It seems appropriate that was the fourth alumnus elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. It was, after all, Kelly who quarterbacked the team to an unprecedented four consecutive Super Bowls, a feat never before accomplished by a quarterback or a team. But as significant as that is, it's only one part of his Hall of Fame résumé. There's more.
During his 11 seasons with the Bills, Jim virtually rewrote the team's record book. He led the National Football League in passing in 1990 and the American Football Conference in both 1990 and 1991. At the time of his retirement, his 84.4 passer rating ranked him sixth all-time in NFL history. His 35,467 yards passing ranked tenth, and his 2,874 completions were eighth best. Only Fran Tarkenton, Dan Fouts and Johnny Unitas, among Hall of Fame quarterbacks, had passed for more yardage and only Tarkenton and Fouts had completed more passes. Just three players in NFL history had reached the 30,000-yard career passing mark faster than Kelly. Eight times during his NFL career he passed for more than 3,000 yards in a season, and twenty-six times he passed for more than 300 yards in a game. There's still more.
Five times he was selected to play in the Pro Bowl, and was the Player of the Game in 1991. In 11 seasons in Buffalo, "Machine Gun Kelly" led the Bills to the playoffs eight times. Impressive, yes, but it's still not the whole story.
Veteran Buffalo sports columnist Larry Felser may have best summarized the most important portion the Kelly résumé. "Kelly is not about statistics," he observed. "Never was. was about leadership, true grit, toughness, unlikely comebacks and an ability to convince his teammates that they could win games against formidable odds. His statistics were impressive, but his intangibles are the jewel of his résumé."
The Bills selected the 225-pound rifle-armed passer from the University of Miami in the first round of the 1983 NFL Draft. However, the Miami Hurricane star opted to sign with the Houston Gamblers of the upstart United States Football League. In two seasons with the Gamblers, Kelly threw for 9,842 yards and 83 touchdowns. The USFL folded following the 1985 season, and Kelly, just prior to the start of the 1986 NFL season, signed with the Bills.
Kelly's arrival in Buffalo was met with a sense of optimism not seen since the signing of O. J. Simpson in 1969. In addition to being a proven performer on the field, Kelly was perceived by Bills fans as their kind of guy. "I'm a down-to-earth guy," he told a reporter. "…I'm a guy who knows his roots. I'll always remember where I've been. I'll remember the tough times."
For Kelly, the roots were East Brady, Pennsylvania, where he lived with his parents Joe and Alice Kelly and his five bothers. The Kellys were a close-knit blue-collar family in a blue-collar town. Joe Kelly, loved football and enjoyed watching his sons play. One, Pat, played well enough to play linebacker in the now-defunct World Football League. While all the Kelly brothers played football on some level, it was in young Jim that Joe saw the greatest potential.
"Jim was eight years old when he told me he had this dream of being a pro quarterback, so I told him, 'If you're really serious, you're going to have to work awfully hard,'" Joe Kelly was quoted as saying in a 1986 interview. "Every day during lunch hour Jim would come home and I'd have him practice his drop backs and sprint outs." It was a daily routine that Jim remembers with mixed emotions.
"I regretted it at times," he recalled. "But now, I'm glad my Dad pushed me. He told me I'd thank him some day and he was right."
After an outstanding high school career at East Brady High, Kelly began to hear from interested college recruiters. Several schools, including nearby Penn State, considered Kelly's future to be at the linebacker position. But the strong-armed and strong-willed high school senior knew it was as a quarterback that he wanted to make his mark.
Eventually, the University of Miami offered Jim the opportunity he sought, a chance to play quarterback. Miami coach Howard Schnellenberger called Kelly, "the single most important person in the revival of Miami football." In his first start at quarterback Kelly led the Hurricanes to an upset victory over Penn State. He went on to post a 20-6 record as a starter at Miami.
Kelly's promising pro career, however, nearly ended before it had a chance to start, when he suffered a major shoulder injury in his senior year. "They put three rods in my shoulder," Kelly recalled. "The doctor told me to get it back where it was, I'd have to bust my butt. He said 'If you do it, great. Not many people have.'"
The doctor's pessimism only motivated Kelly. And he had his support group. "My family kept reminding me, 'You're a Kelly. You've been through rougher times than this.'"
Fortunately, his recovery was near perfect and pro scouts began to drool at the prospect of signing the "quarterback with a linebacker's mentality." The Bills got the chance. But the Gamblers trumped the Bills with a then-unheard-of guaranteed contract offer said to be worth in excess of $3 million.
Kelly went on to become the USFL's MVP his first season, passing for more than 5,219 yards and 44 touchdowns. The following season he threw for an impressive 4,623 yards and 39 touchdowns. Still, even the excitement of the Gamblers wide-open passing attack could not save the USFL.
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