The campers only know the camp, not the legend that helped build it into a summer staple for so many youngsters in Western New York.
They know Jim Kelly, the teacher of football and life lessons. They don’t know Jim Kelly, the quarterback of all of those great Buffalo Bills teams of the early 1990s.
Their fathers and mothers, grandfathers and grandmothers know that Jim Kelly.
“Some even have told me that their dad has broken out the VHS” tapes of Kelly in action “and put them on,” Kelly said. “I said, ‘You still have a VHS?’ But all these kids here were not here then. They weren’t even born yet.
“But we know about the Bills fans. The fathers are going to tell their kids about the days the Bills were going to the Super Bowl and how much fun it was. When they left on Sunday from here, they knew their Mondays were going to be sunny whether it was raining or snowing. They were going to be happy.”
If you wanted the picture of happiness on Tuesday, all you had to do was look at Kelly as he stood in a corner of the artificial surface inside the ADPRO Training Center at One Bills Drive. In front of him were reporters asking questions about his 28th annual youth football camp. Behind him were the campers, roughly 600 strong, going through a variety of drills on different sections of the field.
Kelly, 55, was beaming. The camp was never something on which he simply slapped his name for the sake of making some easy cash. From the very first one he staged in 1987 at St. Bonaventure University, Kelly has always been fully involved, always making sure that every participant – campers, instructors, and support staff – was doing much more than merely going through the motions.
Kelly, himself, readily jumps into drills, teaching quarterbacks with dreams of one day joining him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame all of the basics – from how to grip the football to how to move their feet. He throws passes (on Monday, Bills senior vice president of communications Scott Berchtold told Kelly he hadn’t seen him throw so much since he was in training camp in the 1980s).
He encourages. He cajoles. Mostly, though, he smiles.
“This is what I look forward to every year, even last year when I wasn’t feeling good at all,” Kelly said.
Last year, Kelly was into the throes of a battle with cancer of the jaw. He was frail and fatigued. He didn’t have the energy to pour every ounce of himself into the camp the way he had the previous 26 years.
Yet, Kelly was there. He might have had to take a nap in a trailer at Sweet Home High School, the camp’s temporary headquarters while Ralph Wilson Stadium was undergoing renovations, but he was there. He was visible. He was making an effort to let the campers know that he had not stopped caring about them.
“The bottom line is you don’t want to let the kids down,” Kelly said. “I was going to be here no matter what. I feel so much better. Last year, I was doing it because I wanted to do it, but really couldn’t do it. This year, I want to do it and I can do it.
“My arm is really sore today, but I feel good. I finally gained some weight, I’m feeling better, and thank the good Lord, I’m still here.”
Camp organizers weren’t exactly sure what to expect this year after a decline in registration in 2014.
This year, the camp sold out as quickly as the days when Kelly played and the Bills were winning. In fact, had the Bills permitted the use of the outdoor practice field, there would have been far more than 600 campers. But they didn’t, citing concerns about damage to the grass.
The excitement surrounding the current Bills team was an obvious factor for the spike in interest in the Kelly camp. However, the main reason is the sense that the franchise’s most iconic figure has responded well to cancer treatments and is looking and sounding more and more like his old self.
“Twenty-eight years and having almost 600 kids, it’s amazing, it really is,” Kelly said. “We almost had 400 bantams. That’s eight-, nine-, 10-year-olds, and that means repeat campers. I have guys that are now coaching and are now officials that were at my camp for 10 or 15 years, ever since they were little boys. And now they’re coaches!
“Some of the parents were at my camp and they have little kids here now. It’s kind of interesting how it all goes full circle.”
Carl Jackson, 14, is a second-year camper from Buffalo. Kelly threw his final NFL pass five years before Jackson was born. But Jackson’s father told him all about the glory days when Kelly was throwing all of those touchdown passes to Andre Reed and handing off to Thurman Thomas.
Jackson also did some research of his own, watching online video highlights of Kelly’s career.
“One of the best quarterbacks to ever play,” Jackson said. “He put up numbers and he helped us get to …” Jackson paused, then turned to look at the giant AFC Championship banners hanging on a wall near the main entrance to the training center before adding, “Four championships that we lost, but we still got to them.”
There are plenty lessons in those and other experiences, on and off the field, and Kelly shares them with the campers in “chalk talk” gatherings. Before the camp is over, fellow former Bills greats Reed and Steve Tasker and Oakland Raiders linebacker Khalil Mack and San Diego Chargers running back Branden Oliver – both former University at Buffalo standouts – will do the same.
“In today’s society, and even in sports now, it’s all about character,” Kelly said. “Of course, you have to have the athletic ability. But when you’ve got the character to back it up, that’s what it’s about. And we try to tell all of these kids that you’ve got to grow up a lot quicker now. It’s not like back when you could get away with things when you were 16, 17 years old. Nowadays, you can’t get away with things when you’re 12 or 13. Yeah, I feel sorry for them, but, hey, that’s part of life.
“The key is, you want the kids to have fun. And I stress to them, ‘I want you to come here and get something out of the camp. I want you to enjoy yourself, number one. Number two is, when you leave here, I want you to make sure you leave with something, whether it’s on the field or in the chalk talk.’”
This is Jackson’s takeaway: “Just to be the greatest – the greatest I can be personally. Just come out here, have fun, have a great time, make friends and learn new things. I feel like” Kelly’s “trying to cooperate with kids and build them to a more successful future.”
That was Kelly’s goal 28 years ago.
That’s what he intends to keep delivering to youngsters every summer.
“I want to continue to do this forever,” he said. “As long as I can continue going out there and being a part of it, I will do it.”