Kelly’s life as a Miami Hurricane began in 1978, after he graduated from the now shut-down East Brady (Pa.) High School, about an hour’s drive north of Pittsburgh. Most expected him to play for the Nittany Lions of Penn State, at that time a perennial college football powerhouse. But Kelly, born and bred in bitter-cold Western Pennsylvania on the shores of the Allegheny River, chose the sun and surf of Miami.
Why? Because the Lions wanted him as a linebacker, and then-Miami coach Lou Saban let him be a quarterback.
“If it weren’t for the Hurricanes,” he said, “I’m sure I wouldn’t be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.”
Kelly’s first start as a redshirt freshman in the eighth game of 1979 is still considered one of UM’s greatest victories, a 26-10 upset of then 40-point favorite Penn State. Kelly passed for 280 yards and three touchdowns.
Art Kehoe, UM’s current offensive line coach, was Kelly’s left guard in that game. Don Bailey Jr., current UM football radio analyst for WQAM, was Kelly’s freshman center who made his first start in the same game. Bailey recalled coach Howard Schnellenberger telling Kelly just moments before the game that he was going to start.
“Jim walked into the bathroom and threw up,” Bailey said.
“To be honest,” Kelly said, “I thought I was going to that game to get chocolate chip cookies from mom and dad and hopefully get an opportunity to play when Penn State was beating up on us. But it turned out that I started and we beat up on them.”
Bailey, Kehoe and countless other Hurricanes fans, call it “the game that put Miami on the map” and spawned “Quarterback U.”
“What a football player, my God. Never one play, one minute, one quarter, one circumstance when Jim Kelly was in the huddle and you didn’t think you had a chance to win,” Bailey said.
“Jim Kelly is going to win against cancer.”
Kelly isn’t surprised his 5,228 passing yards at UM, which started this season as 10th all-time in the Canes’ record book, has already been surpassed by quarterback Stephen Morris.
“Remember, I only played two full years at UM,” he said.
Kelly severely separated his throwing shoulder when he was tackled during the third game of the 1982 season, ending his college career. Doctors inserted three rods into the shoulder and said he would never regain full range of motion.
Dolphins fans only wish that were true.
The Canes went on to win their first national title the season after Kelly left. Kelly went on to throw for 35,467 career yards with the Bills from 1986 to ’96 in leading them to four consecutive Super Bowls — all losses.
Against the Dolphins, however, he won a lot more than he lost — especially when it counted most.
Kelly beat the Dolphins in all three playoff games he quarterbacked: a 44-34 AFC East victory at Rich Stadium on Jan. 12, 1991; a 29-10 AFC Championship victory at Joe Robbie Stadium on Jan. 17, 1993 — Dan Marino’s final appearance in an AFC title game; and a 37-22 victory on Dec. 30, 1995, in a wild-card playoff that would be Don Shula’s final game as coach.
Despite the bad blood between the Bills and Dolphins, Kelly’s reception Sunday will likely be a warm one in the place he once dominated. These days, Kelly is on the Bills’ staff. Besides sharing his knowledge of the franchise with prospective players, he travels to some road games, schmoozes with fans and mingles with sponsors. He admits it’s a bit odd coming to a stadium that booed him as a Bill, yet has his name hanging in giant letters for UM games as a member of the Ring of Honor.
Something similar happened to him earlier this month when Allstate recognized him as a “Hometown Hall of Famer,” but had to hold the ceremony and erect the plaque in his rival high school because his school was closed down more than 20 years ago.
“Weird, but awesome,” Kelly said. “The Dolphins fans are great to me because a lot of them remember me as a Miami Hurricane.”
Kelly, whose nephew is a redshirt freshman quarterback for Clemson, still watches Miami games when he can — and still loathes the Gators. But even Nat Moore, a former Gator and prolific Dolphins receiver whose career with Miami ended when Kelly’s was beginning with the Bills, will be cheering for Kelly (but not the Bills) when the Hall of Famer visits Sunday.
“Jimmy is a fighter,” said Moore, the Dolphins senior vice president of alumni relations. “When you think of Jim Kelly, you think of a guy that never gives up.”