ADVERTISEMENT

Jim Kelly came to Buffalo with a big splash and Friday he left in an equally extravagant departure.

People lined the streets from the airport to his first press conference to welcome him when he signed with the Bills in late August of 1986. He had come to deliver them from the football wilderness and if there had been palm fronds around, the fans would have spread those in his path, too.

When he officially announced his retirement in the Ralph C. Wilson field house, it was televised and broadcast live to a dozen upstate outlets aswell as ESPN. His words were recorded by a battalion of media as his teammates, coaches, family and friends watched.

The comparisons ended there.

This was not the swashbuckling, swaggering, supremely-confident Jim Kelly who took over the Bills more than a decade ago. Friday he was thoughtful, thankful, emotional and downright gracious. It was the classiest of leave-takings.

Kelly had carefully prepared his remarks and it was easy to see that he expected to sail through his final press conference as a Buffalo Bill, but by the time he reached the third paragraph and the words "the most difficult decision of my life," his voice broke.

When he tried to speak of the people he loves, and the camaraderie with his teammates which he cherished, he could barely get any words out.

This was a Jimbo we've seldom, if ever, seen, with emotions bared down to the bone, exiting the sport which had been his life for the last 28 years.

It was the most majestic send-off for a jock icon in Buffalo sports history. When Gilbert Perreault retired from the Sabres, he just quietly left town for his Quebec home. O.J. Simpson tore up his knee halfway through the 1977 season, recuperated on the West Coast and then was abruptly traded by Chuck Knox, the new coach, the following March.

When the Bills signed Kelly in 1986, Rich Stadium was less than half filled for eight of the previous 12 home games. The crowds were in the 20,000s for five of those. Kelly put posteriors in the seats and then pennants on the walls.

Wilson and the Bills showed their appreciation by conducting a championship-caliber goodbye session. Presidents have been received in less style than the Bills bade farewell to their all-time quarterback. Everyone entering the field house received an 11-page retrospective on Kelly with his colored, autographed photo on the cover. It contained testimonials from old teammates like Frank Reich and Darryl Talley as well as from old foes like Dan Marino, Phil Simms and Kyle Clifton.

His coaches and teammates were seated to the left of the stage with his wife and family on the right. Wilson made a few introductory remarks before Kelly spoke and then Marv Levy followed with a tribute, quoting from Winston Churchill and Ben Franklin.

The audience included at least one player, Chris Spielman, who once sought to separate Kelly from his intellect when he was a Detroit Lion, and a few writers who feasted on him in print after forgettable games. On this day, however, everyone wanted to kill him with kindness.

Many people close to Kelly always thought he would be one of those players whose jersey would have to be torn off him to make him retire, but he showed them and everyone else a reflective side that many didn't realize he possessed.

"I wanted to go out with dignity," he said. "With the respect of my peers; with the respect of my teammates."

Kelly, whose last moments in a Bills' uniform were spent in a daze as the result of a concussion he suffered in the playoff game against Jacksonville, also revealed that he thought a great deal about what's important at this time of his life.

"I talked it over with my family and my wife, Jill, whom I love very much," he said. "I decided there was a lot more to life than just football."

Someone asked him if he would ever reconsider and play football again. The answer was one word. "No."