James Edward Kelly (born February 14, 1960 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) is a former American football quarterback in the NFL for the Buffalo Bills.
Kelly was drafted in the 1983 NFL Draft, rated just behind John Elway on at least one NFL draft list. Employing the K-Gun offense known for its hurry up shotgun formations and used by later teams like Peyton Manning's Indianapolis Colts and leading one of the great NFL scoring juggernauts in the Buffalo Bills, Kelly led the Bills to four consecutive Super Bowls in 1990, 1991, 1992, and 1993, though the Bills lost all four of them. In 2002, in his first year of eligibility, he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
East Brady High School
Kelly grew up in the small town of East Brady, Pennsylvania
, about 55 miles northeast of Pittsburgh. He was a standout at East Brady High School, where during his high school career he won all-state honors after passing for 3,915 yards and 44 TD's. After his senior year, Kelly played in the Big 33 Football Classic
Kelly also played basketball in high school, scoring over 1,000 points in his high school basketball career and had six 30+ point games. As a senior he led East Brady to the basketball state semifinals and averaged 23 points and 20 rebounds.
University of Miami and USFL
Kelly wanted to attend Penn State
under Joe Paterno
, but he was not offered a quarterback scholarship, instead they offered him a scholarship at linebacker. His brother, Pat, already an NFL player, advised Jim to look for a school offering a quarterback scholarship instead. He went to the University of Miami
, and made his first start against Penn State, a 26-10 Hurricane win in State College
. At Miami he played an important role in helping build the University of Miami into one of the nation's premier collegiate football programs. He finished his career at Miami with 406 completions in 646 attempts for 5,233 yards and 32 TD's. This performance earned Kelly a place in the University of Miami Hall of Fame when he was inducted in 1992.
The Buffalo Bills selected Kelly in the first round of the 1983 NFL Draft, but because of the Bills having two back-to-back 2 and 14 seasons, poor attendance, and the cold weather, he instead signed with the Houston Gamblers of the rival United States Football League. In two seasons in Houston, running coach Mouse Davis' run-and-shot offense, he threw for 9,842 yards and 83 touchdowns, completing 63% with an average of 8.53 yards per attempt but with 45 interceptions. He was the USFL MVP in 1984, when he set a league record with 5,219 yards passing and 44 TD passes.
Kelly finally joined the Bills (who had retained his NFL rights) in 1986 after the USFL folded. He helped lead the Bills to 4 consecutive Super Bowl appearances and 5 divisional championships from 1989 to 1995. Buffalo made the playoffs in 8 of Kelly's 11 seasons as their starting quarterback. Kelly's primary 'go-to' wide receiver with the Bills, Andre Reed
, ranks among the NFL's all-time leaders in several receiving categories. Kelly and Reed connected for 65 TD's during their career together trailing only the tandems of Peyton Manning
and Marvin Harrison
(109), Steve Young
and Jerry Rice
(85), and Dan Marino
and Mark Clayton
(79) for touchdowns by an NFL Quarterback/Receiver tandem.
Kelly was perhaps best known for running the Bills' "K-Gun" no-huddle offense
, which was a fast-paced offense that denied opposing defenses the opportunity to make timely substitutions. (The NFL later changed the rules in response to this to allow opposing defenses time to change formations under no-huddle situations.) This offensive scheme called for multiple formation calls in a huddle, so that after each play was completed, the Bills would eschew a following huddle, instead lining up for the next play where Kelly would read the defense and audible the play. This led to mismatches and defensive communication breakdowns and, in the 1990s, established the Bills as one of the NFL's most successful and dangerous offenses, instrumental in leading Buffalo to four consecutive Super Bowl appearances.
Records and accomplishments
Kelly holds the all-time NFL record for most yards gained per completion in a single game (44), established on September 10
in the Bills' game against the Carolina Panthers
. He recorded an NFL best 101.2 passer rating in 1990, led the league with 33 touchdowns passes in 1991, and made the Pro Bowl
four times (1987
, and 1992
In his four Super Bowls, Kelly completed 81 of 145 passes for 829 yards and 2 touchdowns, with 7 interceptions. His 81 completions and 145 attempts are the second most in Super Bowl history behind Joe Montana. In Super Bowl XXVI, he set a record with 58 pass attempts, and in Super Bowl XXVIII he set a record with 31 completions (this was later surpassed by Tom Brady's 32 completions in Super Bowl XXXVIII).
Kelly finished his 11 NFL seasons with 2,874 completions in 4,779 attempts for 35,467 yards and 237 touchdowns, with 175 interceptions, all of which are Buffalo records. Along with Dan Marino, Kelly was a pioneer of the mass yearly accumulation of passing yardage that is now common among NFL quarterbacks. He also rushed for 1,049 yards and 7 touchdowns.
On August 3, 2002, Kelly was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Kelly was enshrined during the first year he was eligible, and headlined a class that also featured John Stallworth, Dan Hampton, Dave Casper, and George Allen. Fellow Hall of Famer and former head coach, Marv Levy, was Kelly's presenter at the ceremony.
Kelly devoted much of his post-football life to his son, Hunter, who was diagnosed with Globoid-Cell Leukodystrophy (Krabbe disease
) shortly after his birth on February 14, 1997. Hunter died as a result of this disease on August 5
at the age of eight. Kelly's retirement from football was largely based on his son Hunter being diagnosed with the disease, and even turned down the Baltimore Ravens
offer on a possible comeback in 1998 strictly based on Hunter's condition.
To honor his son, Kelly established a non-profit organization in 1997 (Hunter's Hope). Kelly's advocacy on behalf of Krabbes' patients has increased national awareness of the disease. Kelly and his wife, Jill, founded the annual Hunter's Day of Hope, which is held on February 14, the birthdays of both Jim and Hunter Kelly.
When Kelly was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2002, he dedicated his speech to Hunter. "It's been written that the trademark of my career was toughness," said Kelly, as he choked back tears. "The toughest person I ever met in my life was my son, my hero, Hunter. I love you, buddy."
Kelly continues to reside in Orchard Park, New York, with his wife and children.
He has several business ventures, including Hall of Fame Life Promotions. A promotional company that is committed to donating a percentage of all of its proceeds to The Hunter's Hope Foundation.
Promises to keep Bills in Buffalo
On December 19
Kelly reassured fans and media members that as long as he was involved, he can't see the Bills "going anywhere else."