I’m at a bar in San Diego, no idea which one.
Steve Tasker and I are palling around the week of the Oakland-Tampa Bay Super Bowl, each of us in town working for Adelphia. Steve suggests this place because his buddy Jim Kelly will be there. This is tonight’s hangout.
I see Donovan McNabb, and baseball pitcher Jack McDowell, and then I see Jim. He’s sitting on a stool up against some windows, three or four others standing in a semicircle in front of him. Steve breaks through and he and Jim hug. Steve introduces me to Jim. Jim destroys me in a handshake, for the first of many times.
As I’m feeling pretty good I start talking with Jim. It’s my first time in a social setting with him. I mumble something about how he never played for the Bills in San Diego. Then I ask him what he did today. Eyes darting, appearing bored, he says he played golf.
“Where?”, I said, like it mattered.
He looked at me this time. “Riviera.”
“Nice meeting you.”
I’m in my dorm room at Murphy Hall, St. John Fisher College. I’d been to the Miami game the week before, with the snow, but I had no ticket for the Raiders. That’s OK, I’m too nervous anyway.
I wanted the Bills to win so much, not only for all the reasons one has as a fan but also because there was this bully on my floor that loved the Raiders (go figure). I wanted his Raiders to lose just as much as I wanted my Bills to win.
Even in 1991 I had to battle a defeatist sports mentality. So when on the first drive of the game a holding penalty wiped out a touchdown pass, I grimaced. Would that play be important? One play later Kelly fumbled the shotgun snap and, no doubt making Paul Maguire crazy somewhere, attempted to pick the ball up instead of diving on it.
He succeeded, rolled right, and threw a touchdown pass to James Lofton. 6-0 going on 7-0 going on 51-3.
“Am I going to get hit trying to pick up the ball, or should I just dive on it?”, Kelly was quoted as saying by The New York Times.
Never just dive on it.
I’m in the middle of Eastern Hills Mall five years ago trying not to cry. A few months earlier my wife and I had adopted a baby boy, or so we thought. Circumstances changed and after two weeks of caring for the child we surrendered him to his birth-family.
It’s WGR’s “Hunter’s Hope Radiothon”, and I’m struggling because that situation was heartbreaking for me but in this setting that emotion seems selfish. Here were families whose children were terribly ill, or had already died. Like the Kellys.
I knew we’d be sitting with Jim a few times over these two days, and as I thought comparing my heartbreak with his was interesting, and also perhaps a bonding moment for us, I wanted to broach the subject.
I don’t recall what he said when I did so, on the air, but I do remember that I was comforted by his words.
Jim had lost his young son, yet he appeared to be so at peace with it. He’s always seemed that way.
By the next year at the Radiothon my wife and I had adopted again, and Jim seemed delighted by my son. He picked him up, smiling. The year after that Jim asked me if Julius was coming by.
Like a friend would do.
I’m at a buddy’s house on Grand Island to watch the Bills’ fourth straight AFC Championship appearance.
In this game I’d see my all-time favorite Jim Kelly play.
First quarter, no score. Third down at the Chiefs’ 12. The pressure is squarely on, being at home, by this time the AFC’s perennial team to beat. Kansas City was good-not-great, and a loss to the Chiefs would have been an ill-fitting way for this conference dynasty to die. No one beats the Bills here in January.
The play is a passing situation. Thurman tells me the rest:
“Had a play call for a pass,” Thurman remembered just this morning. “Jim checked to a run.” When he handed the ball off Jim “told me to Go!”
“Almost like a jockey would?”, I asked Thurman.
“Yes. He said that to me 10-15 times throughout the course of our careers.”
Athletes tend to forget specifics. The years go by, memories fade. Thurman Thomas remembers this rushing touchdown for his quarterback, just as I do.
I’m in the WGR studio four months ago. Our annual station fundraiser for Hunter’s Hope this time was an auction. Andre Reed had just been voted into the Hall of Fame. Jim was coming in to co-host with us for an hour, and we’d have Andre on the phone.
It was my favorite time ever spent with Kelly. He was delighted to have had the winning bid on an auction item, as he knew his friends would enjoy it so much. It was right around his birthday. And he seemed so glad for Reed; it was (as usual) special to hear them talk and reminisce. Off the air we chatted about EJ Manuel and other things.
I’m here, Jim’s across from me, Bulldog’s to my right. Bulldog asks Jim how he’s feeling these days. Jim had had a bout with cancer last year and seemed to get through it, so when Bulldog asks him, my reaction, to myself, was, “Oh yeah. That.”
But instead of saying something about how well he was doing -- after all this was Jim Kelly, a superhero, so why wouldn’t things be perfect -- Jim made a face. He then said something about an upcoming doctor’s appointment.
After that, back to football.
One of my favorite Bills wins of the 1990s was in New Orleans, late in 1992. The Bills’ seams were starting to rip, and the Saints were good. The Bills beat them 20-16. It was a high-quality win.
After the game Kelly said to reporters, “How many of you guys thought we’d win this one,” or something like that. It seems a good example of how Kelly was with the press. He didn’t want to make a scene, but when they pissed him off he wanted them to know it. He held grudges not to carry around for spite, just to throw them back against the wall.
Buffalo got all this credit for being so good at home, our weather considered such an advantage. But I loved the road wins -- San Francisco, New Orleans, Dallas, New York, Miami. That team won all over the place.
Good is good.
A media personality’s relationship with an athlete, even a retired one, is often strained. You can get along without talking about that thing you once said, but it’s there. It exists, below the surface. It was said.
I’m in a bar about 10 years ago, again with Steve Tasker. I enter a bathroom and Kelly is coming out. I had to introduce myself to Jim a few times before he remembered me, and this was one of those times.
“Jim, I’m Mike Schopp.”
“Oh yeah. I’m supposed to be mad at you for something. I don’t remember what it was but you said something stupid.”
“Well, probably,” I said.
And he left.
I was at Tops on Grand Island yesterday when I ran into a friend who had been at Kelly’s golf tournament earlier in the day. How was it?
“Strange,” he replied. Jim wasn’t there.
I bet it was.
No athlete marks the time for me better than Jim Kelly does. I was standing at the end of my driveway, a child waiting for the school bus, when my mother came out of the house to tell me the Bills had drafted him. I was a college student, a young man, watching Kelly take the Bills to their greatest heights.
I was in the locker room in his final season, my career starting as his ended, too much a fan to ask him the right questions. I was entering fatherhood and there was Jim Kelly, in my life, as a role model.
Now I’m in middle-age and Kelly is fighting for his life. Even though I’ve never really known him that well he’s made indelible marks in mine.