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NFL Hall of FameLen Pasquarelli

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 Class of 2002
Jim Kelly's hero is his son Hunter.
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Sunday, August 4, 2002
Kelly will be surrounded by friends and family
By Len Pasquarelli

Since the mid-1980s there have been eight quarterbacks inducted into the Hall of Fame. Most of them possess the one thing that Jim Kelly, who on Saturday will join the elite group, doesn't own: a Super Bowl ring.

That won't keep Kelly from getting immediately comfortable in a fraternity that has become increasingly associated with Super Bowl champions, however. And according to one of the other Hall of Fame quarterbacks who likewise never won an NFL championship, it certainly shouldn't cast Kelly in the role of interloper.

The greatest day
The guest whose presence will most thrill Jim Kelly, of course, is his 5-year-old son Hunter, still battling Krabb Disease more than two years after doctors had predicted that he would succumb. A rare and degenerative enzyme disorder of the central and peripheral nervous system, the disease typically is fatal within 14 months of birth. But Hunter Kelly, like his famous father, is no quitter. And just like his dad, he is a champion, even if he is shy of the accompanying medals.

Jim Kelly will be immortalized in bronze on Saturday. It is a day, he acknowledges, he will not forget. And he is hopeful that Hunter, the motivation for his Hunter's Hope Foundation, will be able to comprehend someday the meaning of Saturday's events.

"It will be the greatest day of my life and to be able to share it with everyone, and with Hunter, is just unbelievable," Kelly said. "It's a day when, I think, no one is going to worry about how many Super Bowl rings we've got, you know? It really is going to be a heck of a celebration."
-- Len Pasquarelli

"He definitely belongs," said former San Diego quarterback Dan Fouts, inducted in 1993. "It would be crazy to suggest otherwise. Sure, the guys who win Super Bowls have a big edge, and maybe they should. But that doesn't mean there isn't any room at the inn for the rest of us. Jim might not have a ring, but that doesn't mean he wasn't a champion."

Indeed, the induction of Kelly, which will be witnessed by nearly 1,200 of his intimate friends and family members, further validates the brilliance of the Buffalo Bills teams of the early '90s. Vanquished in four straight Super Bowl games, defeated by three different opponents, the Bills became the embodiment of loveable losers.

With the entry of Kelly into the professional football shrine in Canton, Ohio, following the induction of former Buffalo coach Marv Levy last summer, the Bills are getting to be simply loveable. Tailback Thurman Thomas could soon join Kelly. Defensive end Bruce Smith will one day be in Canton. Wide receiver Andre Reed has an outside chance. But as the soul of those great Buffalo teams, Kelly deserved to lead the way, just as he did in his 11-year NFL career.

Eight times he led Buffalo, a mostly futile franchise when Kelly arrived after a prolific stint with the Houston Gamblers of the USFL, to the playoffs. The team has played sub-.500 ball since his retirement. In 17 postseason appearances, Kelly passed for 3,863 yards and 21 touchdowns. When he retired, his 84.4 efficiency rating was sixth-best in league history, his 35,467 yards 10th-best.

As the trigger man in Levy's innovative no-huddle offense, an alignment that usually featured three wide receivers and was in a hurry-up mode from the opening snap on, Kelly twice led the league in passing. His 101.2 rating in 1990 marked only the fifth time that a quarterback finished a season with an efficiency number over the century mark.

Of course, the number legions of observers recall most is four, as in the four Super Bowl defeats Kelly and the Bills suffered in ignominious circumstances. For years, that rankled Kelly and his close-knit clan of brothers and other kin. Six years after he exited the game, however, Kelly has become pragmatic about the team's Super Bowl pratfalls.

He is beyond rationalizing now, over the resignation, and simply deals with the reality.

"I'd like to think that, in my career, I competed as hard as anyone in the league," insisted Kelly. "More than the statistics, the honors, that's what meant something to me. Modesty aside, I think (opponents) understood that you were going to have to put the stake through my heart, or I was gong to come back and beat you. Would I like to have a Super Bowl ring? Are you kidding? Damn straight, I would, sure. But the fact that I don't have one shouldn't define my career."

To the contrary, the hallmark of Kelly's tenure was a toughness and grittiness, a mindset that is more characteristic of, say, a linebacker. That's exactly the position that Penn State coach Joe Paterno had in mind for Kelly when he attempted to recruit him out of the tiny Western Pennsylvania town of East Brady, and the primary reason the quarterback signed with the University of Miami.

Jim Kelly
Jim Kelly finished his career with the Buffalo Bills with 35,467 passing yards.
He became a blue-collar quarterback who hailed from a steel and coal town, playing out his career in a Rust Belt city.

Paterno still contends that Kelly would have been a star at Linebacker U., and insisted last week that he would have played in the NFL on the defensive side of the ball and been a Pro Bowl caliber performer. That may be true, Levy agreed, since Kelly usually demonstrated the traits inherent to the position. Of course, Levy is happy that he had Kelly behind center instead of facing him.

Said the brainy Levy, when asked about Kelly's strongest suit: "He was always in kind of an attack mode, and that was perfect for the way we wanted to play offense, never letting the defense catch its breath. It takes a special person to play that style, and I'll tell you what, Jim was great at it. If he sensed a weakness, he was going after it, like a shark. He could rally the team around him."

Kelly will have quite a rally, including dozens of his former teammates, in Canton over the weekend. At last count, Kelly had 1,114 confirmed guests for the induction ceremony, which has been moved from the steps of the Hall of Fame and into the adjacent Fawcett Stadium to help accommodate the throng. Last year, former Houston Oilers offensive line star Mike Munchak established a record, with 460 official invitations.

The guest list Kelly has assembled -- and it might yet expand, since he still awakens in a cold sweat, remembering another name to add -- is staggering. The clan will be spread over nine hotels in the Canton and Akron areas. Two hotels are completely booked with guests of Kelly, and there will be a huge bash Saturday night after the ceremonies.

He has fleshed out former peewee and junior high coaches, a onetime neighbor who first taught him how to throw a spiral, even former teachers. It's a good bet that East Brady, a town clearly down on its luck given the decline of industry in Western Pennsylvania, will be rendered a ghost town on Saturday afternoon. In fact, the police department has asked for overtime approval, to ensure there won't be wholesale looting by opportunists.

"I can't imagine that there is anyone we've missed," said Dan Kelly, one of Jim's five brothers and the man responsible for the daily operations of Kelly Enterprises, a Buffalo marketing and representation firm. "If there is, and they're out there, well, just show up. We'll try to squeeze you in somewhere."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for

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