If there's a way to pull out of the Huntsville, Texas, Holiday Inn parking lot with panache, this must be it. As Jim Kelly idles his cherry-red 1984 Crossfire Injection Corvette Stingray outside the headquarters of the Houston Gamblers' spring training camp, the rumble of horsepower says just one thing: Nobody in the world needs a car like this.
"I had it up to 110, just once," says Kelly in his naturally hoarse, chummy voice. "The needle only goes to 85, but after that you get a digital readout."
It's a Wednesday night and Kelly is headed for The Jolly Fox on Sam Houston Avenue. That's where the video games, pool tables and Sam Houston State coeds are. That's where a lot of the Gamblers go after the last team meeting and before the 11 o'clock curfew.
Curfew is in effect every night now. The team got one Saturday night off a couple weeks ago and all hell broke loose: A running back was arrested for drunken driving; a guard was arrested for public intoxication; a tackle was arrested for putting two Huntsville policemen in the hospital. The Gamblers are an expansion team in an iffy league, and the players, you could say, are keyed up.
But the 6'3", 215-pound Kelly is calm, if a little dazed by his circumstances. At 24 he is wealthy and has been since he signed a five-year, $4 million "escalating" contract with the Gamblers last June, but the only thing he has bought for himself since then is a stereo. The Vette has been loaned to him.
As part of a promotional deal with Chevrolet, Kelly gets a new one every three months or 5,000 miles, whichever comes first. "Or they'll give me a new one if somebody buys the one I'm driving," Kelly says. "Awesome, isn't it? The last car was silver. I may come out in the parking lot some night and not even remember what my car looks like. But I'll know it's a Corvette."
If Kelly does everything he's supposed to for this team and this league, he'll never have to worry about Corvettes or cash again. He'll be a real-life savior, The Man Who Made People Watch Spring Football. In a league filled with over-the-hill and never-will-be quarterbacks, he could be the shining light, the favorite son who never played a down in the NFL. Dr. Jerry Argovitz, the dentist-turned-agent-turned-Houston Gamblers president, believes Kelly has the skills and charisma to be a modern-day Joe Namath and do for the USFL what Namath did for the AFL two decades ago.
Certainly that's how Kelly's agent, Greg Lustig, promoted him. "I told everybody in the USFL, 'You can sign all the running backs in the world, all the Herschel Walkers, Tim Spencers and Kelvin Bryants you want,' " says Lustig. " 'But quarterbacks are the guys. Quarterbacks bring credibility.' "
If Kelly's name doesn't ring a bell, there's a reason. His last season at the University of Miami was 1982, and he played only the first 2½ games that year before suffering a severe separation of his right (throwing) shoulder and undergoing surgery. His shoulder was jammed into the turf when he was tackled after scrambling 20 yards against Virginia Tech. Though he was a preseason Heisman Trophy candidate, he suddenly became a question mark. Nobody knew how the shoulder would mend.
The Chicago Blitz made him their 12th-round pick in 1983 and the Buffalo Bills chose him in the first round of the NFL draft (the third quarterback taken, after John Elway and Todd Blackledge). "The kid was the best quarterback coming out of school last year," says Miami head coach Howard Schnellenberger. "I think he'll be more productive than Elway. I coached Namath and Steve Sloan and Ken Stabler in college, and he accomplished and understood more than any of them. That's Namath, Sloan and Stabler. How much higher can I go?"