"Put a collar on that for ya?" says Uncle Ed, pointing to a visitor's half-empty mug.
A crowd of 18,828 allegedly saw Jim Kelly beat the Los Angeles Express 34-33 at the L.A. Coliseum on Feb. 24, 1985. The USFL belongs to the school of creative attendance-counting, wherein seat backs often become human beings—but whoever or whatever watched Kelly in the fourth quarter that day got a treat. With the Gamblers down 33-13 and about nine minutes left in the game, Kelly threw touchdown passes of 52, 40 and 39 yards in a total of 12 offensive plays consuming just 208 seconds. The empty stadium echoed with silence. But it was a performance that transcended the boundaries of a lousy league. Even if the Express had tombstones for defensive backs, it was some display. "I didn't even think we'd get the ball three times," says Gamblers-Generals offensive coordinator John Jenkins. For the game Kelly completed 35 of 54 passes for 574 yards and 5 TDs. It was a good day for him, but not unexpected.
In 1984, his first season in the USFL, Kelly threw for 5,219 yards and 44 touchdowns, more in each category than any rookie in any league. Until Dan Marino threw 48 TD passes later that year, no one at all had ever connected on more scoring strikes in a season than Kelly. In 1985 he missed the last four regular-season games with a knee injury but still finished with 4,623 passing yards and 39 touchdowns. In both years Kelly led the USFL in passing yards, TDs and completion percentage. In 1984 he was voted the MVP of the league. His highlights that year included at least one touchdown pass thrown in all 18 games, five consecutive 300-yard passing games and 20 completions in 23 attempts for 362 yards against the Jacksonville Bulls. No quarterback in any league has thrown for more yards or touchdowns in his first two years than Kelly has.
Each of the few people who have watched Kelly in the USFL has a favorite highlight to trot out: the five-touchdown job Kelly had against the Pittsburgh Maulers in 1984; the four-game stretch at the start of the 1985 season, in which he averaged 418 yards and four TDs passing per game; the 1985 streak of 120 passes without an interception.
"I liked the San Antonio game at the Astrodome when we had the ball on our own seven-yard line with 46 seconds left, trailing by five," says Argovitz. " 'O.K., guys,' T.F. says in the huddle. 'We got 'em right where we want 'em.' Boom. Two passes. Touchdown. We win 28-26."
"The Franchise," says Argovitz. "That's what I call him."
At 6'3", 215 pounds, with large hands and muscular legs, Kelly is packaged just the way NFL scouts like 'em. That he got away from the big league was mostly a function of USFL bidding madness and the surgery on Kelly's right (throwing) shoulder that forced him to miss the last eight games of his senior season at the University of Miami. Argovitz was concerned about his recovery, and he flew Kelly to Houston for a personal appraisal. The two went to a city park where Argovitz, a former quarterback at Borger (Texas) High School, played receiver. When Argovitz asked for some velocity, Kelly threw a ball that dislocated the executive's right ring finger. Arm question answered.
There has never been any doubt about Kelly's athletic skills. As a 10-year-old he came close to winning the national Punt, Pass and Kick competition. At East Brady High he starred in basketball and was so good in football that his team was undefeated from the middle of his sophomore year until he graduated.
"By Jim's senior year we were usually ahead of everybody 30-0 at halftime, so he didn't play much," says former East Brady head coach Terry Henry. "Normally, the only incompletions he had were drops. I remember one game when he was 14 of 16 with two passes that bounced off kids' hands. He could be an NFL punter. His senior year at East Brady he was the all-conference punter, placekicker, safety, quarterback and league player of the year."