2007 ACC Football Legend: Miami's Jim Kelly
Nov. 13, 2007
By Wilt Browning
To understand the dynamics of Jim Kelly's journey to his niche in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, it is necessary to push aside for a moment the mountain of credentials the man amassed in a shining career at the University of Miami and with the NFL's Buffalo Bills.
It is necessary, as well, to accept that this tough-as-nails former quarterback once was a wide-eyed kid a long way from home.
So, there he was, a backup quarterback at the University of Miami, a sophomore who had not taken a serious snap from center in close to two years, since his final game as the big fish in the little pond known as East Brady, Pa., his hometown.
This was culture shock in the first degree. "Well, there were 23 players on my high school football team," Kelly said in a recent phone conversation. "There were just 60 people in my graduating class, and there were no red lights in East Brady."
It was a different world he was entering on October 31, 1981. It was the Orange Bowl. It was Penn State against Miami.
Kelly looked across the fabled turf of the old stadium and there, outlined against the gathering throng, was the man for whom he had wanted to play for as long as he could remember - the legendary Joe Paterno. And with him, buttoned into their plain white helmets, were the Nittany Lions, then the No. 1 college football team in the nation. All the memories, all the dreams came flooding back for Kelly. His mind kept screaming "What if..."
"I had gone to his football camps when I was a (high school) junior and senior," Kelly said. "I had done everything I could to let him and his coaches know I could play quarterback. Pitt or Penn State, that's all I dreamed about when I was a little boy. I wanted to play for one of them, but I really wanted to play for Joe Paterno."
And, turns out, Paterno wanted Kelly to play for him as well... as a linebacker.
It forced upon the young hopeful a difficult dilemma. He would have to give up on one of his dreams, that of playing for Paterno at Penn State or that of making his way in the football world as a quarterback. He knew his older brother, Pat, then a linebacker himself for the Baltimore Colts, would have some advice.
"Well, look at it like this," Pat said in the phone call with his kid brother. "I've been in football a long time and I've been on a lot of team planes. And I can tell you that the pretty flight attendants never ask where the linebackers are; they want to know where the quarterback's sitting."
"That did it," Kelly said with a laugh.
So, he took a visit to Miami (among other places) and it was love at first tan. "It was warm, and I'd never seen a palm tree in my life," Kelly said. "And Lou Saban was the coach and he was saying they were going to throw the football and that's what I wanted to hear. I decided that this is where I wanted to play college football."
Now, there he was, a college quarterback, though yet without credentials, walking down the chute from the Miami dressing room and into the cavernous stadium. If he'd had a camera, he'd have been taking pictures to send home. Oh, he had been on the team as a freshman, but Miami that season ran the veer offense mostly because of the presence in the backfield of one Ottis Anderson.
"I was told that I couldn't start in that offense because I wasn't fast enough getting the ball to Ottis," he remembers. "I just said that I didn't go to Miami to hand the ball off to Ottis Anderson; I came to play quarterback."
"Kelly," Snellenberger growled, answering one of those questions. "The coaches have been talking about making a change. Get ready. You're starting."
Kelly felt emotions welling up from within, emotions that felt alarmingly like nausea. "I went sprinting into the dressing room, threw up, and hurried back to the field to get ready," Kelly remembers.
Kelly's voice was perhaps a half octave higher than usual, thanks to the jitters he felt, on his first series of downs. Then a big defensive lineman crashed through the Miami line and "hit me up side the head," Kelly remembers as though it happened two minutes ago.
"He dislocated my jaw. I couldn't even speak." More angry than injured, even under those circumstances, Kelly hurried to the sidelines and to team trainers who popped his lower mandible back into place and sent him hurrying back into the game.
"To this day, I still have a clicking sound in my jaw from that blow," Kelly said, verbally displaying it as something of a badge of courage. "People ask me why I don't get it fixed. Even though you can hear the click, it doesn't bother me that much." Plus, the clicking reminds him of that last day of October.
It was a fairytale kind of day for Kelly and the Hurricanes. With the young quarterback in charge, Miami upset the No. 1 team in the nation, 17-14, and something even more impressive was set into motion. Though there had been good quarterbacks at Miami before Kelly - most notably George Myra, Jr. - his arrival as a starter signaled the beginning of what became known as "Quarterback U," though no one was clairvoyant enough to know that as a happy Kelly, no longer nervous, made his way back to the dressing room after the game. In less than three hours, thousands of people had discovered who Jim Kelly was. It was only the beginning of something wonderful.
It was a debut under fire for Kelly. But there would be more to come. "In my first four starts, we played No. 1 Penn State, Alabama, Notre Dame and Florida in a row," he said. "We did OK; we were 2-2 in that stretch. And I was watching something on television not long ago and it listed that Alabama team as one of the top 10 teams in the nation all-time."
If there were ever questions about the resolve of Kelly, it was laid to rest in his senior season at Miami.
"Ironically, we were playing Virginia Tech, which, of course, is also an ACC team now," he said. "I suffered a major shoulder injury in that game and had to have surgery.
"When I was waking up from the surgery, the surgeon was there. He said, `Jim, I hope you studied.' I asked him why. He told me that when they went in, they found out that the injury was a lot worse than they had expected, and that he had had to put three metal rods into my shoulder.
"He said that I'd never have the range of motion with that arm that I had before and that it had probably ended my career as a quarterback."
When Kelly shared the news with one of his five brothers in a phone call from his hospital room, there came more advice.
"Don't ever let anybody tell you want you can't do. Do you understand?" one of his older siblings grumbled. Kelly apparently listened. He was yet to become one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history.
His status as a legend has been confirmed by many, including the Pro Football Hall of Fame. In the festivities surrounding the Dr Pepper ACC Football Championship in Jacksonville, Fla., that status will be confirmed once again. Jim Kelly is Miami's representative in the 2007 Class of ACC Football Legends.
Wilt Browning is a special contributor to theACC.com. He spent more than 40 years as a sports editor and columnist in the Southeast. He worked for the Greenville News, the Atlanta-Journal Constitution, the Charlotte Observer, the Greensboro News & Record and the Asheville Citizen-Times. His numerous awards include five North Carolina Sports Writer of the Year honors. He is also the author of five books, including Come Quittin' Time which was released this summer.
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