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At Miami, Kelly played in six TV games. In all six he was voted Most Valuable Offensive Player. "What that tells you is the more intense the competition, the better he gets," says Darrel (Mouse) Davis, the Gamblers' offensive coordinator. "And that's what separates great quarterbacks from the others."
Kelly's right forearm is still slightly numb from nerve damage suffered when his shoulder was hurt, and he has to loosen up a long time before he can cut loose with his tight-spiraling 70-yard bombs. But otherwise the arm is solid and ready to go after a layoff of nearly a year and a half. "We stretch it, strengthen it, ice it down," says Gamblers trainer Roy Don Wilson. "You got a machine like that, you keep it tuned and lubed."
Kelly dresses in Animal House chic—bib overalls, sweatshirts, baseball caps—and he doesn't care much whether his sandy hair sticks straight up or out the earholes of his helmet. But his teammates know—and like—what they've got.
"This is a guy who's for real," says wide receiver Scott McGhee. "A guy who can make the whole league for real."
Kelly is the fourth-oldest son of Joe and Alice Kelly of East Brady, Pa., a rural town 70 miles northeast of Pittsburgh. The Kellys were hoping for their first daughter when Jim was born. They tried once more after that, were greeted with twin sons, Dan and Kevin, and called it quits.
Joe Kelly is a machinist at nearby Daman Industries, and his paycheck was stretched thin. AH six Kelly boys grew to be more than 6 feet tall and weigh more than 210 pounds, and they all played college football. The oldest, Pat, now 33, was a middle linebacker for the Colts and Lions of the NFL and the Birmingham Vulcans of the old WFL.
"We drove my mom nuts," says Jim. "We'd put our helmets on and play football in the house. We'd go to relatives' houses and break all our cousins' toys, tear the baby dolls' heads off and kill the goldfish. Sometimes we'd sneak a basketball rim into our living room and put it on the wall and play. Mom would chase us around the table with a belt, but she'd never catch us. She'd say, 'Wait until Dad gets home,' and when we knew he was coming we'd all hide."
Joe Kelly was raised in an orphanage, joined the Navy when he was 17 and never had time for sports. But he wanted his boys to play—outdoors at least. Especially Jim.
"He had something a little bit extra, a little more than the other boys," says Joe. "I felt that all he needed was a little push to become great."
So from grade school to high school when Jim came home for lunch on days when his dad was working the afternoon or night shift, they practiced football before eating. It was a bittersweet routine.