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You Wouldn’t Exactly Call Jim Kelly’s New Place of Residence the Promised Land, but the Fans Expect Him to Lead Bills There : HE HAS THEM BUFFALOED

Times Staff Writer

How much abuse can a city take and still keep turning the other cheek--and always with a smile? Buffalo has swallowed enough rejection from Jim Kelly over the last three years to qualify as the masochistic headquarters of the National Football League.

Yet, what happened when the former United States Football League quarterback agreed to play in the Western New York outpost for $8 million over the next five years? Buffalo not only took him to its heart, it made him larger than life.

When Kelly, flanked by his agent and his attorney, were driven in from the airport to a downtown hotel in Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson’s long, black limo, people lined the streets, cheering as if a national hero had hit town.

Donn Esmonde, sports columnist for the Buffalo News, wrote: “Perhaps it borders on the blasphemous to label any professional athlete, no matter how proficient, a ‘savior.’ But had Moses strolled down from the Boston Hills, it is hard to imagine his appearance would’ve been met with more enthusiasm.”

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At the civic celebration, General Manager Bill Polian of the Bills said, in all seriousness: “I’d like to thank all the people of Buffalo who lit candles and prayed for us during this negotiation.”

Kelly, 26, only three years removed from the University of Miami and an untried rookie by NFL standards, couldn’t believe the reaction.

“I didn’t expect anything like that,” he said. “Movie stars get that sort of thing, or rock singers. But not quarterbacks.

“You know, coming in, I thought a lot of people might be real angry because when I was drafted by Buffalo, I choose the USFL, and then I didn’t speak too highly of the Bills.”

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That’s understatement No. 1.

When Kelly was voted Most Valuable Player in the USFL he said: “I cried when I was drafted by Buffalo. Well, I didn’t cry, but it wasn’t one of the happiest days in my life. You can’t be a great quarterback in snow and 30-m.p.h. winds.”

And again, on why he signed with the Houston Gamblers of the USFL instead of Buffalo: “There were several reasons not to sign with Buffalo. For one, it’s one of the most depressed areas in America.”

Now that he’s in Buffalo, the 6-foot 3-inch, 215-pound Pennsylvanian is soft-pedaling his previous comments, but he isn’t backing off for a minute that he made the right decision in June 1983 when he signed with Houston. And he still thinks that the USFL team he was going to play for this fall--a combination of the New Jersey Generals and Houston Gamblers--could score 35 points against the NFL champion Chicago Bears.

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“I’m a young person but I am mature enough to make decisions on my own,” he said. “In your life you have to make some critical decisions. I made the choice to play for the USFL in Houston instead of Buffalo, and to this point I don’t regret it one bit. I had two great years, broke some records, played with some good people, and played for a great coach in Jack Pardee. I had a heck of a lot of fun, too, and that’s important.

“The decision to go to Houston was no more difficult than the one I made coming out of high school when I chose to play quarterback at Miami instead of linebacker at Penn State.”

Kelly played both offense and defense at East Brady High, and Penn State Coach Joe Paterno wanted him to play linebacker for the Nittany Lions.

“I just wish we’d had the chance this year to show what the New Jersey team could do,” he said. “I had some great receivers for our run-and-shoot offense, our line had been together two years and knew what each other could do, and we would have had Herschel Walker running the ball. Yeah, I think we could have scored 35 points on anybody. I’m just sorry we never got that team on the field.”

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When the USFL canceled its season, both Kelly and Walker were released from their obligations by New Jersey owner Donald Trump.

His estimated $8-million contract makes Kelly the highest-paid player in professional football--before he has played a down in the NFL. Said A.J. Faigin, Kelly’s attorney: “We established what it costs to have a Mona Lisa.”

But can even Kelly turn around a team that has won only four of its last 32 games?

“Football is football, wherever you play it,” Kelly said. “Like I said when I first got to Buffalo, you’re only as good as the people around you. I know Buffalo didn’t have much of a record last year, but if you look closely, you’ll find they lost 8 to 10 games in the last quarter. This year’s team has a lot of potential and if the offensive line can give me some time, we’ll be just fine.”

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Kelly’s statistics in the USFL are impressive. He completed 730 of 1,154 passes for 83 touchdowns. He had 16 300-yard games, and in a 34-33 comeback victory over the L.A. Express in the 1985 opening game at the Coliseum, he threw for a league-record 574 yards and 5 touchdowns.

The Express and Coliseum management claimed that 18,828 fans were there for that February game, but Kelly doesn’t believe it, and if he has any regrets over his two years in the USFL, they are triggered by the lack of attendance.

“That’s what’s good about coming to the NFL,” he said. “You play in front of so many people. I know the rap on the USFL was that you could go out and throw for 575 yards and throw for 5 touchdowns and there’s only about 6,000 in the stands, so you felt that you didn’t really accomplish what you wanted to. If you did that in front of 80,000, well, you’d have to feel good inside.”

Kelly, thanks to himself, will have his 80,000 fans in Rich Stadium when Buffalo opens its season Sunday against the New York Jets.

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Before Kelly signed with the Bills Aug. 18--when Art Schlichter and Bruce Mathison were the Buffalo quarterbacks--there were fewer than 20,000 season tickets sold and no more than 40,000 people were expected for the opening game. Two weeks after the signing, Schlichter and Mathison were both released, and all 80,020 seats had been sold for Sunday’s game. It is the first sellout in Buffalo since 1983.

Even more pleased than the folks in Buffalo is Kelly’s father, Joe.

“When I signed with Houston, my dad was real upset,” Kelly said. “Buffalo’s only about a three-hour drive from East Brady, so he wanted me to play with the Bills. I told him I’d buy him a house in Houston, but he and mom wouldn’t think of leaving Pennsylvania. Now that I’m with Buffalo, I bought them a new Winnebago so they can make all the home games. Dad’s as happy as a little kid.”

Buffalo Coach Hank Bullough tried to explain to a visitor why such a fuss has been raised over his rookie quarterback.

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“You have to realize that we don’t have a whole lot to hang our hats on around Buffalo,” he said. “There’s the Bills, the pro hockey Sabres, the minor league baseball Bisons--and Niagara Falls. Now, when a guy in Miami, or Los Angeles, picks up the paper and reads about Buffalo, it won’t be all about the snow we get. It’ll be about Jim Kelly. People in Buffalo will benefit from that.”

On the other hand, what must Kelly think about his future in Buffalo when the team’s official song ends with this pleading wail:

“We can make it happen. I do believe in Buffalo. I do believe in Buffalo. I do, I do, I do, I do, I do. We can. I do believe in Buffalo. I do believe in Buffalo. I do, I do, I do, I do, I do. We can.”


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