I HAVE never doubted that Jim Kelly, who was practicing his autograph in fifth grade, loved being a superstar quarterback every bit as much as he loved actually playing the position.

Center of attention. Object of affection. Perks . . . perks . . . and more perks.

I think he will miss it even more than he might realize.

I'm not sure, however, that Kelly always enjoyed being the largest fish in this relatively small pond we call Western New York.

There was a part of him that longed to move freely through public places without having his every twitch being so, well, public. Surely, in a bigger town -- say New York or Los Angeles -- he could have enjoyed a bit more anonymity, or at least had other mega-celebrities around to pull away some of the spotlight.

Here, Kelly always was the man of the hour, of the day, of the year, of the decade.

He enjoyed the recognition, but he didn't always enjoy what went with it.

I will never forget an autograph session Kelly did at a local book store for his autobiography, "Armed & Dangerous," which I helped him write in 1992. A line of several hundred people stretched outside and around the building. The store posted signs -- and store employees gave frequent reminders -- that, per the publisher's directive, Kelly would only sign copies of his book. Other items could be forwarded to his company, Jim Kelly Enterprises, for autographs.

One woman, holding only a football as she waited with her 10-year-old son, refused to take no for an answer. When a store employee finally ushered her away, she grabbed the back of her son's neck and, with Kelly looking in another direction, squeezed hard. As the boy let out a scream, the woman glared at Kelly and snapped, "Nice going, Jim! You made the kid cry. Are you happy now?"

My wife and I were stunned by the incident. When I leaned over to mention it to Kelly, I was even more shocked by his "what-else-is-new?" response. This was clearly not the first time a knuckle-headed parent had exploited a child in pursuit of his signature. I suppose if one sees the stomach-turning sight of fathers and mothers shoving reluctant children into a horde of autograph-seekers at training camp often enough, it is possible to be numb.

Kelly, in fact, was always at his best around children. He was far more consistently obliging when it came to signing autographs for them or posing for pictures with them than any other big-name Bills player.

And Kelly's heart always held a special place for youngsters in need.

I remember the one mentally retarded boy whom he constantly kept at his side while running his youth football camp at St. Bonaventure University one summer.

One day, while walking with me out of the Rich Stadium tunnel toward the players' parking lot, Kelly stopped dead in his tracks when he noticed another mentally retarded boy waiting outside. "Oops! I almost forgot," Kelly said. He handed me his playbook and stack of game films, then ran back inside the dressing room to grab a football and other memorabilia to give to the boy.

Such scenes never were quite as public as the million-plus dollars his Kelly for Kids Foundation raised for youth-oriented charities.

But a lot of things Kelly did away from the spotlight weren't noticed because he did a pretty good job of building a protective buffer around himself. Only family and close friends -- the rare recipients of Kelly's trust -- were allowed inside.

In the course of co-authoring his book, I caught a glimpse or two of the private Kelly, although neither of us ever forgot our respective day jobs and knew, inevitably, we would clash over something I wrote about him or the Bills for this newspaper.

I was actually surprised by his strong commitment to the project. Knowing how hard it was for him to sit still for one interview -- let alone the many required to produce a 100,000-word book -- I had this constant fear of arriving at his house in Orchard Park and finding a sign taped to the door: "Book called off due to boredom." Not only did Kelly show up for every scheduled appointment, he gave his undivided attention.

One of the more revealing things I witnessed from the inside was the sincerity of the bond he forged with his family while growing up in tiny East Brady, Pa. I admit, when he first arrived here in 1986, I was a bit skeptical about the countless times he spoke of being super-close to his parents, Joe and the late Alice Kelly, and his five brothers -- Pat, Ray, Ed, Kevin and Dan.

But I found (beyond Dan serving as Jim's agent) they were always part of the picture in one form or another. Telephone calls. Hand-written letters. Game weekend gatherings. Holidays. Picnics. Golf tournaments.

I also found that his brothers and their families didn't force their presence on Kelly, but rather he insisted on having them around. They weren't just his relatives; they were his best friends and confidants. I always got the feeling they helped him keep his feet on the ground, something he knew he needed every now and then. It was no surprise that the point where he struggled the most during his emotional farewell news conference was when, gesturing to his brothers in the audience, he said, "And most important to me, I've been able to take care of the people I love."

From signing his first contract with the Bills to announcing his retirement 11 years later, Kelly always led a larger-than-life existence.

He was the first active pro athlete in Buffalo history with an income totaling into the millions, and he spent lavishly on himself, on his family and on those famous postgame parties for teammates, coaches and everyone else connected with the club in the basement of his 7,500-square-foot home.

He enjoyed, and could afford, grand gestures. For example, one time he was eating dinner at a downtown restaurant when he spotted an expensive painting hanging on the wall. After the meal, he paid his bill . . . and then bought the painting as well.

Kelly rode around in the back of a white stretch limousine. He rubbed shoulders with the stars, not only past and present NFL headliners but rock-and-rollers and Hollywood types who regularly showed up for his charity events. He opened, and later closed, a mammoth restaurant and nightclub that once ranked among the foremost attractions in downtown Buffalo. He had a wedding befitting a king.

Western New York got to share in Kelly's celebrity connections, but not everyone in this blue-collar area appreciated seeing one of their pro athletes assume royalty status. Perhaps that, along with the buffer, sometimes made Kelly seem aloof and unapproachable.

Maybe the quarterback who was respected and admired so much for his on-field toughness and competitive fire would have benefited from a simpler, more understated off-field style.

But then that wouldn't have been Jim Kelly.