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“So what else is going on?”
That’s the phrase that I employ with my wife when I’m done conversing about a particular subject and want to move on, conversationally. It’s like page one of the Jim/Jill playbook on interpersonal communication. Subject changing. That’s one of what I hope is a variety of new things that you’ll learn about me in this book. It occurs to me that athletes usually write memoirs when they’re in their midtwenties or early thirties (see Jim Kelly: Armed and Dangerous), but most of the interesting stuff that happens to people in their lives happens after that time. That’s certainly been the case for me.
This book isn’t a memoir, per se. Rather, it’s a reflection on some of the things that have happened to me during the years and how I think of those things in light of my most important title: dad. To fans, I’m the guy who used to play quarterback for the Buffalo Bills. Number 12. To my daughters, Cam and Erin, I’m their dad. I’m the guy who helps get them ready for school, occasionally coaches their basketball teams, and tries his best to impart some life lessons. And I’ve lived a lot of life. I’ve learned a lot of lessons. Some the hard way.
This book will be lessons and observations bookended by letters—each chapter featuring a letter to my son Hunter at the beginning and a letter to my daughters, Cam and Erin, at the end. In between, each chapter will highlight life lessons that I’ve learned during my life and career. At the end of each chapter I’ve included some questions to get you thinking about your own lives and taking the offensive when it comes to teaching these lessons to your own kids.
On paper, at least, I make part of my living showing up to different places and functions and just kind of being Jim Kelly. This is not unpleasant, mind you, and people (myself included) seem to enjoy it. It’s actually a huge privilege. I spent the last week turkey hunting with actor and country music star Tim McGraw, who is one of the kindest, most genuine people you could ever hope to be around. I’ll spend next week playing in a golf tournament hosted by the Shooter McGavin character from the Adam Sandler golf movie Happy Gilmore. Shooter, of course, has a real name (Chris McDonald), but his movie character was so iconic that he just goes by Shooter these days. What a hoot he is to be around.
Fame is funny that way. I can drive you down a street in Orchard Park, New York, named Jim Kelly Boulevard, past the Big Tree, a bar in which most of my teammates and I used to bond after Bills practices back in the ’80s and ’90s. The bar is barely a deep down-and-out away from Ralph Wilson Stadium which is, itself, no more than a handful of down-and-outs away from my house. Surreal. The bar also has a giant likeness of myself, Chris Berman, and Andre Reed in front of it, carved out of wood. I mention this not to brag, but only because it’s just, well, surreal. A writer asked me recently if I get recognized around town, and I explained that I think everyone who has ever wanted my autograph in Buffalo has gotten it by now. Buffalo is like a big small town, and I love it for that reason.
Hosting postgame parties at my house was just a small way for me to show my gratitude to my teammates—especially my offensive linemen—guys like Kent Hull, Will Wolford, Howard Ballard, John Davis, Jimmy Ritcher, and others. These were the guys that protected me day in and day out for years and—quite literally—had my back. Expressing gratitude toward the people in your life is one of the themes I hope to explore in this book. It’s something that was drilled into me by my parents, and doing it—thanking people—is something that gives me great joy.
The other strange thing about fame is that the kinds of people who may be inclined to read your books already know a litany of things about you. For example, you may well already know that I was planning to attend college at Penn State, but Joe Paterno (the coach of the Nittany Lions then) wanted me to play linebacker. I wanted to play quarterback, so I ended up playing for Howard Schnellenberger at the University of Miami. You may also know that I played the game with a “Linebacker Mentality”—a phrase that is a favorite of sportswriter types and a fancy way of saying that I took a lot of hits (separated shoulders, slipped discs, and more concussions than I can remember—which is why I can’t remember) but kept coming back for more. But they don’t know how I thought (and think) about those experiences in light of my kids. How I’ve transferred some of those football and life lessons into the arena of parenting. That’s what I hope to accomplish here.
Playing with that linebacker mentality had its drawbacks. Namely the fact that my body is now a road map of pain, and in order to sit comfortably for any length of time (due to a back, neck, and shoulders that were bounced off Astroturf all over the USFL and NFL in the ’80s and ’90s), I have to prop up the pillows on my living-room sofa just right. And I don’t so much sit anymore, but rather kind of situate. And the hot tub is my best friend—not in an “MTV Cribs” sort of way, but in a getting my beat-up body through the day sort of way. I just had three metal plates and three screws put into my back.
It also occurs to me that when you make your living playing professional football, even for the healthiest and most blessed among us, your career is over by your midthirties, and then you’re looking at several more decades of being you, minus the football. This book, in a sense, is about those decades—what they’ve looked like up to this point, and what they, Lord willing, will look like in the future. I spent the majority of my life playing the game of my life but living apart from God… but I will finish well—not because of anything I have done but because of all that Christ has done on my behalf. Part of this book will be devoted to telling the stories of what He has done on my behalf—not in a self-righteous, “look at me” sort of way, but in a way that suggests, “Why me?” Why have I been the recipient of such grace? And by grace I don’t even mean the money and the fame and the stuff that goes with it. I mean the blessing of a loving, forgiving, devoted wife. The joy I receive from being around my children, and even the grace that came through our darkest hours—losing our son Hunter. And how am I bestowing that grace on my kids? How am I teaching them to avoid some of the mistakes I made along the way?
But here’s the thing: this isn’t going to be a book full of Christianese about how I started praying and then God made everything perfect. Partly because that isn’t true, and partly because I just can’t talk like that. I didn’t grow up in it, so I don’t know how. Christianity wasn’t the magic bullet to a perfect life, but it is the source of my hope and my identity. The hope that I’ll see God, and Hunter, in heaven someday.
When I was a kid growing up in a tight-knit family (note: everybody says this about their families, but it’s thankfully entirely true in my case), I had no idea things would turn out like this. I never had the audacity to dream of the NFL Hall of Fame or any of the stuff that comes with it. I dreamed that one day I might play on the Astroturf at Three Rivers Stadium. I pretended to be Terry Bradshaw, like lots of Pennsylvania kids. And I was blessed to be able to play in that stadium as a member of the Buffalo Bills. But the older we get, the more I think we’re defined by what we’ve lost. And I think that the Lord teaches us, and changes us, as much (or more) through what we’ve lost more than through what we’ve gained or accomplished.
Speaking of which, let’s just get this out of the way now because it’s the proverbial elephant in the room: I lost four Super Bowls. I’ve had the unique experience of reaching this particular professional mountaintop four times in a row, glimpsing how cool and potentially fulfilling it might have been to be the guy on the podium hoisting the Vince Lombardi Trophy, only to lose each time in a variety of ways—some losses were close (a last-second field goal not going our way), and some were not so close. All are immortalized forever in overproduced NFL Films™ highlight packages which are both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because it was intoxicating to at one point be a young man, running around with the world’s greatest athletes, playing the world’s greatest game at a pretty high level. A curse because, well, we lost, and losing sucks. But often it is in losing (a game, a job, a loved one) that our character is revealed most clearly. And it is in these losses that our character is developed. I’ve learned this firsthand.
If you are familiar with my story, you also probably know that Jill and I lost our only son, Hunter, at age eight to a rare illness called Krabbe disease. But very few people knew what it felt like to hold him. What it felt like four months after his birth, when we learned of his condition, to see the father/son dreams of football in the backyard die before my eyes. To ask the “why?” questions of God during a time when I really wasn’t talking to God at all. People don’t know that for the years Hunter was with us he had to be monitored 24/7… and so we did. Hunter’s bravery taught us to be bold. His humility inspired us. His hope encouraged us. And in the midst of that, the day in and day out emotional and physical strain of living with his condition almost destroyed us. Were it not for God’s grace.
These are just a few of the things I’ll try to communicate in this book. I’ll talk about some of the things I dreamed of sharing with Hunter and the lessons I try to share with my girls now.
It’s likely that you don’t know the dreams I had for raising a boy. Dreams that included sharing with him a lot of the lessons I’ve learned in football and in life. Those are the things (the lessons) that you don’t manage to fit into your Young Athlete Memoir, largely because they haven’t been learned yet. Those memoirs are filled with stories about championships and first contracts and teammates and coaches. Those are all good things, but they’re not everything and they’re definitely not the main thing. There are lessons I dreamed about teaching Hunter, and I’ll try to share some of those things with you as well. Everything from how to shake someone’s hand and make eye contact when you meet for the first time, to explaining what it feels like to settle in under center, with a few seconds to diagnose a defense, call an audible at the line of scrimmage, ignore the throbbing/searing pain in your shoulder, avoid a pass rush, and then fire a strike downfield (note: this felt amazing).
You may not be aware of the role that my teammates played in my life through all of this. The fact that guys like Steve Tasker and Frank Reich not only battled with me on Sunday afternoons, but battled for me and my family through their prayers and friendship. If football teaches anything, it’s that life isn’t a game that’s played alone. And that’s especially true of the Christian life and the family of God. Community, and relationships, happen naturally in football—believe it or not—because a team is united in a common goal, and teammates share the same victories, the same defeats, the same injuries, and the same frustrations.
It was the suffering in my life—losing Hunter and almost losing my marriage to Jill in the process—that ultimately created in me a deep personal change. A peace that surpasses all understanding and a hope that vast amounts of money, success, and fame couldn’t come close to bringing. That’s the lie that books like these sometimes (intentionally or not) sell you—they sell you on the dream of how fabulous it must be to be (insert name of famous person), but in reality they leave you empty because they don’t share anything real.
Books like these tend to sort of be tributes to a famous person, written by that famous person in such a way as to suggest humility, but somehow never really accomplishing it. I don’t want to write one of those books. I would rather not write a book at all than write that kind of book.
This is a book about “What Else Is Going On,” but it’s also a book that isn’t going to change the subject on you. The subjects being life, and football, and marriage, and character, and love, and kids, and all of the things that actually matter. The things I would’ve taught Hunter, had I a lifetime with him to share. And yet, he was the one who actually taught me most of what I’m going to share with you.
In the other room, down the hall from my office, there are a bunch of great guys sitting in a boardroom planning my summer football camp—which has become an annual opportunity for me to share some of these ideas with kids from around the country and hopefully make some kind of an impact on their lives outside of football.
In the corner on the floor, collecting an impressive layer of dust, is my USFL Player of the Year trophy from 1984 when I played with the Houston Gamblers. On the shelves and walls are a ton of pictures of me with other people I respect and call friends—Marv Levy, Dan Marino, Chris Berman, and the guys from Van Halen just to name a few. But as a football player and as a man, if my life is nothing more than the sum of my trips, my trophies, and my pictures with famous people—things on which the world places a great deal of value—then I’ve failed miserably. And if this book is nothing more than a collection of football and Famous Person stories, then I’ve failed on that level too.
I’m blessed to be able to sit in this office and write this book. It’s an honor, and a little bit of a mindblower to me. But it’s an honor and a privilege that I don’t take lightly. I’m thankful for the life that the Lord has given me—for the wins and the losses, and mostly for the people with whom I’m blessed to be able to share it. I hope you’ll be blessed by it too.
I’m so thankful for the time I had with you. In a way, this book is a collection of all of the things I wish I’d had a chance to teach you and all of the places I wish I could have taken you with me. Although sometimes I think you taught me more in your eight years than I could have ever taught you. But here goes.
It’s the first day of the twenty-third consecutive year of the Jim Kelly Summer Football Camp for kids. We’re indoors at the Buffalo Bills practice facility, and around me are larger-than-life sized photographs of Buffalo Bills legends, current and past. Jack Kemp. Cookie Gilchrist. Joe Ferguson. Bruce Smith. Andre Reed. Steve Tasker. And me. The fact of the matter is that I’ve been in and out of places like this my entire life… practice fields, stadiums, locker rooms, and indoor facilities. The other fact of the matter is that I still get a kick out of it because I love football.
The field is a swirling mass of humanity. Having done this for twenty-three years, I’ve gotten pretty good at picking out the cast of characters. There are the cocky high school kids relaxing on the turf… practicing a sort of nonchalance that says “this is no big deal” while on the inside they’re eager to impress anyone who will notice them. I know this because I used to be one of them. Then there are the little kids who are just thrilled to be on a football field and don’t need to be told to throw a ball or run around, diving on the turf, emulating their heroes. I used to be one of these kids too. I dreamed of playing at Three Rivers Stadium, and when I was a kid in Pennsylvania, I dreamed of being the quarterback, Terry Bradshaw.
And if history is any indicator, some of the kids lolling around on the turf today may be playing here in a few years. A handful of guys who have gone to my camp have ended up in the NFL, including Anthony Dorsett (Tony’s kid), Shawn Springs, Marc Bulger, and Jon Corto from the current Bills.
I have a great deal of respect for people’s dreams. One of my dreams was to have a son here, as a camper. A few months after Hunter was born, on February 14th (my birthday), 1997, I knew I would never live that dream, and it hurt. I was pissed off at the world for a long time because of that.
Then there are the parents who stand around the edge of the field, trying to keep an eye on their kids while taking it all in. There are the moms with cameras and the dads—some of whom are grown men wearing football jerseys of their favorite heroes (note: I guess some adults never truly grow up, myself included).
In a minute I’ll have a megaphone in my hand and be leading stretching and warm-up drills for all five hundred or more campers. I’ll try to teach the carioca drill to a group of nine year olds, most of whom will fall down. And, eventually, I’ll sign an autograph for every kid at the camp, which, truth be told, is my favorite part of the whole thing. To see the smiles on the kid’s faces and the even bigger smiles on their parents’ is incredibly humbling and fulfilling. I’ve always loved throwing a football. I loved it when I was a little kid in the backyard, and I love it now. I’ll go to my grave loving it. I’m thankful that I got to make a living doing this.
Somewhere along the sideline is my close friend Greg Zappala who played with me at the University of Miami and used to drive me to class. Zap drove me to class because he always used to say that he “wasn’t going to play this game long.” I played against Zap in the USFL, when I was with the Houston Gamblers and he was with the Jacksonville Bulls. I played for Mouse Davis (more on him later) in the run-and-shoot offense, where we would pass for about a thousand yards a game and put up video-game numbers. We weren’t known for our running game. But when I played against Zap, I came up to the line of scrimmage and he was at middle linebacker, standing about four yards away from me. You have to understand something: football movies have distorted what actually happens at the line of scrimmage. The fact of the matter is that even though you’re in a packed stadium (or in the USFL’s case, a half-full stadium) and are wearing helmets and shoulder pads, you’re still just two people standing there talking to each other. I came up to the line of scrimmage and told Zap, “Hey, stupid, we’re going to run it right up the middle, at you, every play this series.” I don’t think we’d run four times the entire season, but we ran it right at Zap every play and scored on that series. He loves telling that story.
And I’m thankful for my dad, who’s here with me today. There’s something incredibly satisfying about sharing stuff like this with your dad. Just to be able to look out of the corner of my eye once in a while and watch him watching me. Seeing him brings back so many memories.
He’s eighty-two years old and just moved to Buffalo. He’s as sharp and independent as ever, and he, more than anybody else, taught me how to work and be tough. Dad wasn’t one of these coddling suburban fathers driving his kids to practice in a Lexus, burying his nose in an iPhone and playing politics with the coaches. He had a sixth-grade education and didn’t have the benefit of reading books on parenting. He worked in steel mills, worked as a machinist, sold knives door-to-door, and pretty much did whatever he had to do to feed six big, hungry boys. He was laid off sometimes, and a lot of times things were really tough financially. We always shared space. We had four boys to a bedroom at one point, and I remember going to school after Christmas and lying about what I got. I would tell the kids that I got something cool… like Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots, but what I really got was a pair of socks.
I can’t say enough about my dad. Dad never played a down of organized football, or any other organized sport for that matter. He taught himself all of the sports so that he could in turn teach them to us. His folks died when he was two, and he was raised by nuns at an orphanage near Pittsburgh. My dad spent the majority of his life, even as a kid, working.
I’ll never forget him working with me in the backyard, running routes for me. Let me tell you, for a guy who worked all day doing manual labor, Dad still ran a pretty mean route. He had me sprinting out and taking drops and putting the ball on the money. I’ll never forget the cold fall air, the cold ball, me out back in a Steelers jersey, and Dad there with me as often as he could be there. After I won a Punt, Pass, & Kick competition as a kid, I got to meet my hero, Terry Bradshaw, and he showed me the “Bradshaw Grip,” which involved putting his index finger on the top of the ball and his ring finger on the first lace. “I’m going to take your job one day,” I told Bradshaw that day. I’ve changed the grip style just a little from the first lace to the second, and now I’m the one teaching kids how to do it. Interesting how life works.
When Dad was training me for the Punt, Pass, & Kick competition, he would take our clothesline and stretch it on the ground from one end to the other, marking off the inches and feet. Then, much as the name suggests, I would punt, pass, and kick. Pretty simple. It sounds crazy, but he would make me do a certain number of reps before I could eat lunch! Every day this scene would play out, and some days lunch was forgotten completely. Some days, I won’t lie, I didn’t want to go home and I didn’t want to throw the football. I would avoid him, or curse under my breath, to which he would reply, “What was that, son?” to which I would reply, “Nothing, Dad.” And now he’s standing on the sidelines at my football camp.
Dad’s coaching technique was amazing. He knew that in addition to pointing out the things I did wrong (which he did, believe me), he also knew that when he praised the things I did right, it would mean the world. And it did. When he would yell, “That’s my boy!” after I made a good throw, I felt like a million bucks, and I would have run through brick walls for that guy. That’s the same way that I try to encourage my two daughters and how I try to reach out to the kids at my camp. Those times with my dad, in the backyard, were as significant to me as the Super Bowls or any of the other experiences I had playing football. The more I’m around, the more I’m convinced that a huge part of this game—a huge part of what makes it satisfying—is who you can share it with.
There are so many football memories that come flooding back at camp. I’ve got my brothers here, and we all hang out in a big motor home (thanks Chris Colton) that sits right outside the Bills practice facility. Between camp obligations we can all be found in there eating, laughing, catching up on each others’ lives, and just enjoying each others’ company. When we’re not hanging out in the RV, we’re zipping around on golf carts, seeing how fast we can go and how tight we can take corners. The great thing about football (and to be candid, sometimes the bad thing about it) is that you can feel like you never have to grow up. Jill jokingly asks me from time to time, “When are you going to grow up?” My response is, “Hopefully never.”
All of my brothers would agree that dad’s coaching paid off in both big and small ways, for all of us. In 1974 my brother Pat was drafted by the Baltimore Colts, where he spent some time at linebacker. The only time I saw Pat play in person, as a pro, was in 1977 in Canton, Ohio, at the Hall of Fame preseason game. I was in awe, to say the least. There’s something magical about walking up the ramp in a stadium and then walking out and seeing the green grass, the white lines, and all of those players warming up. I’ll never forget that day. And to think that my brother was one of them. It blew my mind to see him on the field in an NFL uniform. We went nuts whenever he did anything on the field, as a linebacker or on special teams, and I made sure that everyone sitting around me knew that he was my brother. My dad knew how my mind worked, and he knew that it was my dream to be on that field one day, which is why he never let up on me and why he pushed me to work as hard as I could.
My dad loved East Brady, PA, but he knew that it didn’t exactly hold a wealth of opportunities for all of his boys. East Brady is located about sixty-five miles northeast of Pittsburgh and features the following: No traffic lights, no department stores, no fast food… but a bunch of bars, a bunch of churches, and a whole lot of great people. East Brady, to put it simply, is the kind of place you love, but the kind of place you ultimately have to leave in search of opportunities.
Dad felt like sports might be our ticket out, and he pushed us accordingly. “Someday you’ll thank me for all of this,” he said. “If you want something bad enough, you have to work for it. If you work hard for it, chances are you’ll receive it. All you have to do is put your mind to it and be patient, and hopefully everything will work out.”
We were a tough family, and I think toughness is important. With all of those brothers, there were bound to be fights and disagreements. When my brothers and I fought, Dad would take us into the garage for a little Main Event Therapy. “What’s Main Event Therapy?” you ask. It involved boxing gloves, football helmets, and two of us pounding the crap out of each other and then shaking hands at the end, like gentlemen. Dad knew we needed to get the anger and rage out, but he also knew that we needed the bond and we needed to love each other.
With all those boys in a tiny house, we had to be resourceful. We played indoor basketball, and like all cold-weather, football-loving kids, we played knee-football inside, which resulted in countless rug burns, cuts, bruises, and scrapes.
I’ve kind of been working on this theory that in order to be good at something hard, like football, it has to fill a deep, fundamental need. Football is too hard, otherwise. It doesn’t make sense, intuitively, to subject your body to that kind of beating. I’ve separated shoulders, sprained ankles, and had numerous concussions. It doesn’t make sense to do all of that unless you really need it, and I needed football to take care of my parents but also to define myself, early on and even today, truth be told.
We always took my parents for granted, like most kids do, but when we got older we realized what Mom and Dad went through for us, and a huge motivating force in our lives was the desire to take care of our parents.
My mom’s nickname was Saint Alice. She worked in our high school cafeteria to make ends meet, but she always had time to make dinner for her boys and the other neighborhood kids. My mom knew every way imaginable for preparing ground beef and making it into a meal. She got emphysema and suffered for many years before the Lord took her home in 1996. I miss her so much. All of our energy, as brothers, was channeled toward being able to take care of our folks. My mom was also something of a magician in the laundry room. Let me explain. No matter what shape our uniforms were in after games, my mom would work her magic on them and make them look better than new. After a while the other players’ moms were on the phone, asking Alice how she got the uniforms so clean! But there was no magic detergent—just a lot of hard work and a lot of pride. Mom scrubbed every last bit of dirt out of those jerseys and pants because she loved us, and even though she couldn’t always buy us the newest and the nicest, she always did her best. Those are the kinds of lessons that stay with me, to this day. No matter how much money you have, or how much you’ve achieved, it’s so important to work hard at whatever you’re doing, including washing dirty football uniforms.
Dad was tough on us, and he pushed us. Nowadays there are a million books and articles on how to raise athletes and what to do and what not to do. What my dad realized early on is that we had too much free time. We weren’t allowed to eat lunch until we’d thrown a certain number of passes.
And whenever I got knocked down on the football field, I could always hear my brothers in the stands yelling for me to “get up.” I’m thankful for the toughness that they brought me, which was very visible and public because of the football, but the fact of the matter is that they’re all tough in their own way. In rural Pennsylvania, toughness was just a way of life. It wasn’t really an option. If you wanted to survive and get along in the world, you had to earn people’s respect, and the way you did that was by working hard and getting up off the deck when you got knocked down. It was an old-school way of life, and unfortunately, I feel like it’s become the exception today, instead of the norm, like it was back then.
I try to teach the concept of thankfulness here at camp, which is sometimes a challenge, as football players aren’t exactly famous for their thoughtfulness and sensitivity. Every year at camp each kid can bring one item through—a jersey, hat, ball, or picture—and get it autographed. As a parent I’m a firm believer in saying “please” and “thank you,” and I’ve tried to instill that in my campers as well. The first several years at camp we jumped on the golf cart and signed autographs for every kid at camp. If a kid would come through the line to get his item signed and wouldn’t say “thank you,” I’d tell him to go “grab a leaf.” Meaning that the kid would have to run a half mile to the tree and back if he didn’t say “thanks.” I didn’t do it because I was obsessed with the “thanks,” but rather, because I think it’s critically important for kids to be thankful for the privileges they have.
How are you teaching your kids to be thankful? We live in an increasingly thankless culture, and I find that a sincere “thank you” from a young person goes a long way in communicating character. I insist that my girls say “thank you” to clerks, teachers, and especially Mom and Dad. It’s a sign of respect and also a way to keep them grounded. I put my parents through a lot of grief, but I think they always knew that I appreciated them. I appreciate them to this day.
Tangibly, make sure your kids are thanking their teachers and their coaches on a regular basis. These folks work hard, often for very little money, and it’s easy to take them for granted. A word or a note of thanks goes a long way. And I always make sure my kids write thank-you notes for gifts they’ve received. It seems like a little thing—and a little old-fashioned, but it goes a long way.
As I stand here, on the field, in the middle of all these kids, with my brothers, Dad, and my close friends hanging out on the sidelines… I’m so thankful. More than I can say. I’m thankful for hard work, for lessons taught and learned, for winning and losing. I’m thankful for moments like this when I can reflect on all that God has done in my life thus far.
Dear Cam and Erin,
I haven’t always been as thankful as I should have been—for your mother and for the challenges God put in my life. But I’m so thankful that I get to be your dad. And I’m thankful for the young women you’ve become. Please take the time to be thankful. We’ve dealt with so much as a family, but we have so much to be grateful for.
In what ways does Jim express thankfulness for his father and brothers?
How did Jim’s dad cultivate his relationship with his son?
How are you expressing and cultivating thankfulness for the people in your life?
What are some ways in which you’re modeling thankfulness to your kids, even in the midst of trials?
How can your kids tangibly thank the people—coaches, teachers, family members—who are key parts of their lives?
You showed great confidence in your time here on earth. You taught our family so much. So much of my confidence, in retrospect, was false—I was confident in my ability to throw a football, run, and lead my teammates—but you showed me a whole different kind of confidence. The kind that allowed me to trust God with my life and get help when I needed it most. I thank God for that, and I thank Him for you.
Where would you rather be than right here, right now?
I’m writing this from a U.S. military barracks in the Middle East, and there’s nowhere I’d rather be than right here, right now. I came over with a group of NFL guys, and we have lived, eaten, and played flag football with the troops who are serving here. It’s hot. Everywhere you look there’s sand and military equipment. There’s a discernable lack of things that I have come to appreciate: namely my bed and my sofa. I have so much respect and admiration for the men and women who put their lives on the line to defend our country and freedoms. What they do takes a tremendous amount of hard work, trust, respect, and confidence.
When you grow up with three older brothers in a small town—and those older brothers are all leaders and successful athletes and captains themselves—you kind of have the run of the place and confidence is a given. It seems like for as long as I can remember I had confidence. As a kid I was always the leader, a captain—on the school yard when it was time to pick teams and in our real leagues. And even off the field, kids would always ask me what we were going to do that day—whether we were going to go swimming, play pickup basketball, or Wiffle ball.
From a young age I had coaches building up my confidence and encouraging me to work hard. I had a coach in youth football named Art Delano who would run up and down the train tracks with me to lose weight and around the football field at least ten times. He taught me the importance of denying myself in the moment so that I could see the hard work pay off down the road.
I’ll never forget that when I was ten years old it was the night before our youth football championship game, and I was eating too much—I ate hot dogs, cupcakes, ice cream, and drank a bunch of pop. The next morning we had to weigh in for the game. I was three pounds overweight, couldn’t play, and we lost the game. I had to sit on the sidelines in my uniform—all dressed up and nowhere to play.
At that point I learned that the decisions I made impacted others. I felt horrible for letting my team and my family down, and it was the beginning of lifelong lessons in accountability and leadership.
As is the case in many small towns, high school football is the biggest (and only) show in town. That was the case in East Brady, home of the Bulldogs. My older brothers had already firmly established the Kelly tradition by the time I got on the field—Pat was a linebacker, Ray played linebacker and quarterback, Ed was a quarterback. My younger brothers continued the tradition—Danny was a wide receiver, and Kevin played offensive line.
Sadly, due to declining enrollments, East Brady High no longer exists. But that just adds to the sort of cinematic quality of the memories. Everything seems like it only exists on Super 8 film. They retired my jersey at East Brady and then turned around and gave it right back to me when the school closed, and now it’s sitting in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
I became the starting quarterback on varsity as a sophomore, which as you can imagine was quite a lift to my confidence and my sense of belonging in school and in town. I had arrived, in a sense. It was important to me to follow in my brothers’ footsteps and make the family proud. There are certain things you never forget about high school football—like wearing the game jersey to school on Fridays and spending that whole day in a fog, just dreaming about the game that was to come. I’ll never forget the smell of smoke and popcorn that filled the air above the stadium on Friday nights. Or when we played at home, Saturdays, because we had no lights. And to this day, whenever I hear the sound of drum beats in the distance, I think of high school football.
We were 6-3 in my sophomore year, and I threw fourteen touchdown passes. The following season we were undefeated, and I threw for 1,474 yards and fifteen touchdowns. My senior year we went undefeated again, as I tossed another fifteen scores and left most games at halftime, when we were up by something like 30–0. By the end of my high school career, I had thrown for almost four thousand yards and forty-four touchdowns, helping the Bulldogs to a 25-3-1 record and two Little 12 Conference titles. The Little 12 was made up of a bunch of small schools (enrollment 350 or under) in middle and western Pennsylvania. Another thing I’ll never forget is the bus routes to those towns—loading up on a school bus in our uniforms and driving those same routes, over the same back roads to places like Union and Karns City.
I was an all-state selection in high school, and I was also the first Little 12 player in league history to be chosen for the Big 33 State All-Star game. It was heady stuff.
There was one person, in particular, who had as much of an impact on my confidence in life as anyone. Terry Henry, our head coach, was one of those guys who was wise beyond his years. Being that East Brady was a small school, Terry wore many (read: every) hats—he taped ankles before games, he tended to injuries, he taught, he counseled, and he played the role of surrogate father to many of us. There’s nothing quite like your high school coach. I think about Terry a lot, and he’s a big part of my life to this day.
Terry also kept me grounded and kept my confidence in check. With all the success and accolades that were coming my way, and with the unique experience of being a big fish in a small pond, quite frankly, I was becoming a little bit of a jerk. I hated criticism. I thought I knew better than everybody else (and had a roomful of trophies to prove it), and Terry was there to remind me, along with my brothers, that I wasn’t. Thank God I listened to their advice.
He was also good at diffusing conflict. There was a time when Terry took a bunch of us to another town to scout Moniteau High School, a rival of ours. Not surprisingly, some mouthing off took place, and Terry loaded up the van and got us out of there. But a bunch of the Moniteau kids jumped in their cars and chased us. It was like something out of American Graffiti or The Outsiders. A bunch of cocky high school guys showing off and being dumb. But when Terry decided they weren’t going to give up, he slammed on the brakes, and we all piled out of the van and walked right into the middle of the road. A bunch of hyped-up punks. The Moniteau kids were, frankly, freaked out. They did 180s in their cars, and we never saw them again.
Terry Henry is one of my closest friends to this day. I respected the way he hung with me and stuck with me, and now he’s a fixture on my hunting and Fellowship of Christian Athletes trips. In fact, recently we were interviewed by the FCA when we were in the middle of a trout stream, with waders on and fishing poles in our hands. One of my lifelong goals was that when I got successful, I would be in a position to take care of the people who were important to me. That included my family, Mom and Dad, my brothers, and Coach Henry.
When Miami head coach Lou Saban flew to Pennsylvania to recruit me, we were in the middle of a blizzard. Saban had to reroute, and the roads to East Brady were covered with snow. Still, when he arrived, he had enough energy to begin cooking dinner in the kitchen. There’s nothing quite like college recruiting. There’s nothing quite like older, grown men traveling to your town to make a sales pitch to you, a high school kid, or being flown from a place like East Brady to a place like Miami, Florida, where coeds and bikinis were prevalent. It was all pretty crazy.
It’s been talked about and written about many times before that I wanted to go to Penn State to play for Joe Paterno. I think every Pennsylvania kid feels this way. You grow up watching the Nittany Lions in the boring (but classic) blue and white uniforms, and you want to be a part of it. I was a pretty good high school basketball player too, and the Penn State coaches came to a few of my high school games. I was pretty sure I was going to be wearing the blue and white. But then one day Penn State called me and said they’d already signed two quarterbacks and that they still wanted me at Penn State. As a linebacker. It didn’t take me long to decide that my answer was no. I wanted to play quarterback.
Of course, being Irish Catholic, my folks wanted me to go to Notre Dame. They of course had a great tradition, and culturally South Bend was definitely more like East Brady than Miami, Florida. But when I got to Miami, I saw the beaches, had steak and lobster for the first time in my life, and pretty much just asked “Where do I sign?” My parents were disappointed because they knew they couldn’t afford to fly down to Miami for games.
I’ve made a few decisions in my life that at the time people had trouble understanding. The first was deciding to attend Miami, and the second was deciding to sign with the USFL’s Houston Gamblers rather than the Buffalo Bills. Those were both decisions that disappointed some people at the time. But once I make a decision, I go full speed ahead with confidence in that direction, and I don’t look back.
At the beginning, at the University of Miami, it was all a little overwhelming. I was a kid from a small town in Pennsylvania, and here I was in this locker room with big-city guys from all over the country. Guys looked different. They talked different. Everything was completely different.
When I first got to Miami, I was in for a number of humbling experiences. For one, I would be running the veer offense, which if you’re not familiar is basically the opposite of the pro-style offense that Lou Saban outlined on his recruiting visit. The veer requires a quarterback to be quick on his feet (I wasn’t), a runner (again, I wasn’t—if you’ve ever witnessed me run, you know this style offense wasn’t suited for me), and make lots of run reads (whether to give to a halfback or run) on the fly. I was a drop-back guy. This wasn’t my thing. For a Miami quarterback at that time, your job was to hand off to OJ Anderson, who I would face again in my first Super Bowl when he was starring with the Giants.
OJ was an animal, and we weren’t going to be changing an offense that was designed for him. He used to get frustrated that I couldn’t get to the edge fast enough to make the pitch to him and told me that I’d “better become a veer quarterback” if I planned to stay at Miami.
Excerpted from The Playbook for Dads by Jim Kelly Copyright © 2012 by Jim Kelly. Excerpted by permission.
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Foreword Dan Marino ix
Pregame Update: So What Else Is Going On, and Why a Book for Dads? 1
Lesson 1 Thankfulness: Grab a Leaf 11
Lesson 2 Confidence: Where Would You Rather Be Than Right Here, Right Now? 23
Lesson 3 Respect: Earned and Given 41
Lesson 4 Preparation: Keep Slingin' It, Twelve 63
Lesson 5 Passion: Live Like You Were Dying 75
Lesson 6 Perseverance: When It's Too Tough for Them, It's Just Right for Us 99
Lesson 7 Character: You Are Who You Hang With 111
Lesson 8 Responsibility: It Is What It Is (But Not Really) 129
Lesson 9 Teamwork: What Is a Hero? 141
Lesson 10 Spiritual Life: A Hope and a Future 169
Postgame Wrap-up 185