The story of how Jim Kelly hated Buffalo before he loved it

By Steve Cichon

It’s tough to imagine Buffalo without Jim Kelly… but if he would have had it his way at the beginning of his professional career, he never would have become a Buffalo Bill.

Today, two decades after taking his last snap, Kelly remains one of Buffalo’s most beloved personalities and one of Western New York’s biggest backers.

He was one of us in the pocket. His on-field grit reflects what we hope we see in ourselves individually and as a community.

The Buffalo News headline blares “Fandemonium,” the phrase coined by Bills play-by-play man Van Miller, describing Bills fans pouring onto the field and taking down the goalposts after the Jim Kelly-led Bills clinched their first division title in recent memory. (Buffalo Stories archives)

Our admiration for him was forged as we watched him blow into his hands in Rich Stadium cold– and seemed to enjoy it.

Kelly and those great Bills teams embraced the cold and the snow and made it a part of their physical and mental advantage over the rest of the AFC during the greatest ride Buffalo sports fans have ever known.

Jim Kelly visits the Aud Club shortly after being drafted by the Buffalo Bills in 1983.  (Buffalo Stories archives)

Fresh out of college, though, Kelly had another path to greatness planned. It was lined with palm trees and beautiful people, not snowbanks and Zubaz.

It took a couple of turns in the road to get him here.

Jim Kelly was drafted by the Bills out of Miami three years before he made Rich Stadium his home.

There were plenty of very good quarterbacks available in the 1983 NFL Entry Draft. Three of them, Jim Kelly, Dan Marino, and John Elway, are now in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

The Baltimore Colts made Elway the top pick—but he quickly refused to play for team. It made for an interesting draft day for Kelly, as he recounted to’s Chris Brown in 2010.

“My agent looked at me after Elway got picked and the problem that arose from it and he said, ‘Hey Jim, is there anywhere that you don’t want to play?’ I said, ‘Oh yeah, I don’t want to play for the Minnesota Vikings. I don’t want to play for the Green Bay Packers and I don’t want to play for the Buffalo Bills.’”

-Jim Kelly to’s Chris Brown in 2010

The Bills picked Notre Dame tight end Tony Hunter with the 12th pick. Watching on TV in his parents’ living room, Kelly celebrated not being picked by Buffalo.

“I remember jumping up out of my seat and I hit my mother who was sitting on the right arm of the recliner and I knocked her right off the chair. I felt so bad, I quick picked her up off the floor and I’m apologizing, ‘Sorry mom I’m just glad I’m not going to play for Buffalo.’”

-Jim Kelly to’s Chris Brown in 2010

But the Bills also had the 14th pick in the first round. With that pick, they took the Miami quarterback.

“I couldn’t believe it. Within minutes the phone calls came and with me being politically correct I was saying how excited I was to be a Buffalo Bill. And when I hung up I said, ‘We need to call the USFL and see what other options we have.’”

-Jim Kelly to’s Chris Brown in 2010

One of those immediate conversations was with WBEN Radio’s Stan Barron. You can listen to that conversation below.

The polite young quarterback impressed one of the old salts of Buffalo sports by saying all the right things, though his heart clearly wasn’t in it– because he had an alternative.

The United States Football League was founded in 1982. The original idea was to capitalize on the country’s growing love of professional football by playing games in the spring and summer during the NFL’s off-season. The league wasn’t going head-to-head with games, but they were going head-to-head in trying to sign talent.

Kelly’s agents worked out a deal with the Bills, and then took two weeks to meet with USFL teams.  Bills interim General Manager Pat McGroder was unabashedly optimistic.

“They (Kelly’s agents) said we’ve got a hell of a chance of getting him,” McGroder told reporters as USFL brass wined and dined Kelly and crew.

The Bills were taken by surprise when Larry Felser wrote in The Buffalo News that Kelly would sign with the USFL’s Houston Gamblers “for an enormous sum of money.”

“There are risks in doing what I’m doing, but I made up my mind,” Kelly said. “Everybody has to take a risk once in his life. But I’m happy I did it and I won’t regret it.”

The folks at One Bills Drive were upset that the team was never given a chance to meet or beat the offer from the upstart league.

“We considered three different offers that they threw at us, and they were very happy with the offer we made to them,” McGroder told reporters after Kelly signed the five-year, $3.5 million deal . “I want the fans to know it was not the Buffalo Bills who let them down.”

“It was very cold in Buffalo.”

-Jim Kelly to reporters in Houston

When he signed, Kelly told reporters in Houston that he was never pleased with what the Bills were offering and that part of his decision to join the Gamblers was that he liked the people in their organization better than he did those with the Bills.

When Kelly’s signing was announced in Houston, his agent, Greg Lustig said, “There were several reasons not to sign with Buffalo. For one, it’s one of the most depressed areas in America. The opportunities just aren’t there. I understand Joe Cribbs made under $500 in personal appearances there in the last three years.”

Associated Press, June 11, 1983

The Bills moved on, but the woeful play of the quarterbacks on the roster and a pair of 2-14 seasons in 1984 and 1985 meant Kelly was never far from the thoughts of anyone connected with the Bills.

Joe Ferguson played quarterback for the Bills in 1983, and part of 1984, until Joe Dufek took the starting job.  Bruce Mathison was on the roster at quarterback, too. The Bills also brought in veteran Vince Ferragamo in 1985. The day Ferragamo became a Bill, he was asked about Kelly.

“I think you definitely look at that with suspicion,” Ferragamo said of the possibility of Kelly coming to the Bills. “There’s nothing concrete behind that and your approach to the game can’t be decided on the fact of what happens a year from now.”

The Bills thought of Kelly with hope, but Kelly’s thoughts of Buffalo weren’t happy ones.

“There are a lot of off-the-field endorsements I can get here (in Houston) that I couldn’t get in Buffalo. Plus I could come right in and play and make a name for myself and not have to sit behind Joe Ferguson for three years playing in the snow in Buffalo.”

Jim Kelly, a year into his USFL contract, 1984

Kelly was enjoying his time in Houston– setting league passing records and driving a brand new Corvette every few weeks in a deal with a local Chevy dealer– but the future of the upstart USFL was becoming cloudy.

So with a murky prognosis for the league and the team that Kelly played for, the quarterback’s stance softened somewhat, saying that while the Bills weren’t his top choice of NFL teams,  he’d “play for them if necessary and give his best.”

In a 1985 article, Vic Carucci writes in The Buffalo News that Houston Gamblers quarterback Jim Kelly wasn’t as vehemently anti-Buffalo as he had been since the 1983 NFL draft. (Buffalo Stories archives)


It still wasn’t a homerun. As late as February, 1986, Kelly was still openly hostile to playing in Buffalo.

Tonawanda News. (Buffalo Stories archives)

And month before signing with the Bills, Sports Illustrated started a feature article on the Houston Gamblers quarterback with “Jim Kelly, the best quarterback nobody has ever seen play…”

Kelly was likely leaving Texas one way or another. (Buffalo Stories archives)

The article went on to describe the close knit Kelly clan that Buffalonians of the ’80s and ’90s remember well– the quarterback’s parents and brothers who eventually seemed to fit right in here despite their Pennsylvania accents.

During the summer of 1986, the USFL was embroiled in lawsuits and court cases. Play was suspended for the league, and on paper, Kelly’s Houston Gamblers had merged with the Donald Trump-owned, Doug Flutie-quarterbacked New Jersey Generals.

The future was up in the air. USFL team mergers could have been haulted. The USFL could have been forced to fold. The USFL could have merged with the NFL.

Kelly talked about all of these possibilities in SI.  It didn’t leave Bills fans hopeful.

”I’d like to play for the Raiders. I’d like to live in California,” Kelly says. ”But what I’d really like to do is play for the New Jersey Generals and Donald Trump and merge with the NFL and take the run-and-shoot with Herschel Walker in the backfield and just kick ass.”

Kelly himself says he might play for the Bills if the USFL folds, if they pay him a lot, or he might sit out the 1986 season and become a free agent next year and go where he pleases for a trillion dollars. ”Buffalo needs more than me, more than a quarterback,” he says. ”I’d get the tar beat out of me, and it would shorten my career.”

-Sports Illustrated, July 21, 1986

About a month after the article hit mailboxes in Western New York and around the country,  Jim Kelly was a Buffalo Bill and the NFL’s highest paid player.

After years of denying Buffalo, Machine Gun Kelly took over the city in August, 1986. (Buffalo Stories archives)

“I’m being paid to play football, and that’s what I want to do,” Kelly told the Associated Press as the USFL stalemate seemed indefinite during the summer of 1986. Kelly and the Bills started the wheels in motion to make that happen.

In mid-August, Bills General Manager Bill Polian received written permission from Donald Trump– whose team owned Kelly’s rights in the USFL– to negotiate a deal with the quarterback. Kelly sat with Ralph Wilson in a suite during the Bills first preseason game against the Oilers in Houston.

In the following days, Kelly signed a five-year, $8 million contract. The approximately $1.5 million per year pushed Kelly’s salary past Joe Montana’s $1.3 million, making the new Bills quarterback the NFL’s richest player.

Jim Kelly takes a call from Gov. Mario Cuomo as he signs a deal to become the NFL’s highest paid player. (Buffalo Stories archives)

“What we’re really interested in is rebuilding this franchise to respectability,” Bills owner Ralph Wilson said at the time of the signing. But it was bigger than that for Buffalo.

Jim Kelly’s deciding join the Bills might have been Buffalo’s biggest event of the 1980s. It was a Buffalo prodigal son story if there ever was one. Jim Kelly spent three years sniping at Buffalo and taking shots at our weather– but a switch was flipped when he climbed off a private plane into a limousine and got a police escort down the 33– with fans waving and cheering at overpasses– to sign the contract that would make him not just a million-dollar arm, but our million dollar arm.

As Bill Polian looks on, Jim Kelly signs autographs along Buffalo’s waterfront just after signing a contract with the Bills. (Buffalo Stories archives)

Kelly took a break from signing autographs in the lobby of a downtown hotel to officially sign that contract in a spot only blocks from where a billboard sponsored by Bethlehem Steel employees famously asked  “the last person leaving Buffalo to turn out the light.”

It hadn’t even been ten years since that billboard had come and gone, but things had grown worse. The steel plant had closed and the Bills had just played two 2-14 seasons in a row.

It was bleak being a Buffalonian.

The signing definitely made Buffalonians hold their heads a little higher. Bills General Manager Bill Polian spelled it out at that first press conference.

“The fact that Jim is sitting here to my left is an enduring monument to Ralph Wilson’s commitment to building a winner for the city of  Buffalo,” said Polian.

Jimbo’s arrival rekindled an almost extinguished sense of civic pride and brought a measure of  hometown hope to Buffalo, and the feeling is mutual. Kelly has called signing with the Bills “the best decision of his life.”

Three decades removed,  its tough to imagine what Buffalo would have been without his presence.


Buffalo in the ’90s: Donald Trump, Jim Kelly and Zubaz

By Steve Cichon

This week BN Chronicles looks back into the archives for previous Western New York visits by our current presidential front-runners.

On a summer weekend in 1992, the Jim Kelly Carnival of Stars brought some of the biggest names in sports to then-Pilot Field to raise money for children’s charities. Folks like John Elway, Warren Moon and Dan Marino as well and many of the Buffalo Bills players who were in the midst of bringing the Bills to four straight Super Bowls were there.

Bills Quarterback Jim Kelly tests his arm at his 1992 Carnival of Stars at Pilot Field. (Buffalo News archives)

TV stars like Kirk Cameron and his Cheektowaga-born wife and “Growing Pains” co-star Chelsea Noble also were among the celebrities in town to take part in the football throw challenge and softball game.

Resoundingly, though, the most talked about stars of the event were Donald Trump and his actress girlfriend Marla Maples (whom he later married).

Channel 4 sports anchor Chuck Howard interviews Marla Maples and Donald Trump at Jim Kelly’s Carnival of Stars in Downtown Buffalo in 1992. (Buffalo News archives)

Many of the guests at the fundraiser carnival had some tie to Buffalo, but Maples told The News that she had befriended the Bills quarterback in 1984 when she was an unknown southern beauty queen.

“I met Jim Kelly years ago when I was doing Miss Georgia in the USA pageant,” Maples told The News. “He was a judge. He’s been a friend for many years. I’m so proud of what he’s doing. Donald and I have a lot of respect for him.”

Donald Trump chats with Bills Linebacker Darryl Talley and Bills Wide Receiver and Special Teams star Steve Tasker while playing in a celebrity softball game at Pilot Field in 1992. The three were on the team wearing the red Zubaz pants. (Buffalo News archives)

Of course in 1992, Donald Trump was known as a celebrity billionaire, not a presidential candidate. That doesn’t mean, however, that a Trump candidacy had never been thought about. Iconic Buffalo News Columnist Bob Curran wrote this as Maples and Trump were scheduled to appear at Kelly’s event:

There are some locals who remain fascinated by The Donald. As another observer said, “Just remember that four years ago they were talking about this guy running for president like Ross Perot is doing now.”


May 24, 1992 | Bob Curran

“Is there any truth to the rumor that Vice President Quayle was going to make the Buffalo scene for the Jim Kelly Shootout and Carnival of Stars at Pilot Field until he heard that Donald Trump and his girlfriend, Marla Maples, would be participating? And what exactly has Marla Maples done to rate an invitation anyway?”

The sports buff who tossed those questions at me did not know that I had wondered about that when I was first told about her appearance. Then I mentioned to the informant that at the start of the basketball season the New York Daily News had printed a picture of Maples and Trump at a basketball game on a sports page.

While more than a few readers wondered why they were in the sports section, one expert explained that quickly. “The Daily News is in trouble and needs readers,” he said. “And the picture of Maples attracted many people who don’t dig basketball.”

As he spoke, I thought of the young local executive who saw the model/actress at a ski resort last winter and said she is an 11.

There are some locals who remain fascinated by The Donald. As another observer said, “Just remember that four years ago they were talking about this guy running for president like Ross Perot is doing now.”

Now back to the first question. There is no truth to the rumor about Quayle’s refusing an invitation to the Carnival of Stars because of the controversial couple. But he would be among friends, as millionaire quarterbacks tend to be Republicans who like to play golf. And the Jim Kelly golf tournament June 8 is the event that started bringing the stars to Western New York and led to the first Carnival of Stars.

Of course, Maples and Trump are not going to participate in the Jim Kelly Shootout itself. That event will be restricted to pro football celebrities, one basketball star and a delirious fan who will win the chance to become an outdoor Walter Mitty.

The mind boggles at the thought of what would happen if the draftee does what the others don’t — throw a football through a target with a hole two inches larger than the ball itself.

The idea for the football toss competition began with Roger Trevino, who is Kelly’s agent. In other years it was staged on the grounds of executive Chuck Barcelona in East Aurora, and the action has been seen on CNN, ESPN and “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.” Only those who had paid to enter the following day’s golf tournament were able to see it live.

The other day, a spokesperson for the Kelly for Kids Foundation was asked who got the idea of moving the toss into Pilot Field, where more people could see it live. That was a special boon to local fans who don’t have cable TV or the stomach for Robin Leach of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.”

“Most of the credit for that idea goes to Bill Polian of the Bills,” the person answered. “He felt it would help the local sports scene and the entire downtown picture. He is the chairman of the Carnival of Stars. Mike Billoni, general manager of the Bisons, also deserves credit for turning the idea into reality.”

All liniment sniffers (characters who would rather spend an hour with a pro athlete than with Kim Basinger) will swoon over the list of pro footballers signed for the shootout. They are Troy Aikman, Steve Beuerlein, Nick Buonoconti, Chris Collingwood, John Congemi, Randall Cunningham, John Elway, Roman Gabriel, Jeff George, Neil Lomax, John Kidd, James Kiick, Dave Klingler, Bernie Kosar, Don Majkowski, Dan Marino, Warren Moon, Earl Morrall, Browning Nagle, Joe Namath, Walter Payton, Vinny Testaverde, Billy Joe Tolliver and Steve Walsh.

The representatives from the Bills, besides Kelly, will be Howard Ballard, Don Beebe, Shane Conlan, Hal Garner, Gale Gilbert, Kent Hull, Keith McKellar, Pete Metzellaars, Frank Reich, Darryl Talley and Steve Tasker.

If I failed to mention a competing basketball great who is on the roster, some trivia fan would comment. Yes, I know that John Havlicek was drafted by a pro football team although he didn’t play football at Ohio Sate.

At 4 p.m. on June 7, the first Jim Kelly Celebrity Softball Game will open the 5 hours of festivities.

And among the celebrities mixing with those named above are Kirk Cameron, Brandon Hooper, Wally Kurth, Virginia Madsen, Chelsea Noble, Chris Noth, Darren Puppa, Cherryl Richardson and Trump. I don’t know much about some of them, but each has had more than the 15 minutes of fame ordinary folks get.

The price for the entire Carnival of Stars is $5 for general reserved and $15 for special reserved. The beneficiary charities are Camp Good Days and Special Times, the Association for Research of Childhood Cancer and the Kelly for Kids Foundation, and the sponsors are Bird’s-eye, Centrum Vitamins and Tyson Foods.

One thing is for sure. And that is that a lot of sports and show business buffs will be praying that June 7 is blessed with what old Bills fans used to call “Ralph Wilson weather.”