Jim Kelly’s Hall of Fame career with the Buffalo Bills started just months after I was born and I was lucky to get to expereince it all. I grew up in suburban Buffalo only minutes from what was then Rich Stadium, currently Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Stadium, and had the good fortune to be born into a family of longtime BIlls season ticket holders. I got to see Kelly’s career unfold live and in-person every other Sunday as he took our seemingly flawless team to the playoffs year after year. Needless to say, he was an idol to any football-loving kid in Western New York; the kind of player you pretended to be when you were playing pickup games of two-hand-touch after school.
It was a sad day in Buffalo when he announced his retirement. Kids like me were devastated as the player we had known all our short lives as the immortal leader of our team left the game, teaching us that even the great cannot be great forever. I know that I had thought I would never see the man again. What I didn’t know is that I would…only not on the field.
Shortly after Kelly’s retirement, I was at Erie Community College, the campus directly facing Rich Stadium and fieldhouse where the Bills had practiced and played for years even before I was born, to watch my younger sister compete in an academic competition. During a break in the action, my friend, whose brother was also competing, and I went exploring. We were probably 12 or so at the time and a college campus was a novelty to us. Vending machines in a school? Auditoriums with seats that had an unfoldable desk attached? It was all pretty exciting.
For whatever reason, we found it hilarious that there was a swimming pool in the building and a viewing window to watch the 50-something’s swimming recreationally in the pool that day. Much to our surprise, the door to the seating area overlooking the pool was actually unlocked (something that was probably a gross oversight considering the campus was overrun by hundreds of children under the age of twelve and the drop from the seats to the tile surrounding the pool was about ten feet). So, in we walked to the overwhelming and familiar odor of chlorine which had epitomized many summers at the public pool which had become the prelude to an exciting football season.
My friend, probably 30 pounds lighter than me, bet me that he could jump from the top row of seats over the railing and into the pool below. Yeah, right, I thought to myself, but before I could tell him how there was no possible way he would make it without hitting the railing a voice boomed from right behind us.
“I bet I could throw you in.”
We turned around and to our complete and utter amazement, the giant of a man who was standing there perhaps the whole time while we were joking around was none other than Jim Kelly. After picking my jaw up off the floor I thought as quickly as my spastic mind would allow of things to say like, “Oh my God, you’re Jim Kelly!” or “I can’t believe it’s Jim Kelly, can you sign my shirt?” But as I was standing there awestruck, the only thing I could muster was a feeble, “Yeah… I bet you could.”
To that, Jim Kelly just chuckled to himself and walked out of the room to go do whatever Hall of Famers do when they’re not playing football.
My chance encounter with Jim Kelly was brief but memorable. Few kids ever get to see, let alone talk to their childhood heros, and I was the lucky son of a K-gun that had that opportunity. You know, I bet if even today I was at that pool with my friend, Kelly could toss him in. Heck, who am I kidding? Kelly would do it while rolling out of the pocket, evading a few defenders and somehow spiralling my friend between two swimmers. Maybe then I would be able to say something a little better than, “I bet you could.”