This article originally appeared on buffalobills.com in 2010, leading up to the 2010 NFL draft, as the site shared memories of some of the Bills most memorable draft choices. Was it a choice of incomparable value? Was it the top pick in the draft? Was it a pick that far exceeded anyone’s expectations? Those choices were up for debate at the Buffalo Bills all-time draft site.
Kelly was leading a revival of the University of Miami program. Coming off a 9-2 season in 1981, which included a 17-14 win over number one ranked Penn State, Kelly hoped for bigger and better things his senior season.
It didn’t happen.
“I totally blew up my shoulder in the third game of the season against Virginia Tech,” said Kelly.
He knew his senior season and college career was over, but he had loftier goals. Playing in the NFL was not a lock however, when he came out of surgery a week later.
“The first thing the doctor said to me was, ‘I hope you studied,’” said Kelly. “And I said, ‘Why is that?’ He said, ‘We had to insert three metal rods in your arm and it was a lot worse than we thought it was.’”
For Kelly all of his childhood dreams of playing in the NFL and supporting his family looked as if they might go up in smoke. After the college season ended, Kelly would attend pre-draft workouts, but his shoulder was still not fit to throw.
“I was only there to have the doctors check my shoulder,” Kelly said. “Every doctor for most teams examined my shoulder and did exercises with it even though it wasn’t close to 100 percent yet.”
Knowing there would be a multitude of questions about Kelly’s shoulder, Hurricanes head coach Howard Schnellenberger provided his quarterback with some peace of mind.
“Coach Schnellenberger told me, ‘Jim, when you feel you’re 100 percent. Not 90, not 95, but when you feel you’re 100 percent you tell me and I’ll reach out to all of the NFL scouts, USFL scouts and the CFL and we’ll have our workout here on campus for you,’” Kelly recalled.
Kelly’s workout was a veritable who’s who in NFL coaching at the time with Dolphins head coach Don Shula and Vikings head coach Bud Grant among those in attendance. Fortunately for Kelly he had a solid performance.
“It was probably one of the best days I’ve ever had throwing,” Kelly said. “I remember Don Shula was quoted after watching the workout. He only stayed for the first five minutes. They asked him why he left early. His quote was, ‘I saw enough. He can throw.’ So that made me feel good when I read that.”
As the NFL draft commenced on April 26, 1983, Kelly already knew he had been drafted in the USFL draft on Jan. 4 in the 14th round by the Chicago Blitz with the 163rd overall pick. So there would be options.
John Elway was the first pick off the board to the Baltimore Colts, but promptly refused to play for the team. It led to a conversation between Kelly and his agent as they watched the draft unfold on television in the company of Kelly’s parents.
“My agent looked at me after Elway got picked and the problem that arose from it and he said, ‘Hey Jim, is there anywhere that you don’t want to play?’ I said, ‘Oh yeah, I don’t want to play for the Minnesota Vikings,’” said Kelly. “’I don’t want to play for the Green Bay Packers and I don’t want to play for the Buffalo Bills.’”
Buffalo had the 12th pick in round one and NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle announces that the Bills have taken Notre Dame tight end Tony Hunter. Kelly was elated.
Kelly’s agent quickly reminded his client that the Bills also held the 14th pick in round one. Not long after Rozelle announces the Bills second pick in the first round, a quarterback from the University of Miami, Jim Kelly.
“I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “Within minutes the phone calls came and with me being politically correct I was saying how excited I was to be a Buffalo Bill. And when I hung up I said, ‘We need to call the USFL and see what other options we have.’”
The Chicago Blitz had the rights to Kelly, but the quarterback still wasn’t sure if the USFL was the way to go with his career. He and his agent eventually went to Buffalo to negotiate a contract with interim GM Pat McGroder. Just when significant progress had been made and Kelly was close to signing there was an urgent call that came in to One Bills Drive for Kelly’s agent.
“We were about ready to sign the contract with Buffalo,” said Kelly. “But there was a representative from the USFL on the phone and they said, ‘Tell Jim to not sign anything. We’ve got an offer he cannot refuse.’”
The offer was to play for any USFL team of his choosing. Though the Blitz had the rights to Kelly, they weren’t convinced he would ever come and play for them. Chicago thought it better for the fledgling league to have as many star quarterbacks as they could in the USFL no matter where they played and agreed to give Kelly the option of playing for whatever team he wanted.
“Of course my agent came back in and we left the room without signing anything,” said Kelly. “Had that secretary not walked into the room I probably would’ve been a Buffalo Bill in 1983.”
Kelly promptly went on a barnstorming tour of the USFL, meeting with Chicago head coach George Allen, Tampa Bay owner John Bassett as well as a few other USFL cities including Houston where he met with owner Dr. Jerry Argovitz.
“Going to Houston and the Astrodome and Jack Pardee was the head coach and I heard they were going to bring in Mouse Davis to run the ‘Run and Shoot’ and throw the football,” said Kelly. “So for a quarterback playing in a dome, no wind, no rain, elements are perfect every week at home. It was a no brainer.”
Kelly would play two seasons for the Gamblers putting up monstrous offensive stats completing over 63 percent of his passes for 9,842 yards, 83 touchdowns and 45 interceptions. All the while Kelly’s agent tried to convince Ralph Wilson to trade Kelly’s draft rights to another NFL club.
“The two teams I wanted to play for at the time were the Steelers or the Raiders,” said Kelly. “But Mr. Wilson said he wouldn’t trade my rights. After losing Tom Cousineau, he said, ‘If I lose you this franchise will go down.’”
Kelly contemplated his options. The USFL was in dire straits financially with teams relocating, merging or simply disbanding, and Buffalo held his rights. Kelly’s father also had a simple wish since the day the quarterback was drafted by the Bills.
“My dad was kind of bummed out when I went to the USFL because all he ever wanted to do was grab all his buddies from East Brady and take a three-hour drive up to Buffalo in an R-V motor home,” said Kelly. “That’s all my dad wanted to do. He didn’t care who I played for as long as it was close enough for him to drive and see my home games.”
Kelly soon reached an agreement with the NFL club that drafted him.
“I remember after Mr. Wilson’sposition was clearwe negotiated everything on a contract,” said Kelly. “And the best decision of my life proved to be the day I signed with the Buffalo Bills.”