If there's a way to pull out of the Huntsville, Texas, Holiday Inn parking lot with panache, this must be it. As Jim Kelly idles his cherry-red 1984 Crossfire Injection Corvette Stingray outside the headquarters of the Houston Gamblers' spring training camp, the rumble of horsepower says just one thing: Nobody in the world needs a car like this.
"I had it up to 110, just once," says Kelly in his naturally hoarse, chummy voice. "The needle only goes to 85, but after that you get a digital readout."
It's a Wednesday night and Kelly is headed for The Jolly Fox on Sam Houston Avenue. That's where the video games, pool tables and Sam Houston State coeds are. That's where a lot of the Gamblers go after the last team meeting and before the 11 o'clock curfew.
Curfew is in effect every night now. The team got one Saturday night off a couple weeks ago and all hell broke loose: A running back was arrested for drunken driving; a guard was arrested for public intoxication; a tackle was arrested for putting two Huntsville policemen in the hospital. The Gamblers are an expansion team in an iffy league, and the players, you could say, are keyed up.
February 27, 1984
But the 6'3", 215-pound Kelly is calm, if a little dazed by his circumstances. At 24 he is wealthy and has been since he signed a five-year, $4 million "escalating" contract with the Gamblers last June, but the only thing he has bought for himself since then is a stereo. The Vette has been loaned to him.
As part of a promotional deal with Chevrolet, Kelly gets a new one every three months or 5,000 miles, whichever comes first. "Or they'll give me a new one if somebody buys the one I'm driving," Kelly says. "Awesome, isn't it? The last car was silver. I may come out in the parking lot some night and not even remember what my car looks like. But I'll know it's a Corvette."
If Kelly does everything he's supposed to for this team and this league, he'll never have to worry about Corvettes or cash again. He'll be a real-life savior, The Man Who Made People Watch Spring Football. In a league filled with over-the-hill and never-will-be quarterbacks, he could be the shining light, the favorite son who never played a down in the NFL. Dr. Jerry Argovitz, the dentist-turned-agent-turned-Houston Gamblers president, believes Kelly has the skills and charisma to be a modern-day Joe Namath and do for the USFL what Namath did for the AFL two decades ago.
Certainly that's how Kelly's agent, Greg Lustig, promoted him. "I told everybody in the USFL, 'You can sign all the running backs in the world, all the Herschel Walkers, Tim Spencers and Kelvin Bryants you want,' " says Lustig. " 'But quarterbacks are the guys. Quarterbacks bring credibility.' "
If Kelly's name doesn't ring a bell, there's a reason. His last season at the University of Miami was 1982, and he played only the first 2½ games that year before suffering a severe separation of his right (throwing) shoulder and undergoing surgery. His shoulder was jammed into the turf when he was tackled after scrambling 20 yards against Virginia Tech. Though he was a preseason Heisman Trophy candidate, he suddenly became a question mark. Nobody knew how the shoulder would mend.
The Chicago Blitz made him their 12th-round pick in 1983 and the Buffalo Bills chose him in the first round of the NFL draft (the third quarterback taken, after John Elway and Todd Blackledge). "The kid was the best quarterback coming out of school last year," says Miami head coach Howard Schnellenberger. "I think he'll be more productive than Elway. I coached Namath and Steve Sloan and Ken Stabler in college, and he accomplished and understood more than any of them. That's Namath, Sloan and Stabler. How much higher can I go?"
At Miami, Kelly played in six TV games. In all six he was voted Most Valuable Offensive Player. "What that tells you is the more intense the competition, the better he gets," says Darrel (Mouse) Davis, the Gamblers' offensive coordinator. "And that's what separates great quarterbacks from the others."
Kelly's right forearm is still slightly numb from nerve damage suffered when his shoulder was hurt, and he has to loosen up a long time before he can cut loose with his tight-spiraling 70-yard bombs. But otherwise the arm is solid and ready to go after a layoff of nearly a year and a half. "We stretch it, strengthen it, ice it down," says Gamblers trainer Roy Don Wilson. "You got a machine like that, you keep it tuned and lubed."
Kelly dresses in Animal House chic—bib overalls, sweatshirts, baseball caps—and he doesn't care much whether his sandy hair sticks straight up or out the earholes of his helmet. But his teammates know—and like—what they've got.
"This is a guy who's for real," says wide receiver Scott McGhee. "A guy who can make the whole league for real."
Kelly is the fourth-oldest son of Joe and Alice Kelly of East Brady, Pa., a rural town 70 miles northeast of Pittsburgh. The Kellys were hoping for their first daughter when Jim was born. They tried once more after that, were greeted with twin sons, Dan and Kevin, and called it quits.
Joe Kelly is a machinist at nearby Daman Industries, and his paycheck was stretched thin. AH six Kelly boys grew to be more than 6 feet tall and weigh more than 210 pounds, and they all played college football. The oldest, Pat, now 33, was a middle linebacker for the Colts and Lions of the NFL and the Birmingham Vulcans of the old WFL.
"We drove my mom nuts," says Jim. "We'd put our helmets on and play football in the house. We'd go to relatives' houses and break all our cousins' toys, tear the baby dolls' heads off and kill the goldfish. Sometimes we'd sneak a basketball rim into our living room and put it on the wall and play. Mom would chase us around the table with a belt, but she'd never catch us. She'd say, 'Wait until Dad gets home,' and when we knew he was coming we'd all hide."
Joe Kelly was raised in an orphanage, joined the Navy when he was 17 and never had time for sports. But he wanted his boys to play—outdoors at least. Especially Jim.
"He had something a little bit extra, a little more than the other boys," says Joe. "I felt that all he needed was a little push to become great."
So from grade school to high school when Jim came home for lunch on days when his dad was working the afternoon or night shift, they practiced football before eating. It was a bittersweet routine.
"He pushed me so hard, it was unbelievable," says Jim. "He wouldn't let me eat until I'd worked out. Sometimes there wouldn't be time to eat. Sometimes I wouldn't even come home because I hated it so much." But the practice paid off—among other things, father and son won a free trip to San Diego for the national semifinals of the 1970 Punt, Pass and Kick contest—and time has dulled any unpleasant memories.
"Looking back now, I'm really glad I had a father like mine," says Jim. "I think I'd do the same for my own son."
Indeed, Kelly is so pleased with the closeness of his family and thankful for the sacrifices his parents made for him and his brothers that he has been in a frenzy to share his newfound riches.
"He'd like to give all his money away," says Lustig with a touch of concern. "So I've tried to temper his generosity some."
Kelly already has remodeled and refurnished his parents' house; he's sending all his brothers on a cruise to Acapulco; he has set Kevin up with a gardening business in Miami; he's paying Dan's tuition at the University of Houston and the rent on his apartment, and he bought him a car and hired him as "my personal trainer and secretary." He also sends his older brothers money once a month and gets truly wired whenever a birthday comes up. Christmas puts him in ecstasy. "All I'm doing is what anybody in my family would do if they were in my position," Kelly says.
Late last May, Lustig and his partner, A.J. Faigin, were in the Bills' offices ready to sign up Kelly with Buffalo for $2.1 million for four years—only partly guaranteed—when a Bills secretary interrupted the negotiations to say there was a call for Lustig. On the line was Bruce Allen, the general manager of the Blitz, with whom Lustig had also been negotiating. "Hold everything," Allen said. "The USFL will make you an offer you can't refuse."
"We were this close to signing with the Bills," says Lustig. "I mean, the next word out of my mouth was going to be 'Yes.' "
Lustig and Faigin flew off to meet with Allen and John Bassett, owner of the Tampa Bay Bandits, who had been delegated by the other owners to try to persuade Kelly to join the USFL. Lustig spelled out what Kelly would need to play in the new league.
First, there had to be $1 million cash up front. Then a great big interest-free loan. The total worth of the contract, exclusive of the loan, had to be around $2.5 million. No deferred payments, no annuities, no puffed-up insurance policies, no tax deals, no stock portfolios. "Let us be the creative ones," said Lustig. The whole thing had to be guaranteed. And, running back Mark Rush, Kelly's roommate and best friend from college and a fourth-round pick of the Minnesota Vikings, had to come along, too.
Lustig was dealing from strength. As time went by and Kelly's arm grew stronger, the quarterback looked more and more like a plum. Other name rookie throwers—Elway, Blackledge, Tony Eason—had already agreed to play in the NFL. The USFL needed Kelly, needed a hotshot straight from college. The league said Kelly could pick the team he wanted to play for.
Kelly got offers from a number of USFL teams. Eventually he talked contract with the Gamblers and Argovitz, and now the former dentist abruptly found himself in the drilling chair. Argovitz didn't mind signing Rush—for four years at an estimated $750,000—because he'd wanted Rush anyway. But when he told Lustig he would pay what Lustig had asked for Kelly, Lustig shook his head and said, "That was yesterday."
What Lustig had decided he wanted, besides more money, was something that had rarely been done before. He wanted an escalator clause assuring that Kelly's contract would never become outdated. In short, he wanted a guarantee that Kelly would never be less than the third-highest-paid quarterback in the USFL. If other quarterbacks' salaries went way up, Kelly's would go up, too. Lustig got what he asked for.
"I got every dime I could from the Gamblers," he says. "But I don't think I stole from them. They don't feel that way, either. There was never a voice raised. I was asking for something sophisticated, and it took somebody like Jerry to understand it."
Kelly himself likes Argovitz; indeed, the two may room together on the road this season. But he just shakes his head when asked about Lustig. "What can you say about a guy who gets you the best contract in the history of pro football?" Kelly asks.
Kelly wanted to go to Penn State after high school, but Joe Paterno recruited him only as a linebacker and Kelly backed off. For the Hurricanes Kelly's first start came in his second year (he was redshirted his first) against Penn State, at State College, Pa. The game was televised in the Miami area. Kelly was 19 and scared to death.
On Kelly's first play defensive tackle Bruce Clark hit him and partly dislocated his jaw. Kelly trotted to the sideline for treatment by a trainer. He went back onto the field, played the rest of the game and led Miami, a heavy underdog, to a 26-10 victory. After that, people knew he was tough.
His teammates also knew he had a weak stomach. Shortly before that Penn State game Kelly had gone to the lavatory and thrown up. "I'd always done that before games in high school, and I probably will in the pros," says Kelly, who indeed threw up before the Gamblers' first exhibition. "But that was the first time in college, because it was my first start. Everybody got a kick out of it. After that, the guys would all start watching me before a game. Finally I'd get up and go to the John and throw up, and they'd all cheer and go wild. That's how I psyched them up."
In no other city in America was there as much tumult as in Miami while Kelly went to school there. There were Cuban and Haitian boatlifts, race riots, shoot-'em-up drug-smuggling operations and bombings by anti-Castro groups. There were local blacks and Cuban-Americans on the Hurricanes, but they and their teammates worked to insulate themselves from the surrounding turmoil. Kelly and his buddies drank at Duffy's, a bar near campus, and did their best to act like football players at Ordinary U.
"We'd see a stinky refugee boat on the beach and just use it as another punch line in practice," says Rush. Not all of the players had hard shells—Kelly, who graduated with a degree in business management, spent much of his spare time working as the South Florida Easter Seals chairman, for instance—but there was a sense that what was going on outside was just too weird to deal with. That feeling drew the players together, and the team flourished because of it.
Kelly and Rush were on the Miami sideline in January when the Hurricanes beat Nebraska 31-30 in the Orange Bowl to win the national championship. Because of all they had given to the program, they felt that they were part of that win. In fact, Schnellenberger says that if Kelly hadn't gone down early in '82, that team might have won the national title, too. "Certainly they had more experience than this year's team," says Schnellenberger.
Recently, Kelly and Rush sat in a Huntsville steak house and listened to Tony Fitzpatrick tell what it was like actually to have played in that game. "It was incredible, harder than anything I've ever done before," said Fitzpatrick, then an undersized noseguard for Miami and now an undersized noseguard for the Gamblers. "I was more beat up, gouged, cut, bruised and pounded than I've ever been."
Normally, Rush and Kelly take Fitzpatrick about as seriously as a character from a Cheech & Chong movie, which is the way Fitz likes it. He is, after all, the guy who used to line up in front of the Miami center in practice and put on such an act—making wisecracks and funny faces—that Kelly and the center could hardly complete a snap. But this time Rush and Kelly listened quietly. After a time Kelly raised his beer glass and said, "Here's to the national championship."
The three buddies touched glasses. They would love to see the togetherness they had in Miami start to blossom on the Gamblers. "Just like fifty brothers" was the way Rush put it.
Now at The Jolly Fox, though it's Ladies Night, nothing is cooking. Kelly looks at his watch. Ten minutes until curfew. Time to head back to the Holiday Inn.
You want to talk partying, says Kelly en route, you should have seen my family's house in East Brady over the winter holidays. Kelly, his dad and his five huge brothers gathered at the basement bar to slug shots of Jack Daniels and wash them down with drafts from the beer dispenser Kelly bought his dad for Christmas. "I mean, we're 100 percent Irish," says Kelly. "And we drink."
He turns up the tape deck to a deafening level. Somebody is singing about spending the night with somebody else. The windows vibrate. This is how young people listen to music in cars these days.
Kelly absentmindedly rubs his right shoulder. Recovery was never a sure thing. There was the time, for instance, two months after his operation in 1982, when he and some friends drove up to Tallahassee to watch the Florida-Florida State game. Kelly and his buddies were in the back of a pickup truck slowly cruising one of the main drags when a Volkswagen drove by in the opposite direction.
"We were wearing Miami hats, and the people in the VW shouted a wisecrack about Miami guys," says Kelly. "For some reason I had a lemon in my hand, and I just wound up and chucked that sumbitch at the car."
Kelly's arm was still withered and brittle, and the motion nearly ended whatever football dreams he had. "The pain, oh my god," says Kelly. "I fell down and lay there in the bed of the truck for about 10 minutes. All I could think was, 'How stupid can a human be?' "
But Kelly worked hard, showed restraint and healed himself. That he threw the lemon at all says something about the remarkable confidence he has in his athletic skills. It's one of the main reasons the USFL is banking on him.
"Hey," says Kelly, turning in his seat to reveal a sly, steely grin. "I hit that VW."