Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly joined the Buffalo Bills on the field Sunday for the national anthem, holding a team hat high in his left hand.
On the other end of the field, as singer Abby Anderson began her rendition, running back LeSean McCoy started to stretch. While at least a dozen members of the Bills elected to kneel for the anthem – a prevalent form of silent protest around the NFL over the weekend that was made in response to incendiary comments from President Trump – McCoy’s actions drew a sharp rebuke from Kelly in a Monday morning radio segment.
"I like LeSean McCoy, don't get me wrong, but I totally, 100 percent I disagree with what he did," Kelly told host Rich Gaenzler during his weekly appearance on 97 Rock. "You want to kneel? Fine. But when you go and do what he did yesterday, that sort of bummed me out. And I lost a lot of respect for him. ... I’m a Buffalo Bill from start to finish, but when people start doing that, that’s when I draw that line.
"You want to kneel? That's your prerogative. I would never do that. I will always stand, thank the good Lord for everything I got. But when you disrespect the way he did and just go by his everyday duty in the national anthem being sung? Uh-uh. I won't go for that."
With that, arguably the greatest player in franchise history – someone who is still employed by the organization as an ambassador – found himself in embroiled in a controversy with McCoy, perhaps the current team’s best player.
Defensive end Jerry Hughes sharply criticized Kelly for his actions Sunday and words Monday.
“I was very disappointed," Hughes said in blunt terms rarely used by NFL players. "I was very disappointed in how he approached the whole situation. Our team came together and we united as a front, as an organization as to how we were going to approach the national anthem. If Jim was going to do what he did then he should have came to the team and let us know his feelings. He should have let us know how he was going to do the national anthem, because we didn't know he was going to be there from the team's perspective."
Hughes continued: “So for him to carry on in this manner, I'm really confused and I'm really upset, because if this is something how he felt and if this is truly what he felt and what was on his heart, he should have came to the team and he should have approached that, instead of making this a public matter, and doing that on his social page. It was not cool. Very unacceptable. If he has things to say about us as a team, come talk to us."
Hughes was referring to Kelly’s post on Instagram Sunday night. Accompanied by a picture of himself raising his hat while the anthem played, Kelly wrote in part: “I don't have all the answers. But I do know that we need to UNITE not SEPARATE. I hope next week we can STAND , LOCK ARMS and become ONE FAMILY.”
Even though I'm thankful the BILLS won today, I'm really upset and sad about what's happening. And I imagine many of you are too. I love the game of football and all that it means to the players, fans and cities across THIS country...but with all that's going on it's hard. The only time I will ever take a knee is to pray and to thank the Good Lord for what he's given me. We all have our issues. We all need to try and appreciate and understand each other and help each other and that goes for our PRESIDENT TOO. I don't have all the answers. But I do know that we need to UNITE not SEPARATE. I hope next week we can STAND , LOCK ARMS and become ONE FAMILY. 👍🙏🏈❤️
Hughes did not hide his anger Monday, openly wondering why Kelly is on the sideline at all.
"Half the time, I don't even realize he's there until it was pointed out yesterday after the display of actions that he did, it was pointed out and brought to my attention,” he said. "I'm not sure I understand it. We are the 2017 Buffalo Bills. We're focused on the future, we're focused on winning games. If he wants to offer anything of encouragement to our team, to our quarterbacks, to our offense, please provide that. We could use all the encouragement we need to figure out how they won games back in those days and be successful as they were.
“But we're trying to bring the team together, we're trying to bring the community together, we're trying to bring a nation together. By dividing us, dividing the team, that doesn't work."
Bills coach Sean McDermott said he had not spoken to Kelly on Monday, and did not plan to. Asked whether he would still be on the Bills' sideline for the anthem at the next home game, the coach said, "You know, that's Jim Kelly. Listen, Jim Kelly is one of the hallmarks of this organization. He is an alum of this organization, this football team. At this point, I don't see that changing."
The Bills held a voluntary team meeting Saturday night that centered on how the organization would handle any protests during the national anthem before the game. While there was no consensus reached about doing something as a team, a team statement said in part "our players have the freedom to express themselves in a respectful and thoughtful manner and we all agreed that our sole message is to provide and to promote an environment that is focused on love and equality."
Less than seven hours after the conclusion of Buffalo’s 26-16 victory over the Denver Broncos, Kelly’s post expressed hope that the team would stand next week – a decidedly different message than the official statement that was issued.
McDermott did his best to distance himself from the controversy Monday.
"We put out a team statement for a reason, and I stick by that," he said. "I stand by that statement, of equality, of love, of unity and I think that's the important part right now. Really, anything in addition to that for us is, we've got to get our focus on our team and the Atlanta Falcons."
Center Eric Wood, a team captain, said there hadn't been many discussions within the team about Kelly's comments, but that he expected them soon.
"I have a lot of respect for Jim, and Shady's very intelligent," he said. "If it needed to happen, they could probably have a conversation and see more eye to eye on the subject."
Does it need to happen?
"Yeah, potentially, you know, if this is going to continue to be an issue, then maybe those discussions will need to happen, for sure," Wood said.
The Buffalo News confirmed late Monday afternoon that Kelly and McCoy had communicated earlier in the day, although details remain unknown. McCoy was not made available to reporters and he did not respond to messages. Calls to Kelly's phone went to voicemail.
Kneeling was a prevalent form of silent protest at NFL stadiums following Trump's remarks at a rally in Alabama, but it wasn’t the only one. Three teams – the Pittsburgh Steelers, Tennessee Titans and Seattle Seahawks – were not on the field as the anthem was performed.
"The flag and the national anthem means a lot, to me, to my teammates,” McCoy said after the game when asked why he did not stand for the anthem. “We had a long meeting Saturday night and I was very bothered the comments of our president of this country. As a president you’re supposed to lead us, you’re supposed to bring us together.
“I can’t stand and support something where our leader of this country is acting like a jerk, angry and upset about NFL players protesting in a peaceful manner. I won’t go to different areas and subjects, but in this country a lot of different things are going on, with people protesting in a violent way. If a guy wants to take a knee or wants to express himself in a different manner, he has that right. And the biggest thing is that it’s in a peaceful manner. ... That really bothered me. I think us as a group, as a team, we want to display that. We come together as a team and show to the world that no matter how different each other person are, we can come together."
Kelly and Trump have known each other for more than 30 years, dating to when the quarterback played for the Houston Gamblers of the United States Football League. Trump owned the New Jersey Generals at the time, and purchased the Gamblers after the 1985 season. The league folded before Kelly would ever play for Trump.
Kelly has been a longtime supporter of the president, who offered the former quarterback a place to stay in New York City while he was going through cancer treatments.
"Everybody has their personal opinions," Kelly said in a January interview on Fox Business' Varney & Co. "I'm not here to say yes or no, but yes, I like Donald. He's been very good to my family. We all make mistakes and I'm sure he's made a few, but I'm happy for him."
Despite their close relationship, Kelly said Monday he agrees with players who were upset with Trump's comments, which included telling league owners, "when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, 'Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out. He's fired. He's fired!' "
"You know what, I am so sick and tired of what’s going on in this country," Kelly said Monday. "Our president needs to focus on other countries, North Korea, Russia and everything else. I promoted, I like Donald Trump. I get sometimes what he says. But sometimes he needs to quit Twitter. He needs to get off of it and focus on what’s going on everywhere else instead of what’s going on in the NFL. It’s driving me nuts, and it’s driving people away from the game of football. It’s having players do things that I feel is unacceptable.
"As a player, I feel what he’s saying is wrong. I do. ... The thing is, the players, you made your point. I get it. I understand. I’m a former player. Black or white, it does not matter. I talked to Marcell Dareus after the game, I talked to Thurman Thomas last night in detail. We get it. We understand. You made your point. I agree. But now it’s time not to disrespect what our country stands for. I do believe we need to lock arms, stand, and realize how blessed we are to be National Football League players and to live in the United States of America. If you don’t think our country is good enough, then leave! Go somewhere else."
Kelly said as he was walking out of New Era Field on Sunday, he saw a person trying to sell a McCoy jersey.
"He goes, 'I’ll get 5 bucks for it,' and nobody was buying it," Kelly said. "I’m like come on Shady, that’s not right, you just don’t do that. But that’s my personal opinion.
"I just pray to God what Marcell said yesterday – finally he’s saying something I agree with – is we need to come together."