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Kelly, Jim

Jim Kelly

1960-

American football player

Although Jim Kelly led his team, the Buffalo Bills, to a record-setting four consecutive Super Bowls, he never won the NFL's championship game. Kelly's standing in the eyes of his colleagues and fans, however, was never affected by his failure to win the big game. His record on the field and off was nearly universally respected. Born outside Pittsburgh in an area known for producing legendary quarterbacks, Joe Namath and Johnny Unitas were among the many, greatness was Kelly's dream from the beginning.

Born James Edward Kelly on February 14, 1960, in East Brady, Pennsylvania, he was the fourth of six sons. His father, a machinist, often held multiple jobs in order to provide for his family. Although money was tight, Kelly learned the value of hard work and soon began contributing with the money he earned cutting grass and shoveling snow. Typical young boys, the Kelly's played sports year round and eventually five of the six would go on to play college football.

Early Excellence

Kelly excelled almost immediately. At the age of ten he nearly won the national Punt, Pass and Kick competition.

In high school, he was a star on both the basketball and football teams. He led the football team at East Brady High to two state championships and had his jersey retired after graduation. Although he was recruited by Penn State's legendary coach Joe Paterno , Kelly chose the University of Miami where he would be able to play quarterback rather than linebacker, which Paterno had suggested.

Once at Miami, it didn't take very long for Kelly to assert himself. Ironically, his first start, in the eighth game of his first season, came against his hometown favorite Penn State. After leading his team to a 26-10 upset, Kelly was made starting quarterback the following year. Kelly led his team successfully and in his senior season was in the running for the Heisman Trophy.

The Class of 1983

Selected fourteenth in the first round of the famed 1983 National Football League (NFL) draft, Kelly was not pleased with the prospect of playing in Buffalo. He instead chose to play for the Houston Gamblers of the United States Football League (USFL), a new spring football league competing with the NFL. In Houston, Kelly benefited from a pass-oriented offense and went on to win the USFL's Most Valuable Player (MVP) award in 1984. When the USFL went out of business in 1986, Kelly reluctantly signed with the Bills after being offered the biggest contract in the NFL.

Kelly received a warm welcome in Buffalo but despite his performance on the field the team endured another losing season. After hiring Marv Levy to coach both the Bills and Kelly would improve and begin to contend. In 1988, the Bills went 12-4 and won the AFC East division title. Kelly's performance that season wasn't his best but he led his team to the American Football Conference (AFC) championship before losing to the Cincinnati Bengals. The following season was riddled by mediocrity and injury for the Bills and Kelly. Buffalo's fans became frustrated with Kelly and the team was in disarray. The trouble of the 1989 season subsided in 1990 when the Bills had their best season ever and their first trip to the Super Bowl. Kelly's Super Bowl dreams were dashed when Bills' kicker Scott Norwood missed a 47-yard field goal with four seconds left and the Bills lost to the New York Giants, 20-19.

So Close, So Far

The Bills' would go on a record setting streak of four consecutive Super Bowl appearances in the early 1990's. In his second Super Bowl appearance, Kelly threw four interceptions and the Bills lost to the Washington Redskins, 37-24. The following year, the Bills weren't as dominate but an improbable playoff run led them back to the Super Bowl. An injury sidelined Kelly but he returned to play in the AFC championship game and then the Super Bowl where the Dallas Cowboys handed the Bills a humiliating loss, 52-17. In 1993, the Bills made history becoming the first team in major professional sports to lose four straight years in a championship game. The game also made history for being the first Super Bowl rematch. The defending Dallas Cowboys soundly defeated Buffalo, 30-13. Despite leading the league in completion percentage the next year, the Bills failed to make the playoffs. The final two years of his career were riddled by injury and disappointment. Kelly retired a Buffalo Bill in 1996.

Retirement and Beyond

He worked the 1997 season as a broadcaster for NBC. He also had his first child in 1997. His son, Hunter James Kelly, was born with Krabbe's Disease, a rare disorder that affects the brain and usually leads to an early death. Kelly redirected his focus and formed an organization to raise money for research for the disease. He and his wife Kelly also have a daughter, Erin.

Career Statistics

Passing
Yr Team Att Com Yds COM% TD INT RAT
BUF: Buffalo Bills.
1986 BUF 480 285 3593 59.4 22 17 83.3
1987 BUF 419 250 2798 59.7 19 11 83.8
1988 BUF 452 269 3380 59.5 15 17 78.2
1989 BUF 391 228 3130 58.3 25 18 86.2
1990 BUF 346 219 2829 63.3 24 9 101.2
1991 BUF 474 304 3844 64.1 33 17 97.6
1992 BUF 462 269 3457 58.2 23 19 81.2
1993 BUF 470 288 3382 61.3 18 18 79.9
1994 BUF 448 285 3114 63.6 22 17 84.6
1995 BUF 458 255 3130 55.7 22 13 81.1
1996 BUF 379 222 2810 58.6 14 19 73.2
TOTAL 4779 2874 35467 60.1 237 175 84.4

Chronology

1960 Born February 14 in East Brady, Pennsylvania
1979 Starts in his eighth game at the University of Miami
1980 Leads team to Peach Bowl appearance
1983 Drafted by the Buffalo Bills, but signs with Houston Gamblers of USFL
1984 Named USFL's Most Valuable Player
1986 Signs with the Buffalo Bills
1987 Named All-Pro
1988 Leads team to AFC East division title
1990 Leads Buffalo to first ever Super Bowl
1991 Makes second Super Bowl appearance
1992 Leads team to third Super Bowl
1993 Leads Buffalo to record setting fourth consecutive Super Bowl
1996 Retires after disappointing season
1997 Son is born with rare Krabbe's Disease
2002 Inducted into Pro Football Hall of Fame

Awards and Accomplishments

1983 Selected in first round of NFL draft
1984 Named USFL Most Valuable Player
1988-89, 1991-93 Selected to Pro Bowl
1990-93 Wins AFC Championship
1990-93 Played in Super Bowl
2002 Inducted Pro Football Hall of Fame

Kelly briefly considered returning to the NFL in 1998 with the Baltimore Ravens, a decision influenced by a desire to raise money for Hunter's Hope, his research foundation. He remained retired, however, and close to his family. Kelly was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2002.

Although Kelly never became a Super Bowl champion his performance on and off the field earned him the respect of his fans and colleagues. A hard-nosed player who had to endure his share of criticism and failure, Kelly never succumbed to the pressures of the NFL. He led a floundering franchise to the promise land and kept them there for many years.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Books

Newsmakers. Detroit: Gale Group, 1991.

Periodicals

"A New Namath, but with Knees." Sports Illustrated (September 15, 1986): 40.

"Back in the Fast Lane." Sports Illustrated (November 18, 1996): 86.

"Bills' Kelly to Announce his Retirement on Friday." New York Daily News (January 29, 1997).

"Even Today, You Can't Dismiss the Class of '83." Sporting News (April 29, 1996): 14.

"Frozen Buffalo Warms Up to Jim Kelly." Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service (January 21, 1994).

"Hall of a Day for 2002 Inductees." Akron Beacon Journal (August 3, 2002).

"He Won't Let it Buffalo Him." Sports Illustrated (September 7, 1992): 88.

"Jim Kelly." Sport (January 1992): 22.

"Jim Kelly Likes Arm, Bills." New York Daily News (June 27, 1996).

"Jim Kelly Offers Words of Inspiration at Hall of Fame Induction." Akron Beacon Journal (August 3, 2002).

"Jim Kelly was the show on Hall of Fame Day." Miami Herald (August 3, 2002).

"Life with Lord Jim." Sports Illustrated (July 21, 1986): 58.

"Nice Month, Jim." Sports Illustrated (October 7, 1991): 86.

"The Class of '83." Sports Illustrated (February 10, 1999): 14.

Sketch by Aric Karpinski

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