Rebirth Part 1: 1986 – Jim Kelly Signs with the Bills

Jim

Most Bills fans have the hope that Buddy Nix is finally righting the ship of our beloved team. Some of the progress on the offensive side of the ball under Chain Gailey last year along with the recent pick of Marcell Dareus to strengthen the D stirs the feelings of rebirth, of a return to those fondly remembered glory years of the 90′s. In hopes that this is true, I think it will be fun to look back upon the most dramatic renaissance that begun for the Bills in the late 80′s. Those days of joy brought us 4 Super Bowl appearances and memories that will last forever. After not making the playoffs ten years straight, it seems like the good times are a distant memory. That’s a shame. It’s only in looking back with a wistful, nostalgic gratefulness that we can truly embrace the anticipation of the winning days that are to come. 

A little note before we start. These posts are basically my personal remembrances of some key moments in the building of and performance of the best team in Buffalo sports history. They are not meant to be a detail oriented analysis, but an emotional diary to my formative development as a Bills fan. I can’t guarantee that I’ll remember each moment vividly or even completely accurately (though some I will), but I’m just trying to tap into the journey I took with the team. Wow, I get a little fluttery feeling in my belly just thinking about it. I can hear Van Miller screaming out, “Fandemonium!” as I type. 

So without further ado, moment #1. August 18th, 1986: Jim Kelly finally signs a contract with the Bills.

I don’t think I really became a full-fledged Bills fan until that late August day in my 15th year on this earth. I do remember paying attention in the 1981 season when the Bills beat the Jets in the Wild Card game mainly because of the buzz of my family being into the excitement of the playoffs. I also recall the strike shortened season the next year with the media coverage of the labor mess (sound familiar?) and of the scabs named Joe Smith taking the field. I think Fred Smerlas threatened violence against those unknown working stiffs. Poor guys.

I actually started regularly watching the games in 1984 and 1985. But those Bills teams were so god awful that my interest level wasn’t really rewarded. That was some poor timing on my part there. Two 2-14 seasons was not a glorious start to my life as a fan. But just like in life, I can say that the suffering made the rebirth to come extra special. Not much to write home about about those lackluster teams and games. One wonderful moment came in 1984 when Greg Bell had a big day on the ground and the team won their 1st game of the year vs Dallas (who I hated even then) in mid November. But those memories are somewhat fleeting to me now. They are lodged in the back of my mind. I just know in the years leading up to today’s topic, we had such QB’s as Vince Ferragamo and Bruce Mathison. Ouch.

But one day changed our fortunes. At that time I vaguely knew about Jim Kelly. I heard the stories of him crying when the Bills drafted him and about his exodus to the USFL. I had a stage where I was quite the follower of the USFL and watched him a few times as he put up insane passing stats in that dearly departed league. One clear recollection was of him being interviewed and he had this really raspy voice. If I’m not mistaken, he was going through some kind of voice box issue that was corrected surgically shortly thereafter. But as a teenager, I had no anger towards the man. I had school, acne and social awkwardness to keep my attention. I had enough problems with my own life to worry about some QB who didn’t like the snow and the dysfunction of the Bills.

Then August 18th hit. It was all over the news: after the folding of the USFL, Jim Kelly had finally signed with the Bills. Clearly Jim didn’t have much in the way of options back then, but it still gave Buffalo validation to know he was finally willing to give us a try. You might not realize it, but we seem to have a self-image issue here in the Queen City. But this isn’t where my focus was at the time – Buffalo’s struggles as a city weren’t even on my radar. I just got all wrapped up in the hysteria of that momentous day.

After two years of watching a bumbling travesty of a team, this guy from PA brought an electric anticipation along with him. A real star had arrived in Buffalo and the city stopped in their tracks to welcome him with open arms. He was paraded in with the honor of a king. This was my first experience when Buffalo sports became all I could think about. I already had been a Sabres fan for a few years when this hit, but the magnitude of that moment trumped even my love of hockey. Jim instantly became my favorite player. It was an idolization that took hold of me in a big way. To best illustrate this, I remember reading in The Buffalo News that on his 1st day at training camp, Jim had grilled cheese for lunch. So of course I ate this delicacy every day for about a week. By the end of the Summer I would be begging my mom to buy me a #12 jersey (which I finally got at Christmas). I couldn’t wait to see our football savior in action. When he played his first preseason game vs. Chicago, Andre the Giant couldn’t have dragged me from our living room.

At that time, I didn’t know that we’d only win two more games that season for four total. I didn’t know that kids at school that season would say, “Kelly sucks” after he threw a few interceptions in a game and make me want to punch them. I didn’t know that we would have four crushing Super Bowl losses in a row down the road.  I didn’t know that Jim would be carted off the field as I watched in the stands vs Jacksonville in what ended up being his last game. I didn’t know my older brother would be hired as a night auditor at Jim’s Network nightclub and eventually become somewhat of a confidante for him, still working for him to this day. I didn’t know anything at that time good or bad.

All I knew was that our football team finally had hope. As a young kid who hadn’t fully experienced the joys and tribulations of being a Bills fan, I was fully prepared to dive head first into the adventure. Dear God, I am so glad I did. As Marv Levy said countless times, “Where would you be but right here, right now?” No where, Marv. No where.

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