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

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

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 BuffaloBills.com’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 BuffaloBills.com’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 BuffaloBills.com’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 BuffaloBills.com’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.

 

Audio Flashback: WBEN Newsweek, 1978

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

With the recent passing of Doug Smith, I was reminded of a piece of audio in the Buffalo Stories archives where he was featured as the Courier-Express Film Critic.

The recording is a half-hour feature called “Newsweek,” and was a collection of highlights from WBEN’s “Newsday at Noon.” This particular edition was from what sounds like the last week of 1978.

Doug is being interviewed by Lou Douglas, who also interviews Erie County Legislator William Pauly, Episcopal Bishop Harold Robinson, and Peggy Speranza of the Feingold Association.

The host of the half-hour is newsman Jim McLaughlin, and there is also a Stan Barron sports editorial at the 15:10 mark,

When I started working at WBEN in the early 1990s, running the pre-taped Newsweek– by then hosted by Tim Wenger– very early Sunday morning was one of my first jobs in radio.

 

History’s Garbage Bin: Sharing the Garbage Picked Goodness… Again

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

To save everything because “it’s old” is just silly. To toss everything away because “it’s old” is just silly, too. Somewhere between those two extremes is where most of us try to live.I get both sides. I’m a saver, who wishes sometimes I could live more of a clutter-free life. But a healthy portion of my clutter comes from big piles of important stuff that otherwise would have no home.

Depending on how you look at it, I have been blessed or cursed with the ability to see the possibilities beyond a pile of garbage. My home is a great example. It’s taken over a decade of hard work for my wife and me to make it shine, taking it from a worn-down relic to a stop on the Parkside Home Tour.

Over the last two decades, I have garbage-picked, purchased, been asked to copy, or reluctantly accepted thousands of hours of audio and video, almost always locked away on some sort of format that made it impossible listen to or view. Or even know if there was anything there.

Basically, I’ve been collecting “potential.”

Twice I’ve garbage-picked boxes of old film reels. These boxes were in the garbage for good reason; the film was infected with “vinegar syndrome,” a decomposition of the materials in the film, which renders it unviewable. Worse, one “vinegared” film can jump start the degrading process in other nearby films as well.

The relatively small group of folks who had decided to chuck these boxes has literally thousands of reels of film to worry about. As a member of that group I agreed. But as an individual, I decided that I couldn’t see this film simply thrown away. I garbage picked the film, then spend lots of time and money picking out the few good bits from the mangled messes inside those decaying boxes and film canisters, cleaning those good bits, then properly storing them to avoid more vinegar problems and further degrading.

The same is true of a pile of old video cassettes. The TV station I was working at was taking “the best” of some of the video that was on an old, dying format of videotapes, and dubbing them to the format they were then using. It made sense, as these dubs were being made on the station’s last working machine that played the old format tapes. The old tapes were being hauled to the dumpster. I grabbed as many as I could for “safe keeping.”

In both of these cases, I was holding onto what I knew was great video, but had no means to share it or even watch it. In some cases, this stuff had been in my possession for over a decade. Waiting.

Having been lucky enough to turn a bit of a profit from my book “Irv! Buffalo’s Anchorman: The Irv, Rick, and Tom Story,” I gathered up most of that film, and many of those video tapes, along with others that I’d copied or recorded myself over the years, and sent them off to be properly and professionally digitized. A painstaking and expensive process, but one that was the end result of saving them from the trash in the first place– whether I knew it at the time or not.

Being able to treat my relatively small collection with a great deal of care and respect has allowed me to begin sharing some interesting moments reported and recorded by Buffalo television journalists over the last 60 years. You’re seeing the fruits of it on YouTube.

A Stan Barron obituary piece was the first item from the hours of “new” old video I shared…


The second was a true Western New York treasure. Who among us in Buffalo hasn’t replied with a sarcastic “Fun? Wow!” when asked a question? The phrase, of course, comes from TV commercials for Fantasy Island, which ran over and over and over and… I can remember asking my parents to go to “Fun Wow,” not realizing the actual name of the place.

The iconic commercial forever ensconced the phrase “Fun… WOW!” in our collective lexicon. Type “Fantasy Island” into Google, and the term “fun wow” follows as a suggested search term. Some how the commercial has eluded the Internet, until uncovered in that pile of tapes that time had forgotten was remastered.

There are two wonderful memories supplied, and there’s plenty more to come as well. Literally hundreds more quick videos to come for all of us to pause and remember for a moment.

Video especially has a great power to transport us back to another time and place like no other medium. That’s why I can honestly say that I don;t think I’ve ever been so excited about a project as the one I’m embarking on here in putting this video online to share with the world.

What it comes down to for me is…. my stuff is useless unless it can be of some use to somebody. I’ve already seen the smiles from these small bits already released that proves the usefulness. I won’t make a million dollars on my finds… In fact, I’m in the red getting them ready to share. But it really hurts my brain to know that many of the wonderful archival videos you’ll see, in fact, much of what is posted at staffannouncer.com, could have just as easily made it’s way to the land fill.

No matter where you fall on the “saver/saves-nothing” scale, I ask you to join me in finding good use for your saved stuff, or finding a good home for the stuff you want to get rid of.

One man’s trash can become an entire community’s treasure.

Reformatted & Updated pages from staffannouncer.com finding a new home at buffalostories.com
Reformatted & Updated pages from staffannouncer.com finding a new home at buffalostories.com

Buffalo in the 50’s: Before there was Irv..

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

From the Buffalo Evening News, Nov 29, 1958– the day before Channel 7 signed on the air for the first time.

Irv Weinstein was a newscaster at KB Radio at this point– Channel 7’s first news anchor was Roger Lund.

Stan Barron was on the sports desk, and Rick Azar– who was also the announcer who signed on the station– was Channel 7’s first weather man.

Buffalo Stories archives

WBEN 1973- Clint Buehlman, The Buffalo Braves, and more….

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo


Originally Posted: February, 2008

Just unearthed! Recordings of entire days of WBEN Radio… Unheard since the days they were broadcast over 35 years ago! Names like Clint Buehlman, Van Miller and the NBA Buffalo Braves! Read on!

WBEN AM/FM/TV, 1960

So where did these tapes come from? In 1995, Lin Television performed a massive cleanout of the 2077 Elmwood Avenue building they had just purchased as a part of their buying WIVB-TV.

Among the “treasures” I found dumpster diving, was a box of Reel-to-Rel tapes that appeared to be WBEN Radio Logger tapes from the early 70s. Many of the reels were blank… But even those with the audio intact were nearly useless… The tapes were recorded at 15/32 IPS. That is very slow, and at the time the tapes were rescued, the only way to hear the tapes properly involved about 4 hours of work for an hour of final product. For 13 years, I’ve been trying to figure out how to play these tapes back… And now… thanks to a new reel deck.. and some new digital audio editing programs, viola!

The audio quality is not the best… Its warbly sometimes… And it jumps quite a bit… And These logger tapes were in the Engineering Shop because there were problems with the recording…. But what is really amazing. Imagine your grandparents listening to WBEN all day… That’s what you get here. Things were slow to change at WBEN. Clint Buehlman’s Show in 1973 was not really all that different from the show in 1953. Van Miller is in great voice and cadence calling Buffalo Braves basketball. As far as I know, these are the only complete recordings of Braves basketball in tact.

Below, you’ll find exactly what and who is on these tapes… and some brief cuts from each.

Clint Buehlman

One of the most often asked questions to this website is, “What was the name of Clint Buehlman’s theme song?” The answer is, there were dozens of light airy instrumentals that were used to open each hour of the Buehlman show, after newsman Jack Ogilvie introduced Your AM-MC after each newscast. Listen below for several such opens, along with other snippets from the Buehly.

 

Newsman Jack Ogilvie (right) and AM-MC Clint Buehlman spent mornings together for over a quarter of a century starting in 1951 and ending in 1977.

Buffalo Braves Basketball

As Van Miller’s one time producer in both radio and TV, I can tell you I don’t know that he ever sounded better than behind the mic courtside at the Aud during Braves games, as shown to the left with Dr Jack Ramsey, standing.

Another of those popular questions is Do you have any Braves Games? Apparently, the answer has been yes for quite a long time… only they’ve been stuck on tapes I couldn’t play. But now, I have at least three Braves games in their entirety.

Braves vs Lakers: December 19, 1973
Kareem Abdul Jabbar visits Memorial Auditorium

Braves vs Bucks: February 2, 1973
Wilt Chamberlain visits Memorial Auditorium

 

Van Miller interviews Fred Hilton and Randy Smith in the WBEN studios circa 1972.

 


Some Highlights from WBEN Friday December 28, 1973

WBEN’s Al Fox interviews a cow.
Dick Rifenburg (l) and Clint Buehlman (r) receive an Award for Ski Coverage.
Ward Fenton
Dick Rifenburg
Jack Ogilvie
Ken Philips
Lou Douglas
Lou Douglas in Studio A
Stan Barron showing some kids around the studio.

Some Highlights from WBEN March 15, 1973

 

 


Random Highlights from WBEN 1973

 

Ed Tucholka at the WBEN-FM automation center.
Virgil Booth on the Channel 4 set.
Marty Gleason at the Editors Desk.
Reformatted & Updated pages from staffannouncer.com finding a new home at buffalostories.com
Reformatted & Updated pages from staffannouncer.com finding a new home at buffalostories.com