This story was originally published April 26, 2014.
EAST BRADY, Pa. — Chris Weibel wanted Jim Kelly’s life.
Weibel grew up 15 years behind Kelly in this tiny borough tucked inside an elbow of the Allegheny River. Weibel played quarterback, too, and admired Kelly’s implausible journey from East Brady to the University of Miami to the Buffalo Bills to four straight Super Bowls to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
East Brady is a dot on the map an hour northeast of Pittsburgh. There are no stop lights. There isn’t a grocery store. The nearest McDonald’s is 13 miles away.
At the Old Bank Deli & Coffee Shoppe, where the vault now holds a stash of restaurant supplies, folks chatted recently about bears rummaging about and debated whether they needed to keep their dogs indoors.
“Other than for Jim Kelly, nobody would know where in the hell it was at,” Weibel said of East Brady. “You’ve got to know how to get there. You’ve got to want to get there.”
East Brady’s population is around 940 today and has declined every decade since it peaked at 1,563 people in 1930.
The East Brady Bulldogs provided a cherished diversion. They were the smallest school in the Little 12 Conference. Everybody had to play offense and defense. Graham Field didn’t have the lights to play on Friday nights. Saturday afternoons in autumn were reserved for football.
“If you weren’t at the football game,” Weibel said, “something was wrong.”
Weibel hoped to hit it big, too. When an elementary teacher assigned students to write a paper on their idols, Weibel visited Kelly’s home on Purdum Street and marveled at the trophy room.
Weibel played only his sophomore season for East Brady High. The school closed because of declining enrollment. But in that one year he broke many of Kelly’s records.
One of Weibel’s prized possessions is the front page of a local sports section. Above the fold is a photo of Kelly with the Bills. Below is a shot of Weibel playing for Division II Clarion University.
“Two guys from the same small town that graduates 35 students a year,” Weibel said. “That was one of the days I was most proud of where I’d gotten.”
Weibel didn’t reach the NFL like his hero did. Even so, he’d be considered the most accomplished athlete from most any other town.
He broke all of Clarion’s most meaningful career passing records, was an All-American and played professionally five years in the arena leagues. He is Clarion’s offensive coordinator and has coached there for 10 years.
The year Weibel graduated from high school, Kelly played in his fourth Super Bowl, had appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated many times and was cashing gigantic paychecks.
Kelly seemed to have the world by the scruff of its neck.
Now, he’s undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatment for cancer throughout his head and in his darker moments contemplates being reunited with his late son, Hunter.
Weibel certainly wouldn’t change spots with Kelly anymore.
“The things he’s been through in his life I wouldn’t wish on anybody,” Weibel said. “A lot of people might think, ‘Yeah, I want to be like him and make millions of dollars and play in the Super Bowl.’ That’s all fine and dandy.
“But if you had to take the other part of it, too, would you do it?”
East Brady’s Jimmy
In East Brady, vivid memories blend with sobering medical updates.
Eyes turn glassy when talking about their Jimmy.
Yes, the world got Jim Kelly, but Jimmy still belongs to East Brady.
“He never forgot where he came from, and East Brady has pride in knowing that kid came from here,” said Dave Kerschbaumer, the Bulldogs’ quarterback once Kelly graduated.
“When he comes back here, it’s not, ‘The great Jim Kelly’s in town.’ It’s, ‘Hey, Jimmy’s back.’ ”
East Brady is breathtakingly picturesque, though not a place people happen upon accidentally. Rural roads with G-force climbs, dips and hairpin turns meander through densely wooded hills, along fields filled with livestock, past cascading creeks.
State Route 68 provides the only two ways into East Brady by car, across the new Allegheny bridge or down the steep grade that occasionally doomed a runaway truck to the river. Drivers who don’t lose their brakes would notice a large sign on that hillside:
“Welcome to East Brady: Home of Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly.”
Kelly is wearing his Bills’ blue home uniform in two photos. On the left, he’s raising both index fingers toward the sky. On the right is an action shot of Kelly about to throw downfield. Logos from the Bills’ four Super Bowls adorn the bottom.
“Even to make it to a Division I school, that’s unbelievable,” Kelly’s high school coach and close friend, Terry Henry, said. “As a coach you just hope to play well enough to win.
“To have a kid make it to the Hall of Fame from a school like this? That’s just against all odds.”
Henry was scanning what used to be Graham Field on a recent spring morning. Henry, retired from coaching after 24 years at area high schools, stopped to reminisce before driving to New York City with his wife, who is Kerschbaumer’s sister.
The Henrys that afternoon were headed to see Kelly at Lenox Hill Hospital, where he was being treated for a recurrence of sinus cancer. Kelly returned to Western New York last weekend.
“There’s a lot of good memories here, a lot of good friends,” Henry said.
Graham Field is situated beneath a grassy slope with embedded bleachers. The ground drops off again on the far side of the field, down to the old Rex-Hide rubber factory along the river.
Workers would come out to the loading docks, gather at the fence and climb atop the warehouse roof to watch the Bulldogs play.
“The bleachers would be full,” Henry said. “This hillside would be completely covered.”
Industries around East Brady came and went over the years.
Coal mining operations opened and closed.
Brady’s Bend Works made railroad steel and had 1,300 workers before barons sucked up all the business. The stone furnaces are ruins protected by the National Register of Historic Places.
Rex-Hide made rubber for trucks and reportedly employed 15 percent of East Brady before the company moved away.
Perhaps East Brady’s most reliable industry was the Kelly family.
The patriarch, Joe Kelly, was raised at the Holy Family Institute orphanage in Emsworth, Pa., joined the Navy at 17, served in World War II and married Alice soon after. They settled briefly in West Deer, a Pittsburgh suburb about nine times the size of East Brady.
Jimmy was 7 years old when the family moved into the yellow, two-story house on Purdum Street. Joe Kelly liked East Brady’s rural setting and wanted to be closer to Daman Industries, the steel fabricating plant where he worked as a machinist. Alice Kelly eventually took a job in the school cafeteria.
The Kellys had six children, all of them boys, all of them stars for the Bulldogs. The oldest, Pat, played linebacker for the University of Richmond and was drafted by the Baltimore Colts in 1974.
Little 12 Conference coaches finally exhaled when the youngest Kellys, twins Dan and Kevin, graduated with league football championships and a state basketball title. East Brady renamed Broad Street to honor the entire family. The main drag now is Kellys Way, not Kelly’s Way.
“This is little East Brady,” Kelly family friend Art Vasbinder Jr. said from behind the bar of his restaurant, Bachelor’s II, just across the bridge. “When other towns should have been beating us, we were kicking their asses.”
Kelly earns his accolades
The Kelly boys lumped up each other at home as much as they did the Little 12 Conference.
They stapled modified Clorox bottles to the wall and used rolled-up socks for basketballs. Wiffle Ball tournaments in the side yard could turn heated. They would try to outdo each other and their buddies by climbing as high as they could up the iron truss and plunging into the Allegheny.
Like most everybody else in East Brady, the Kelly boys knew they didn’t have much. Kids from rival schools called people from East Brady “river rats.” A greater pride seemed to swell because of it.
“People put in an honest-day’s work for an honest-day’s pay,” said Kerschbaumer, the girls basketball coach at Karns City High, East Brady’s archrival before they consolidated. “That’s what you’re expected to do. You don’t get anything for free. If you got something out of here, you earned it.”
In remote locales where steel-toed boots wait by the door and dinners too often consist of hot dogs and beans, you compete with the next town over in sports, on jobs, for girls.
Jimmy Kelly always grabbed more trophies than the rest.
When he was 10 years old, he reached the Punt, Pass & Kick national semifinals in San Diego. He played center and power forward for the Bulldogs basketball team and became the first in school history to record 1,000 points and 1,000 rebounds.
If East Brady had been large enough to offer baseball or track, then Kelly likely would’ve dominated those sports, too. Football was Kelly’s ticket, running Henry’s veer offense to near-perfection in the late 1970s.
As a junior, Kelly was all-conference at quarterback, linebacker, kicker and punter. As a senior, he was all-conference at quarterback, safety and kicker. The Little 12 voted him Back of the Year both times.
But small-town heroes have been crushing overmatched opponents forever. Most don’t deserve Division I scholarships. Many wouldn’t crack the starting lineup at the nearby Catholic school or anyplace with more than one bus.
And Kelly wasn’t too easy to find.
“He was somebody you had to go dig up and see, look at whatever tapes his school had and the opposing schools had,” said Ron Marciniak, the University of Miami assistant who landed Kelly and later scouted 25 years in the NFL.
Marciniak, a Pittsburgh native, was responsible for recruiting that area. A UM alum who lived in Western Pennsylvania and saw Kelly play contacted the Hurricanes football office. Marciniak followed up on the tip and loved what he saw.
“The way he stood in the pocket, the way he commanded the huddle, the way he took charge of the football team,” Marciniak said from his home in Ocala, Fla. “He could play a whole game on offense and defense, and it didn’t affect him.
“You can read toughness. You can read arm strength. You can see decision-making. His academic grades were high. He had size, leadership, arm strength and the ability to run.”
Marciniak’s first visit to East Brady was surreal. Strangers easily get spotted in towns that size. A group of children noticed when Marciniak pulled in. They wanted to know what he was looking for. He asked where Jim Kelly lived.
“That was like saying, ‘Do you know where the Lord’s at?’ ” Marciniak said. “They got in front of me like a bunch of pied pipers and, going about 3 mph, they took me about a half block away right to his porch.”
Marciniak learned that while not many schools were in hot pursuit, the ones that were carried cachet: Penn State, Notre Dame and Tennessee.
Kelly grew up a Penn State fanatic, but Joe Paterno wanted him to play linebacker. Kelly passed and committed to Miami.
More than a football player
Back at Bachelor’s II on a recent Saturday afternoon, talking about Kelly’s diagnosis made everybody sentimental. This is his haunt when he comes home, where he comes to just be Jimmy again.
Shots of chilled Crown Royal were poured. When Kelly was still hospitalized in Manhattan, a toast was made to his health.
“We never drank Crown until Jimmy got us on it,” somebody howls. Vasbinder opens a cabinet behind the bar to reveal a mound of the trademark purple sacks Crown Royal comes in.
Kelly has given back to East Brady and has taken care of his friends. He brought Coach Henry on 28 Super Bowl trips. A few feet from the Brady’s Bend Iron Works historical marker is Jim Kelly Baseball Field, which he paid for.
“He’s an institution for sure,” said Vasbinder, one of Kelly’s youth basketball coaches. “He’s treated everybody well.”
One customer ordered Kelly’s favorite dish, fried smelts. Tales – some taller than others – flew around the room. Jokes were aimed at everyone as more Crown Royal and bottles of Iron City Beer were served.
“If you’re not getting your feelings hurt, then you’re not paying attention,” Kerschbaumer said.
A few minutes later, Vasbinder offered a similar sentiment: “If you don’t have fun in Brady, it’s your own fault.”
On one barstool was Eric “Pirate” Valetti. He got the nickname from the time, on a whim not even he can explain, he stumbled upon a costume shop selling pirate outfits at half price. Valetti bought one and soon was floating, in full regalia, in an inner tube along the Allegheny. A sword was his paddle.
An astonished observer in a nearby boat yelled at Valetti to come aboard and have a drink. The boat was Henry’s, and Kelly happened to be there. The absurdity of it all and the fun that ensued drew Valetti permanently into Kelly’s hometown circle.
Valetti, 36, didn’t consider football a way of life like Weibel did, but Valetti used to pretend he was Kelly in the backyard. Valetti threw imaginary game-winning touchdowns to Andre Reed. “I watched him play and knew all his stats,” Valetti said, “but he means more to me than that now.
“When my phone rings and I see it’s from Jim Kelly, I cherish that. He’s more of a person to me than he ever was a football player, and he was a great football player.”
Kelly used his contacts to help some goofball in a pirate costume set up a business that installs granite countertops.
“He just treats people unreal,” Valetti said. “He’s 10 times the person than he was a football player. I wake up every morning and go to work, thinking to myself, ‘If it wasn’t for Jim Kelly, I wouldn’t be in this position.’ “
Everybody in the room conceded, despite all the glamour and money, Kelly deserves a break.
They think about his son, Hunter, who died at 8 from a nervous-system disease in 2005. They think about the time Kelly survived a water landing while on an Alaska hunting trip in 2000. They think about the surgeries and the plates and the screws holding parts of his body together.
They can’t recall his mother without her oxygen tank. She had emphysema, battled cancer and died of a heart attack in 1996. She’s buried in St. Eusebius Cemetery on a hillside. Joe Kelly, who moved to Western New York a few years ago, has a plot waiting beside her.
The headstone reads: “Families are built on love and faith.”
People have been stopping by Bachelor’s II to have Vasbinder pass along their regards to Kelly. Vasbinder had a card behind the bar to send.
“I’ll just tell him, ‘We got your blindside; we got your back,’ ” Vasbinder said.
Inside the card, Vasbinder taped a red free-drink chip for when Kelly comes back.