Jim Kelly, the best quarterback nobody has ever seen play, throws
a dart at Ben Bennett's head.
The motion is smooth and graceful. It's a dart-throwing motion, of
course, but it displays a suppleness of arm and shoulder and a
certain panache that one senses translates well to rifling a football
50 yards downfield under heavy blitz.
Joe and Alice Kelly, Jim's parents, sit on the living room couch
watching TV with Toni, Jim's aunt. Kevin and Ed Kelly, two of Jim's
five brothers, sit on the floor. Ed (Uncle Ed) McGinn stands
bare-chested behind the bar and pulls himself a beer. He's not far
from the wall poster of a glistening, naked woman curling a chrome
dumbbell and the LeRoy Neiman original of Joe Namath in his Jets
uniform and the ''Irishman's Philosophy'' poster, which advises folks
to forget about dying and to party while they're alive.
Uncle Ed is huge. He is Alice Kelly's brother and shows clearly
where the Kelly boys -- all of whom are more than six feet tall and
200 pounds -- got their size. Uncle Ed's also funny (''We took him
to this comedy place called the Laugh Stop last night, and when we
left they gave him a standing ovation,'' says Jim). And tough. He
works for Edgewater Steel in Pittsburgh. Once he got hit in the
face by a crane hook that caved in his sinus cavity -- but it didn't
bring him to his knees.
All the Kellys of tiny East Brady, Pa., are tough. So is Bennett,
the former Duke quarterback, who lives in this suburban Houston home
with Jim and three of Jim's brothers. But he's not stupid. He pulls
his face away from the dart board a microsecond before Kelly's dart
buries itself in the cork.
''Bennett, you sick little worm,'' says Kelly, handing the darts
to his friend.
Bennett, who played for the Atlanta Falcons in 1985 and is now
attempting a comeback with the Houston Oilers, takes aim as Kelly
sticks his own face in and out of the line of fire.
''It's fair to harass the thrower when he's going for
bull's-eyes,'' Bennett explains.
There is a knock at the door and Larry Moriarty, the Oiler
fullback, walks in.
''Replenish your fluids?'' says Uncle Ed, a smile on his face.
When you enter a Kelly gathering you are absorbed into the family,
and the bonding agent is beer. The steins wielded by Uncle Ed are
gigantic, and he hands them out the way an usher distributes
playbills. The scene in Jim Kelly's home is noteworthy because in
America today the family is about as sacred as beef fat. Oh, we give
it plenty of lip service, we like the idea of it, but the Kellys
believe in it. They are tighter than the Cleavers. They get together
for any reason. Two other brothers would be here, but one's wife is
having a baby back in Virginia, where the brothers live. One of
them, Pat, played linebacker for the Colts and Detroit Lions.
And it's not as though everybody lives down the block. Jim flies
family members back and forth from Pennsylvania or wherever, picks up
all tabs, buys all provisions. This is just a little weekend gig.
Sometimes they fly to Hawaii. Houston happens to be the spot now
because Kelly played two years for the USFL's Houston Gamblers. The
Gamblers no longer exist, however, having thrown their cards in with
the New Jersey Generals last February. So Kelly is now a General,
which means almost nothing until the USFL's suit against the NFL is
resolved and it is determined who shall live, who shall die and who
might merge. But the family goes on. ''It's where all his strength
comes from,'' says Jerry Argovitz, the Generals president of the
moment and a former owner of the Gamblers. ''The Kelly family is
like a fairy tale,'' says Bennett, ''and the brothers are like a
Jim concedes the dart match to Bennett, who, he says, ''is a
freeloader who showed up two weeks ago and never left.'' Bennett
sleeps in the den of this plush five-bedroom, seven-bath house. Each
brother who lives here has a domestic job -- Ed cooks, Kevin cleans,
Danny pays the bills. Jim, who earns $800,000 a year, provides most
of the money, even though the other brothers do work. And Bennett?
''We keep him around just to beat him at everything,'' says Kelly.
As he walks past his mother now, he pats her shoulder. She
smokes, and Jim used to rag her so hard about it that she would cry.
''Then I thought about raising six boys like us and what that's got
to do to you, and I laid off,'' he says. His nagging may have helped,
though, because his mother gave up smoking June 30. The Kellys were
dirt poor when the boys were growing up, and they all remember the
bad times. Joe, a machinist, chose his fourth- oldest son to lead
the way to nobler things.
And he has. ''In 1983, the year of the quarterback, we had him
rated just behind John Elway, who was the first pick in the first
round,'' says Bill Tobin, the Bears' player personnel director.
''We had him rated ahead of Todd Blackledge, who was taken in front
of him, and ahead of Tony Eason and Ken O'Brien and, yes, Dan Marino.
And I haven't seen anything to change my opinion.''
Joe Kelly was never surprised by what Jim has turned out to be.
''Why did you push me so hard?'' Jim asks his father.
''Because I saw what an arm you had in Little League,'' Joe says.
''I had a dream you'd play pro football.''
''Did you dream I'd be a maid?'' asks Kevin.
''Put a collar on that for ya?'' says Uncle Ed, pointing to a
visitor's half-empty mug.
A crowd of 18,828 allegedly saw Jim Kelly beat the Los Angeles
Express 34-33 at the L.A. Coliseum on Feb. 24, 1985. The USFL
belongs to the school of creative attendance-counting, wherein seat
backs often become human beings -- but whoever or whatever watched
Kelly in the fourth quarter that day got a treat. With the Gamblers
down 33-13 and about nine minutes left in the game, Kelly threw
touchdown passes of 52, 40 and 39 yards in a total of 12 offensive
plays consuming just 208 seconds. The empty stadium echoed with
silence. But it was a performance that transcended the boundaries
of a lousy league. Even if the Express had tombstones for defensive
backs, it was some display. ''I ! didn't even think we'd get the
ball three times,'' says Gamblers-Generals offensive coordinator John
Jenkins. For the game Kelly completed 35 of 54 passes for 574 yards
and 5 TDs. It was a good day for him, but not unexpected.
In 1984, his first season in the USFL, Kelly threw for 5,219 yards
and 44 touchdowns, more in each category than any rookie in any
league. Until Dan Marino threw 48 TD passes later that year, no one
at all had ever connected on more scoring strikes in a season than
Kelly. In 1985 he missed the last four regular-season games with a
knee injury but still finished with 4,623 passing yards and 39
touchdowns. In both years Kelly led the USFL in passing yards, TDs
and completion percentage. In 1984 he was voted the MVP of the
league. His highlights that year included at least one touchdown pass
thrown in all 18 games, five consecutive 300-yard passing games and
20 completions in 23 attempts for 362 yards against the Jacksonville
Bulls. No quarterback in any league has thrown for more yards or
touchdowns in his first two years than Kelly has.
Each of the few people who have watched Kelly in the USFL has a
favorite highlight to trot out: the five-touchdown job Kelly had
against the Pittsburgh Maulers in 1984; the four-game stretch at the
start of the 1985 season, in which he averaged 418 yards and four TDs
passing per game; the 1985 streak of 120 passes without an
''I liked the San Antonio game at the Astrodome when we had the
ball on our own seven-yard line with 46 seconds left, trailing by
five,'' says Argovitz. '' 'O.K., guys,' T.F. says in the huddle.
'We got 'em right where we want 'em.' Boom. Two passes. Touchdown.
We win 28-26.''
''The Franchise,'' says Argovitz. ''That's what I call him.''
At 6 ft. 3 in., 215 pounds, with large hands and muscular legs,
Kelly is packaged just the way NFL scouts like 'em. That he got away
from the big league was mostly a function of USFL bidding madness and
the surgery on Kelly's right (throwing) shoulder that forced him to
miss the last eight games of his senior season at the University of
Miami. Argovitz was concerned about his recovery, and he flew Kelly
to Houston for a personal appraisal. The two went to a city park
where Argovitz, a former quarterback at Borger (Texas) High School,
played receiver. When Argovitz asked for some velocity, Kelly threw a
ball that dislocated the executive's right ring finger. Arm question
There has never been any doubt about Kelly's athletic skills. As
a 10- year-old he came close to winning the national Punt, Pass and
Kick competition. At East Brady High he starred in basketball and was
so good in football that his team was undefeated from the middle of
his sophomore year until he graduated.
''By Jim's senior year we were usually ahead of everybody 30-0 at
halftime, so he didn't play much,'' says former East Brady head coach
Terry Henry. ''Normally, the only incompletions he had were drops.
I remember one game when he was 14 of 16 with two passes that bounced
off kids' hands. He could be an NFL punter. His senior year at East
Brady he was the all- conference punter, placekicker, safety,
quarterback and league player of the year.''
In spite of being a western Pennsylvania hotshot, Kelly didn't
particularly care about going to Pitt. Penn State, however, would
have been the perfect choice, but the Lions wanted him as a
linebacker. Joe Paterno is sick of hearing about it. J.T. White,
the now retired State assistant coach who bird- dogged Kelly, says
wanly, ''He would've been a good linebacker, too.'' And Dwight
Gooden could probably play first base. In his first college start
Kelly visited University Park and said hello to the heavily favored
Lions by whipping them 26-10.
''Jim has never been afraid to take chances,'' says Henry.
''Going far away to Miami, to a losing program that was a risk. And
he got them going.''
''For a new league Kelly is the kind of guy you want,'' says
Argovitz. ''He's like Namath -- working class, talented,
Argovitz brings up the Namath portrait in Kelly's home. ''LeRoy,
one of these days you're going to come to us asking to do Jim
Kelly,'' Argovitz once said.
''I knew I wouldn't get the recognition in the USFL that I would
in the NFL, but I joined to make some money and have fun, and I've
done both,'' says Kelly, who remains the Buffalo Bills' property in
the NFL, after being a first-round draft pick in 1983.
All scrubbed and powdered, the boys arrive at Rick's Cabaret in
Houston to see the girls. And the girls are everywhere, in bathing
suits and negligees and outfits made of less fabric than goes into
most neckties. A raucous, upscale strip joint with flying confetti
and $75 bottles of champagne, Rick's is what happens when yuppies try
to one-up the conventions attended by their dads.
, Kelly, his two brothers and Moriarty and Bennett sit at a
table by a palm tree. In a moment a young lady approaches one of the
Kelly brothers and does a dance routine so close to him that his eyes
can't focus. This is the renowned table dance, $25 a shot, and
before long Kelly has purchased one of these adventures for everybody
in the group.
Kelly himself needs no help with women. They just seem to melt in
front of him.
''I am here from the Guinness Book of World Records to verify that
Jim Kelly has stolen more ladies' hearts than anyone in the history
of civilization,'' says Bennett. ''And I can't explain it. I mean,
I'm not going to say he's ugly, but he's no Tom Selleck, either. And
he can't sweet- talk like Don Juan. And the sickest thing is, a lot
of girls who swoon don't even know he's a great quarterback and
One former flame, Mary Ellen George of the Dallas Cowboys travel
department, says that Kelly's allure springs from ''his values and
background.'' She says that women love men who love their families
and don't change when things around them change. ''He appeals
because he's sensitive, believe it or not.'' So does she see him
anymore? ''I can't keep up with him,'' she sighs. ''As you said,
he's very popular with women.''
The thing here is that Jim Kelly, 26 (motto: ''I'm single, very
single''), could have the NFL, or at least the media that covers it,
in the palm of his hand -- particularly if the Generals wind up with
the NFL or stay in the gossip-crazed New York area and succeed in the
USFL. Who was the last great bachelor quarterback in the league?
Marino married his hometown sweetheart last year. McMahon is married
and has two children. Montana has been married three times. It
always comes back to Namath, and Broadway Joe hasn't played in New
York for a decade. There is a great tabloid void waiting to be
''America is in for a treat,'' proclaims Argovitz, sounding more
than a little like Namath's advance man, the legendary Sonny Werblin.
July 20, 1986
The following morning a car pulls up in front of Kelly's house.
The door opens and Kelly steps out, and a pretty young woman drives
off. Kelly says hi to his dad and Uncle Ed and brother Ed, who is
washing his car. Dad has already pumped iron this morning in
Kelly's weight room, the same room with Kelly's 200-plus hat
collection. Dad and Uncle Ed chuckle as Jim heads for the house.
The antitrust trial in New York has left things up in the air.
''The handcuffs are on. I can't say anything. Nothing,'' says
Bills general manager Bill Polian when asked what his team's plans
might be for signing Kelly if the USFL loses its case against the NFL
and folds its tent. Rumor has it that the Los Angeles Raiders are
trying to work a deal with the Bills to obtain Kelly's rights. ''With
that defense and the talent they have on offense, he'd be perfect
for the Raiders,'' says Bears quarterback Jim McMahon. Who wouldn't
be prefect on the Raiders? ''Marc Wilson,'' says McMahon.
''I'd like to play for the Raiders. I'd like to live in
California,'' Kelly says. ''But what I'd really like to do is play
for the New Jersey Generals and Donald Trump and merge with the NFL
and take the run-and-shoot with Herschel Walker in the backfield and
just kick ass.''
''If we win, we will have more money than the NFL, and that will
be interesting,'' says Trump. ''We already have teams that would
beat most NFL teams.'' Maybe, maybe not. Jim Mora, the former coach
of the USFL champion Baltimore Stars and now head coach of the New
Orleans Saints of the NFL, testified recently at the trial that the
Stars were not as good as the Saints, who finished 5-11 in 1985.
Kelly himself says he might play for the Bills if the USFL folds,
if they pay him a lot, or he might sit out the 1986 season and become
a free agent next year and go where he pleases for a trillion
dollars. ''Buffalo needs more than me, more than a quarterback,'' he
says. ''I'd get the tar beat out of me, and it would shorten my
If the USFL somehow plays its regularly scheduled fall season,
Kelly will start for the Generals against the Memphis Showboats on
He puts it all out of his mind as he and his family arrive at a
cattle ranch 75 miles west of Houston. The ranch belongs to a friend
of Argovitz's, and while ribs cook on the giant grill the president
himself runs patterns for his star employee. As Kelly tosses passes
over trees and through branches, there is no other way to describe
his bearing except with the word cocky.
It's an adjective everyone eventually uses when discussing Kelly.
Howard Schnellenberger, who coached Jim at Miami and Namath at
Alabama, refines the label even further. ''Joe was streetcorner
cocky,'' he says. ''Jim is rural cocky. At Miami all the players
called him Country -- Country Jim Kelly.'' Terry Henry says that as a
sophomore in high school Kelly was ''the smartest, cockiest thing
you can imagine.'' The coach remembers the time he took members of
the East Brady team in a van to scout another high school game, and
Kelly almost started a riot by mouthing off. ''We had cars chasing
us home,'' says Henry. ''Generally, though, Jim can talk his way out
''Jim just believes he owns the field,'' says Bennett. ''It's
corny, but there is an aura about him, kind of an innocence. People
are intimidated by him because he's so competitive. I've watched a
lot of his films, and I remember the first game of his rookie year,
against Tampa Bay. The defense just (did a job) on him. But no
matter what, he was still slinging. They say quarterbacks aren't
supposed to think about getting pounded, but you do. Nobody can take
a beating week after week and keep coming back. But Jim does. Hey,
I'd never tell him how good he is.''
''Cocky?'' says Argovitz, sweating during a break. ''Cocky is
only when you can't back it up.''
What Kelly is, says Argovitz, is confident and tough. He
mentions last year's Gamblers-Generals game, in which Kelly injured
his knee and then dislocated the ring finger on his throwing hand.
The finger was pointed straight sideways and Kelly went into the
locker room to get it treated. Kelly got the finger straightened and
then tested it by playing catch with his brothers Ray and Pat, who
had come down from the stands. ''I'm going back in,'' Kelly said.
He returned to the game and promptly threw a touchdown pass.
''I'll tell you who's cocky,'' says Kelly. ''My receivers. They
talk more trash than any people in the universe. I'd throw a
touchdown pass to one and the others would come back to the huddle
screaming, 'Man, I was open.' '' Kelly's receivers are called
the Mouseketeers because they are tiny and fast and because their
offensive coordinator with the Gamblers was Mouse Davis, the father
of the run-and-shoot offense.
The Mouseketeers ran patterns at Giants Stadium in the Meadowlands
Sports Complex in the first on-field meeting of the combined team
this spring. As they moved about, they talked unmitigated trash.
''I'm Skeets House-Call Verdin,'' says 5 ft. 8 in., 160-pound
Clarence Verdin, who caught 84 passes for Houston last season. ''At
night I'm Billy Dee. I got a Mr. T starter set. Look out.''
''Did you see the exhibition out there? Did you?'' says slotback
Richard Johnson, who caught 103 passes in 1985.
Kelly whips all eight or so of these wise guys into line during
games. The run-and-shoot basically is a system that requires the
quarterback to sprint out, read the defense on the move and quickly
hit any of his very mobile receivers before the secondary can adjust.
There is no tight end in the run- and-shoot, no fullback and only one
running back. When it's humming, the offense is almost impossible to
stop. But it requires intense concentration by the receivers and
everyone's total belief in the quarterback, who must make
instantaneous observations and often throw from an awkward position.
It also requires the semblance of a running attack to keep defenses
honest, something head coach Jack Pardee feels he has now with the
addition of Herschel Walker, the USFL's leading rusher. ''With my
receivers and Herschel we could score 35 points on the Chicago Bears.
No question,'' says Kelly.
Doug Flutie, the Generals starting quarterback before Kelly
arrived, says that he loves the offense. ''I wish I'd had a couple
years of this,'' he says. He and Kelly and former Gambler backup
Todd Dillon take turns running plays. Flutie doesn't have much of a
chance in this derby, because the entire offensive coaching staff,
offensive playbook and receiving corps came from Houston. Then, too,
Kelly dwarfs Flutie both physically and verbally.
''It doesn't hurt me to be starting new like this,'' Flutie
insists. ''Jim treats me good. There's no problem. I think we'll
A few days later Flutie looks a little less sanguine. That
morning an article has come out in the New York Daily News with the
headline KELLY WARNS FLUTIE. In it Kelly states that Flutie will have
to scramble just to beat out Dillon as a backup, that Flutie ''can
win Heismans and everything and still wind up third string.''
''Did you see that?'' asks Flutie, shocked. ''If you say something
in the press, you better back it up. Especially in New York. Jim's
So what did Flutie really think of Kelly last year, when the two
quarterbacks were on different teams, opponents trying to beat one
''The truth? I thought he was a cocky s.o.b. Our guys hit him
some late shots out-of-bounds and he just got right back up, talking