Jim Kelly hasn't played quarterback in 18 years, but this week he has a home game. It's Bills-Dolphins, the first game of the season at Ralph Wilson Stadium. Kelly will pop his prosthetic jaw into his mouth, tailgate in his RV in the parking lot and cheer with the fans who cheered him.
"Oh, I'm not gonna miss it," he says. "It's Dolphin Week."
This spring Kelly fought off squamous cell carcinoma for the second time, an experience that can make a man reevaluate how and where he spends his days. When he left his New York City hospital in April, he told his brother Danny that the stay there had been the longest two weeks of his life. Danny said, "You were there six weeks." Jim's brain had been so jumbled by radiation and chemotherapy that he lost track of time.
But he never lost his sense of place. He knew he had to get to the other side of the state, to his family and friends and to the region he has come to represent.
Kelly, who grew up outside of Pittsburgh and went to college at Miami, is an unlikely ambassador for the city of Buffalo. After the Bills drafted him in 1983, he took one look at a weather map and jilted them to sign with the USFL's Houston Gamblers. When the USFL collapsed in '86, Kelly joined the Bills and discovered that there is no better place to play football. Fans worship the players, and after nearly five decades without a championship, expectations are reasonable. Buffalo is Pittsburgh or Green Bay without history's ghosts.
Kelly led the Bills to four straight Super Bowls and parked his RV in the same spot on game days for 25 straight years. As a player, he would walk out of the locker room and sign autographs as he walked to his motor home, then he'd host postgame parties for the whole team at his house. After he retired, he lost the blitzing linebackers but kept the beer-and-RV portion of his Sunday routine.
These fall afternoons should repeat themselves forever, but Kelly knows they might not. Longtime Bills owner Ralph Wilson died last spring at age 95. The team is up for sale. Fans worry about new owners who might promise a new stadium but neglect to mention that it would be in another city. Toronto wants a team. San Antonio wants a team. Los Angeles has been told it wants a team. But nobody wants a team as much as Buffalo wants its Bills.
If NFL commissioner Roger Goodell can't find a way to keep the Bills in Buffalo, he should change his league's logo to a giant dollar sign. Moving the Bills would be sports blasphemy, as appalling as the Browns leaving Cleveland. The Bills are a bridge between neighbors, a five-month reminder that the city is one of a kind. What is Buffalo? Wikipedia tells you it is the second-most-populous city in the state of New York. Residents tell you Buffalo is shopping at Wegmans, beef-on-weck sandwiches and the Bills.
Kelly is so worried about the Bills leaving town that he considered forming a group to buy the team. One prospective owner, rock star Jon Bon Jovi, spent three hours in Kelly's living room recently, trying to convince Kelly to endorse his bid. But Bon Jovi's group had ties to Toronto, so Kelly declined. Sabres owner Terry Pegula is also bidding, which is encouraging. Kelly isn't affiliated with any prospective buyers now, and says, "I don't care who it is. If they're keeping the team in Buffalo, I'm all for it."
Kelly is not from Buffalo, but he is now of Buffalo. He and his wife, Jill, have raised their kids there. He embraces the winters. He hunts at his lodge in New York's Southern Tier, an hour away. When Kelly's cancer was diagnosed, his buddies teased him: You can't die, man. Where will we go hunting? The jokes helped because they kept him from thinking too much. But sometimes, thinking is all he needs. He goes to his lodge by himself and reflects on a life well-lived, the days he has left and the place where he wants to spend them.
"Words cannot describe the thankfulness I have in my heart," he says. "The support I got from Western New York, that's why I live here. That's why I'm staying here for the rest of my life. That's why I pull so hard for the Buffalo Bills."
"I don't care who it is," Kelly says of the various candidates to buy the Bills. "If they're keeping the team in Buffalo, I'm all for it."
Should the Bills stay in Buffalo?
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CARLOS M. SAAVEDRA FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED