear him to a blue-collar town overcoming tough times. They cheered him endlessly for his play but were merciless in their evaluations that he thought he was too good, too big, for this town.

For years, Kelly referred to himself in the third person, a major turnoff, and his ego had taken him to lands unknown. He was great on the field, but his act was growing tired in parts of the community. It reached a point where he was holding news conferences to clear up what he said at his previous news conference.

"Being the quarterback in a town like this, there was no doubt (it was too much)," he said. "You can call it cockiness if you want, but for me it was confidence. I was confident of everything I ever did in my life. I was confident I was going to succeed. I didn't care what it was. I was going to succeed - and I wanted to win."

For as much was made about Kelly's money, winning always came first. He asked for and received millions of dollars, but he never missed training camp because of a contract dispute. He made sure his family and close friends benefited from his success. Once, in the early 1990s, he was cleaning his locker and found a paycheck, uncashed from the previous season, worth $120,000. The Bills had to issue him another check because it was no longer valid. For eight months, he didn't realize the money was missing.

Kelly's fierce competitiveness was legendary. He would do almost anything to win. Fans never realized how often he was playing hurt, how many times he played with broken fingers and sore knees, how many painkillers were injected so he could show up on Sunday. There was so much pressure to win that he vomited before every game his first few seasons.

Kelly once suffered a concussion against the Pittsburgh Steelers and refused to leave the field. He called the same play, a run off right tackle, six consecutive times because he couldn't remember any other plays or formations. Thurman Thomas, exhausted, finally realized Kelly was knocked silly. Another time, after getting dinged, Kelly called plays from a previous season.

"Jim was competitive as hell," Talley said. "If we were playing tiddlywinks, he was somewhere in the middle of the pile. If you're racing airplanes, he'd want to get into the airplane race. If you're playing cards, he's in the card game. You name the game and the situation. It was part of his makeup. It was one of his great qualities."

The Bills finished 4-12 his first season, but still there was cause for hope. Kelly completed nearly 60 percent of his passes for 3,593 yards, second most in team history to that point. His 285 completions were a record. He threw 104 passes at one point without an interception. He and Andre Reed were developing a relationship that would make them one of the most dangerous combinations in NFL history.

"Everybody talks about intangibles and what a quarterback needs to have," Reed said. "Jim might not have been able to run, but he had the little intangibles. His leadership was A-No. 1. You knew when he was in the huddle that he was going to get it done no matter what the score was. You knew he was going to take charge. That's what we needed."

The Bills won six times with Kelly in 1987, a season in which a players' strike restricted the regulars to 12 games, but you could sense they were destined for greatness under coach Marv Levy. They began taking off in 1988, when they went 12-4 and lost the AFC Championship Game to Cincinnati.

First, they had to overcome the Bickering Bills saga in 1989, in which Kelly publicly criticized Howard Ballard for missing a block against Indianapolis that resulted in Kelly suffering a shoulder injury. Thomas came to Ballard's defense and ripped Kelly. The Bills finished 9-7, their internal strife stifling great expectations, their season ending after Kelly's pass glanced off Ronnie Harmon's fingertips against Cleveland in a playoff game.

"One of the most often-asked questions asked of me is, "What single quality stands out the most (about Kelly)?' " Levy said. "For a long time, I thought there couldn't be a single quality. It was his toughness, his dedication, his leadership, his ability to relate to his teammates. But then I realized, if I had to pick one, it was his optimism. . . . You can't beat him. You can't defeat him. You might win a game, but he's going to come back."

Kelly came back.

Super Bowl bound

The Bills had success at various times in 1989 and 1990 running a fast-paced attack without huddling. It required Kelly calling his own plays on the run so opposing teams wouldn't have time to make changes in what had become a substitute-happy NFL. The Bills found they had the right quarterback to run the offense in Kelly, who had great instincts and better weapons around him. The No Huddle was born from the K-Gun offense, which included one back, three receivers and one tight end. They went full time with the attack 12 games into the '90 season.

That's when the fun really started.

Buffalo finished 13-3, winning 12 of 13 games before dropping a meaningless finale after earning home-field advantage. Kelly threw 24 touchdown passes that season and just nine interceptions. Reed had 945 yards receiving and eight TDs. Thomas rushed for nearly 1,300 yards. The Bills were virtually unstoppable.

They beat the rival Miami Dolphins in the AFC divisional playoffs before burying the Los Angeles Raiders in the AFC Championship Game. Bills 51, Raiders 3. It was the brightest moment in Buffalo sports history. The Bills were going to Super Bowl XXV.

"You can think about the fun the fans had and multiply it times 10 for the players," Kelly said. "I mean, we won. People thought we partied too much. You know why we partied? Because we won and because we were successful. Damn right we had fun. What did they expect, for us to go home every night and not have a couple beers? It's not my nature. I'm going to be myself. If you don't like it, tough luck. I'm going to do what I have to do, so long as I know my priorities. I knew my priorities."

Giants 20, Bills 19. It was the darkest moment in Buffalo sports history. Scott Norwood's 47-yard field-goal attempt sailed wide right in the closing seconds of the Super Bowl.

Kelly had three other chances to win the Super Bowl, none like his first. The Bills were beaten badly by the Redskins in Super Bowl XXVI, worse by the Cowboys in XXVII and soundly by the Cowboys again in Super Bowl XXVIII. They went to the playoffs again in '95 and '96. Kelly's last game was a 30-27 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars. He left the field on a stretcher, concussed and beaten, his ride out of Rich Stadium much different than his ride into town. He never won a Super Bowl.

"I think about 11 years," Kelly said. "I don't think about four games. If you want to sit in your rocking chair when you get old, think about what could have been, then you're crazy. I think about the great things that happened, the friends I had and the fun times I had. I was just happy to do what we did."

St. Alice, Hunter's hope

Alice Kelly was everybody's mother in East Brady. Kelly says he gets his toughness from her. She raised the six-pack known as the Kelly boys, but she was everybody's mother back home. Kelly's father, Joe, was a machinist at a steel mill and worked odd jobs. He pushed his son through workouts in the backyard, holding lunch or dinner hostage until practice was complete.

"I knew he had the athletic ability, and I knew he was a leader," Joe Kelly said. "I knew it right off the bat in midget football. He had the arm strength, the body strength and the mind to control what he wanted to do."

For years, when he threw a touchdown pass, Kelly would point to his family sitting in their luxury box in Rich Stadium. St. Alice had three heart attacks and emphysema before cancer took her away April 22, 1996, five months before Jim began his final season and 10 months before Hunter entered a world he would never comprehend.

Hunter James Kelly became everybody's son.

"The toughest little boy I've ever seen," Kelly said.

He was born Valentine's Day 1997, Kelly's 37th birthday. The word usually associated with Hunter is "hope," eerie considering it's what his father symbolized 16 years ago. Hunter was destined to catch more passes from Kelly than anyone in history, but he will never catch one. He's 5 1/2 , the oldest living person diagnosed with infantile Krabbe disease. We watched him grow but never walk, breathe but never talk, sleep but never dream the way his father did back in East Brady.

"Jim has learned," his brother Dan said. "With all the great things that happened in his life and all the tragedies he's dealt with, right when you think you have it all, there's something that happens that brings you back to earth. You're not immune to it, and you're not above it all. He's realized that. He's thankful for every day Hunter is on this earth. He knows that without your health, you have nothing."

Kelly had raised nearly $1 million during his career through his annual golf tournament, long before he started a family. There was the Jim Kelly End Zone Club and the Kelly for Kids Foundation. He was the Muscular Dystrophy Association's top humanitarian in 1993, a finalist for NFL Man of the Year in '94 and '95. Hunter's illness sent him on a different mission.

Hunter's Hope was founded in 1997. Kelly made his son a poster boy and has raised more than $5 million for the cause. Most never heard the word "leukodystrophy" before Hunter was diagnosed, but virtually every Bills fan understands what it means now. Kelly has spread the word. He wants people to see his son and, if nothing else, better appreciate their own children.

"The people of Western New York realize what we're focusing on," Kelly said. "In the past, it was Jim Kelly the quarterback. Now, it's Jim Kelly the father."

Headed for Canton

It seems ironic. Kelly is headed for Canton, headed for football immortality, when for the last six years he's humbled by mortality. He was once larger than life in this town. He has a 15,000-square-foot house awaiting him in Virginia, but part of him will always be a Western New Yorker.

What fans came to realize over the years, once they broke through the hardened exterior, was that Kelly was no different than them. He acted like he was on a pedestal because fans had placed him there. He was a proud, hard-working guy who enjoyed a cold beer in the corner bar. He might have been born in East Brady, but there was a sense this Irish Catholic might have been raised in South Buffalo.

"If he wasn't the quarterback on the field, he would have been drunk up in the stands. He was just like them," Tasker said. "It's not just the fact that he's a Hall of Fame quarterback that there are 10,000 people showing up in Canton. It's that he has so many friends, and he never forgets his friends. People respond to that. That's what changed him from the beginning of his career to the end. The relationship he had with the town just got so deep. The superstar thing just got thrown out the window."

Years ago, he wondered whether the people here took the Bills for granted during their glory days, whether they took him for granted. The Bills haven't been the same since he walked out the door, his tears a reminder of a job well done, a thanks to a community for being along for the ride, a community thanking him for the lift.

They will be together this weekend, Kelly the common link between Western New York and Western Pennsylvania, between the worst football this town ever experienced and the best time it ever had. He connects grandmother and grandson, St. Alice looking down from above and Hunter a reminder how lucky we are. Another stage in his life will be complete.

His priorities are in place.

e-mail:bgleason@buffnews.com

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