5 Minutes with Hall of Famer Jim Kelly
November 21, 2013 – Along with interviewing Buffalo Bills head coach Doug Marrone during my recent trip to Orchard Park, New York, I also sat down with legendary quarterback Jim Kelly for an upcoming “5 Minutes with…” feature in Yankees Magazine.
Thanks to Nancy Newman, who is the host of the YES Network’s Yankees Magazine TV show and who covered the Bills during Kelly’s career, I was fortunate enough to spend about a half hour with the Hall of Fame quarterback on the field at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
Upon arriving in Orchard Park, I was asked where in the stadium I wanted the interview to take place, and to me, the ideal location was mid-field on the 50-yard-line.
When we arrived on the field, Yankees chief photographer Ariele Goldman Hecht took several portraits of Kelly in that same location. The beautifully lit photos feature Kelly, who was wearing a Buffalo Bills warm-up jacket, holding a football. In the photos, the wide expanse of the stadium serves as the backdrop.
Then, as Bills media relations personnel were setting up two chairs for my interview, I asked Kelly to throw me a pass. As the case was with Dan Marino at Yankee Stadium (see blog entry below), I knew that catching a pass from Kelly would make for a memorable experience (and a great blog entry). But I had no idea how memorable this pass would be.
The light-hearted Kelly quickly instructed me to run a 15-yard post pattern from the 45-yard line, and with great excitement, I lined up near the right hash mark and began to run the route. When I turned toward the quarterback from about 15 yards away, the ball was already at its target – which, of course, was me.
Thankfully, the bullet throw was a little high — as opposed to coming right for my head. But with just about no time to react, I jumped into the air and — somehow — caught the ball (see photo below). It was the fastest pass that I’ve ever caught or dropped, and the lucky catch surprised Kelly as much as it shocked me.
“You may run passing routes like a Miami Dolphin,” said Kelly, who I had a running joke with over the fact that I worked for the Dolphins before my time with the Yankees. “But I can’t believe you caught that pass.”
With far too much adrenaline rushing through my body, I began the interview with Kelly (see photo below). In our candid conversation, the native of Western Pennsylvania spoke about the role that football played in his childhood.
“It was a huge part of my life,” Kelly said. “Growing up in a family of six boys, we played football in the house, even when mom told us not to. We wore helmets in the house because our mom knew that if we were going to play inside, one of us was going to smack our head on a piece of furniture. We played tackle football in a foot of snow or in the middle of a rainstorm. Football made us who we are. When you’re part of a family with six boys in Western Pennsylvania, what else are you going to play? None of us played golf or tennis. We all loved football.”
Later in the interview, I asked Kelly how his career would have turned out had he not teamed with star wide receiver Andre Reed — who will be featured in a “5 Minutes with…” Q&A piece in the same 2014 issue of Yankees Magazine that Kelly will be in. The quarterback’s answer showed his humility and grace.
“I would not be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame if he wasn’t here because when we needed a big play, he was our man,” said Kelly. “He was one of the best receivers in the history of the game at running after the catch. He would have been successful no matter where he was. Someone would have found a way to get him the football. I was blessed to have No. 82 on my team.”
Kelly’s sense of humor came out when I asked him whether he and [former Dolphins quarterback] Dan Marino ever reminisce about the epic games they played in against each other.
“We don’t talk much about those games because Danny doesn’t want to bring it up,” Kelly said. “Of course, I’m happy to talk about those games, but we usually have too much stuff going on in our lives to catch up on. We usually have a few beers and talk about things you probably can’t put on a recorder. He’s one of my good buddies, and we still spend a lot of time together.”
Finally, I asked Kelly, who led the Bills to four consecutive AFC championships in the early ’90s, to take me back in time to the very place we were sitting. I wanted Kelly to describe the atmosphere at then Rich Stadium during the Bills heyday, and he did just that.
“We were bundled in parkas, and I don’t even think they had heated benches back then,” Kelly said. “But the Bills fans had more passion than any other group of people in the world. There were guys who would come out here with their chests painted. It would be 10 degrees and they never put their shirts on. The fans were there for us all the time. It was a great place to be when we were winning.”
–Alfred Santasiere III