I won't soon forget the last time I saw Jim Kelly in uniform. Turns out it was the last time anyone would see him in the Buffalo Bills' colors. At Rich Stadium there's a steep tunnel from the field up to the two locker rooms, Buffalo's to the left and the visiting team's to the right. With about two minutes left in the Bills' surprising 30-27 playoff loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars on Dec. 28, I began walking down the tunnel toward the field to see the last few plays. Kelly had left the game in the middle of the fourth quarter with a concussion, and now a cart with a woozy Kelly riding on the back sped toward me. After the cart stopped between the locker rooms, Kelly got off unsteadily and took two steps toward Jacksonville's door. "Jim, Jim," one of Buffalo's trainers said, grabbing Kelly's arm and guiding him to the Bills' locker room. I remember thinking, Jim, it's time to go.
Five weeks later, just shy of his 37th birthday, Kelly did the right thing, the classy thing. He stepped to a podium in the Bills' cavernous practice facility last Friday and said, "I am officially announcing my retirement from the NFL and the Buffalo Bills." As esteemed as Kelly will be for his 11 years of leading the Bills' offense—he completed 60.1% of his passes for 35,467 yards and 237 touchdowns, mostly out of a no-huddle attack—now he may also be remembered for knowing when his time was up, for gracefully leaving his sport in an era when too many aging and ailing athletes foolishly prolong their careers or duck in and out of retirement.
This is final. Kelly will get a golden parachute from Buffalo, $1 million for 1997, sources say, to be a consultant and community backslapper, and he'll no doubt wind up in a network broadcast booth. Did he need to hopscotch around the league, making a few extra million while his career went into a steep decline? No. Did he need to put the Bills on a guilt trip, demanding to be richly compensated—as John Elway and Dan Marino have been recently—for past glory? No.
Kelly knew that if he wanted to continue to play, he'd have to publicly battle with owner Ralph Wilson for a new contract. The Bills already were snug against the salary cap for next season even without the $5 million or so Kelly would have demanded and without having renegotiated the contract of 1996 NFL Defensive Player of the Year Bruce Smith. Chances are, Wilson would have divorced Kelly, and it would have been ugly. It wouldn't have been pretty, cither, to watch Kelly go begging for a job in Kansas City or Oakland or some other foreign port, learning a new offense at 37 when he'd had to master only one system in his NFL career.
"I didn't like it when Joe Montana went to the Chiefs," Kelly said after his emotional press conference. "Maybe I'm old-fashioned, but I just think it's right that Elway plays his whole career in Denver and Marino plays his whole career in Miami. I wanted to go out with dignity."
That's how Kelly handled his last on-field crisis, too. After Ted Marchibroda left as offensive coordinator in 1992, Kelly often clashed with offensive coaches Tom Bresnahan and Jim Shofner, and the conflict intensified this year. Marchibroda had given Kelly more freedom than any other NFL quarterback in the past decade to call plays, shuttle personnel in and out of the game and, in general, be a commander on the field. Thinking that the rest of the league had finally caught up to the Bills' no-huddle, Bresnahan and Shofner started last season calling all the plays and making all the substitutions from the sideline. After a 28-25 loss to the New England Patriots dropped Buffalo to 5-3, Kelly was in a deep funk over having had his authority snatched away. "This isn't the Jim Kelly I married," his wife, Jill, told him. "I want that person back."
Kelly met with Bresnahan and Shofner and respectfully told them they were killing an offense that for years had been the scourge of the NFL. "Let me do it my way again," he said. "I promise it'll work." So they gave him control of the offense again, and the Bills went on a four-game winning streak, during which they averaged 32 points a game. But Kelly pulled a hamstring in November—that happens to 36-year-old quarterbacks—and he struggled the rest of the year.
As one of the 36 Pro Football Hall of Fame selectors, I've been asked recently whether Kelly, who steered Buffalo into four straight Super Bowls, is a future Hall of Famer. Probably, I say, though I want to reserve judgment; I don't believe five or six guys who played the same position in one era should be in the Hall, and Kelly must be measured against Elway, Marino, Montana, Troy Aikman, Warren Moon, Phil Simms and Steve Young. A fiery guy who played hurt and willingly shared the spotlight on a star-laden team, Kelly sustained the dominance of his team's attack longer than most other quarterbacks have. He was the brains—and the arm—behind it, the man dropping the bombs. And I'll tell you this: The way he went out is no small plus on Kelly's side of the ledger.