The people selected for the BIGPLAY NFL Top 100 Personalities countdown were selected for a plethora of reasons. Some had intriguing careers with stories worth retelling. Some were innovators who changed the way the game was played. Some are inspirations off the field for people who relate with them for what they did on the field. Jim Kelly is on this list for all those reasons.
After a successful college career, Kelly was selected by the Buffalo Bills in the 1983 NFL Draft. Knowing that the Bills had interest in him before the draft he tried to persuade them not to pick him. Kelly disliked cold weather and would have preferred to play in warmer climates. In addition he feared the Bills would not commit to winning by bringing in a talented supporting cast. So Kelly initially decided to forsake the Bills in favor of the USFL’s Houston Gamblers. After an outstanding career in the USFL, the league abruptly ceased operations before the 1986 NFL season. The Bills retained the rights to Kelly, meaning the Quarterback’s only option for staying in professional football would be to report to the Bills.
With the Bills, Kelly had little time to worry about the cold weather. The Bills began experimenting with an up-tempo no-huddle offense. The Bills quickly earned a reputation as one of the AFC’s most feared offenses with Kelly at the helm. The “K-gun” offense was troublesome because it predated the current substitution rules which allows time for defenses to substitute in certain no-huddle situations. When in sync the Bills could simply wear defenses down early in games. His fears of not having talent around him as also proven to be foolish. Kelly spent the majority of his NFL career with Andre Reed as his primary receiving target. The dangerous Thurman Thomas was a dependable dual threat in the backfield for many seasons behind Kelly. Now Kelly, Reed and Thomas are all enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
The 1990 season marked the beginning of what may be the most tragic dynasty in sports history. The Bills were riding high off a 13 win season. They carried the momentum into the playoffs, even winning the AFC Championship game 53-3 against the Raiders. They were heavy favorites against a New York Giants team that had lost starting quarterback Phil Simms to injury. However, the Giants were game and kept Buffalo’s high power attack at bay. However, it appeared that Kelly had done enough, getting the Bills into position for what was to be a game-winning 47-yard field goal. Quite famously Scott Norwood’s kick sailed barely wide to the right, cementing the unlikely win for the Giants.
The 1991 Bills also won 13 games and after a much less convincing AFC Championship game earned a birth in their second consecutive Super Bowl. However this time around they met a very talented Washington Redskins squad that jumped out to an early lead and never looked back, beating the Bills 37-24.
In 1992 the Bills won 11 games and was matched up against the Houston Oilers in the wild card round of the playoffs. All look lost as Kelly went down with a knee injury and the Oilers took a commanding 35-3 lead. Backup Frank Reich took over and led the Bills to an unlikely comeback winning the game 41-38. After Reich won against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the divisional round, Kelly took back over the offense and beat the Miami Dolphins to earn the Bills’ third straight trip to the Super Bowl. The Dallas Cowboys promptly ensured that it was their third straight loss in the game, winning 52-17.
1993 would mark the fourth straight year the team won the AFC only to lose in the Super Bowl. The Bills even took a 13-6 lead into halftime, but failed to score in the second half. The Cowboys took home their second consecutive Super Bowl win by outlasting the Bills 30-13. This marked the end of an impressive yet heartbreaking dynasty. Kelly retired after the 1996 season, never getting to win the ultimate prize. Kelly also played his entire 11 year NFL career with the team he didn’t want to play for, and became a legend there.
Normally our story ends here. We state that Kelly was not only an innovator of modern offense, but was the catalyst for one of the most impressive dynasties in sports history. However, Kelly’s life has inspired many since his football days. Kelly lost a young son to Krabbe Disease. Kelly was able to use his notoriety to spread awareness for the rare disease. Then in 2013 Kelly announced that he had cancer. Since Kelly has had off and on struggled with the disease and has served as an inspiration for others who are in the same situation. As of early 2019 Kelly has been once again cleared of the disease, and continues to serve as a beacon of hope to those that need it. So now we can end. Jim Kelly is an innovator, legend and inspiration.