TAMPA, Fla. — Jim Kelly knocks things over. He wakes up the whole football neighborhood. Noise follows him, it has since his mess-around days as a kid in western Pennsylvania, where his idea of fun was to strap on a helmet and attack his brothers. ARRRRRRRR! Even now, a millionaire quarterback in the biggest game of his life, he admits to a “linebacker’s mentality.” And given his thick neck, his broad torso, and his affection for a pitcher of beer, he might still become one. There is very little subtle in what Kelly does, be it passing, running, barking signals, he is quarterbacking’s answer to the Scud missile: When he hits, you know he has been there.
Unfortunately for Kelly, he is the same way off the field. Glance over his shoulder and you’ll see the road that brought him to this Super Bowl littered with loud controversy: bad press, lawsuits, arguments and stories of his suds-n- sweethearts life-style. Noise. Lots of noise. Like a guy coming home late from a party. Jim Kelly, 30, did not reach this Super Bowl stage by sneaking up through the basement, let’s put it that way.
“Call me what you want,” he sniffs.
They also call him successful — when he’s not busy doing it himself. Kelly is, shall we say, proud? “I always knew I was a good enough quarterback to lead my team to the Super Bowl,” he said. In case you doubted it, you could check his house, which, according to observers, is wall to wall trophies. You could ask his PR men, whose attempts to market Jim’s charity work in Buffalo were so obvious last year that a local columnist wrote: “It’s a wonder Kelly hasn’t separated his other shoulder — from patting himself on the back.”
This part of Kelly — the man Bills fans once referred to as “GOD” — is a trait that dates back to his high school days in Pennsylvania. The story goes that Joe Paterno recruited him for Penn State, but said he might have to play linebacker. Kelly balked, went to Miami, Fla., instead — as quarterback — and in his first start, upset Penn State, 26-10, throwing three touchdown passes. Afterward, in a radio broadcast, Kelly blurted, “Not bad for a linebacker, huh, coach Paterno?”
Hard to be humble.
And OK. Maybe this would work in LA. It certainly worked in New York, 22 years ago, when Joe Namath — who hails from the same coal mining region as Kelly — guaranteed a victory in Super Bowl III, then delivered and became the toast of the town. It is no accident that Sports Illustrated once called Kelly “Namath with knees.” Nor is it an accident that Kelly wears Namath’s number.
“When I got to college, I thought about what number I wanted, and I thought about what quarterbacks had been the most successful in the Super Bowl,” Kelly told a crowd of reporters. “I thought Namath, Bradshaw, Griese, Stabler. . . . So I took No. 12.”
Uh-huh. And like I said, this would be great in New York City, where ego is measured in pounds, like deli meat. But in Buffalo, well, they like things a little leaner, a little more humble. And Kelly’s path is anything but humble.
Here is a guy who likes his postgame parties so much, he is adding an addition to his house so he can invite the whole team over after every game, a guy who often was seen, earlier in his career, in strip joints, with two and three women on his arm, a guy who defends his barroom celebrations by saying,
“Fans like to see Jim Kelly out in public once in a while.” He was sued by a woman after one barroom scuffle, for $1 million, and he has filed lawsuits of his own, including one against his former agents — for $58 million — claiming they improperly handled his business affairs. Last season, after a lineman missed a block that led to a Kelly injury, Kelly came to a press conference, in a sling, and lambasted the guy, saying he had to go, which basically took Buffalo team unity and set it on fire. Some teammates have called him “a complete phony,” some have called him “the biggest problem on the team.”
The word “humble” never has been heard.
But just as this is Kelly’s curse, so, too, is it his blessing. After all, a lesser ego might never have stood in that pocket, year after year, in a frozen Rich Stadium, unfurling passes and then — whomph! — hitting the turf before he ever saw their completion. A lesser ego might never have rebounded from that shoulder injury last year, during which Frank Reich, a more humble soul, took over at quarterback and won three straight games and the hearts of the Buffalo public.
And a lesser ego might never have done what Jim Kelly is doing right now in
this incredible Buffalo season, something he seems to have been put on this earth to do: reinventing his position.
“It’s evolution,” says Ted Marchibroda, coordinator of the Bills’ wonderful no-huddle offense, which relies on Kelly to call all the plays at the line of scrimmage, no huddle, no coaches necessary. “If it works against the Giants on Sunday, I wouldn’t be surprised to see lot of teams start doing it.”
If they do, they might call it “the Kelly Thing.” It really is impressive. He steps to the line, analyzes the defense, shouts the play to his teammates, runs it, repeats the process. No huddle. The whole game plan is in his head. He can go a half-hour without checking the sideline.
“I love it,” he said. “I thrive on thinking football. This is the perfect offense for me.”
OK. A moment for Kelly’s accomplishments. Drafted by the Bills in 1983, he opted instead for two seasons with the Houston Gamblers of the United States Football League. There, he ran up passing statistics as if banging on a pinball machine. When he finally joined the Bills in 1986 — after the USFL folded — he picked up where he left off, setting a Buffalo record for completions in his first season. In the years that followed, he engineered numerous last-minute comebacks, and perfected his spiralling, feather-touched passes to receivers such as Andre Reed and later James Lofton. And most important, he won. Before Kelly arrived, the Bills won one post-AFL division title. They now have three in a row — and a date against the Giants on Super Sunday. Buffalo’s resurrection from football joke to Super Bowl favorite must begin — and might end — with Kelly.
“The reason we’re better is because I’ve got better players around me,” he said. “For a while, it was just Andre Reed, and that was it. Then we added Thurman Thomas, James Lofton, Keith McKeller. . . .
“And I’ve gotten better. I’ve matured. . . . I’m having a great time. I could get used to this every year.”
Stranger things have happened. In Buffalo, where Kelly clearly is a love-hate figure, much of his controversy has been shelved — “Winning does that,” Kelly said, with obvious satisfaction — and a Super Bowl victory could throw a permanent blanket over the arguments, the rumors, the parties and the bragging that have dotted Kelly’s time in that city. Oh, he’ll still be loud. He’ll still be brash. He’ll still dive into headlines, helmet first, as he once dived into a pile of his brothers. Cocky?
“It’s not cocky if you can do it,” Kelly declares, paraphrasing a famous quote — although he’ll probably say he made it up. And if he wins on Sunday, people just might think he did.