The year was 1986 and Jim Kelly was suddenly a free agent after the collapse of the United States Football League. Kelly of course had played for the Houston Gamblers and was about to play for the New Jersey Generals after the Gamblers had folded, but that was not to be.
The Bills had drafted Kelly two years earlier and owned his NFL rights, but Kelly made it very clear he had no intentions of playing for one of the NFL's cellar dwellers. The quest for Jim Kelly became one of the biggest Buffalo sports stories ever and of course Ch 7 and Rick Azar wanted to own it.
Jim Kelly still lived in Houston Texas and Rick Azar told me to call Jim's home and try and get a phone interview. Somehow I was able to track down the unlisted telephone number and I called and was told by Jim's brother Dan that Jim had just left. That conversation took place Monday through Friday for about three weeks. Sometimes it would be Dan Kelly, Kevin Kelly or just a friend walking past the phone. No matter when I called I got the same response and my voice became very familiar to the Kelly household.
In August of that year the Bills played a preseason game in Houston against the Oilers and Ch 7 was carrying the game. Rick Azar was part of the broadcast team along with then out of work Marv Levy, believe it or not and at the last minute Ch 7 decided to send me along as well to try and get Kelly on tape.
Ralph Wilson had invited Kelly and his agents to watch the preseason game in his visitors owner's box and it was my job to try and talk Kelly into coming out and speaking on camera. I tried every trick I knew and the best I could do was get his one agent Greg Lustig to speak to me.
The game was over and I did a live broadcast on the late news and left for the airport to board the plane with the team and other Buffalo reporters. Just before the plane was about to depart I was paged and told to de-plane and call then Ch 7 News Director Jerry Fedell. I called Jerry and was told to return to the hotel and stay in Houston until Kelly signed.
I spent another two days with no change of clothes and thanks to my pal Vic Carucci of then the Buffalo News, I broke the story on local TV at 6:00 am Monday morning that Kelly signed for a little over seven million dollars. The story was the biggest and most positive story for the Bills since they drafted Heisman Trophy winner O J Simpson in 1969.
After doing live shots back to Buffalo from 6 am until the noon news I was told to race out to Kelly's house before he left for Buffalo and a planned six o'clock news conference. We bribed a cab driver to break every speed limit enroot to Kelly's plush home. I was told Kelly would finally do an interview and waited on his door step. After about ten minutes Kelly's agent Greg Lustig again came to the door and did a quick and very vanilla interview. No Jim Kelly after all.
Back in Buffalo the news was received like the Bills had already won the Superbowl. People lined the streets where the Kelly motorcade was advertised to take place. I was able to talk myself on to a flight back to Buffalo without a current ticket and arrived back at Ch 7 in time to watch Rick Azar anchor Ch 7's coverage of the news conference live on our air.
About two weeks later Rick Azar told me it was my assignment to interview Jim Kelly for our annual Buffalo Bills preseason special. I was excited to finally get a chance to meet and interview Jim after the long and unsuccessful quest to get him on camera.
We did the interview at then Ralph Wilson Stadium and everything was going great until my photographers Rick Swenson said he needed to put in a new tape in his camera. As Jim and I sat there waiting for the interview to resume I turned to Jim and said "You're a very nice guy considering how tough it was to get this interview." Jim looked at me and said "There's a guy in town who called my house every day for a month bothering me and my family and if I ever meet this guy I'm going to punch him right in the mouth, are you that guy?" I looked at Kelly and I looked at Rick Swenson and said "Hurry up and put that tape in Rick because seven million is a lot to get in a lawsuit!" I looked at Kelly and he looked at me and we both kind of laughed.
For the next four years Jim and I had a professional relationship and he was always available, but he had not forgotten what an irritant I had been before he became a Bill. Ironically Kelly and Rick Azar were great pals and Rick owned none of the animosity despite the fact my aggressive pursuit of the Kelly signing was at his behest.
Finally around 1991 after a few glasses of home made wine one night at a function at Ilio DiPaolo's restaurant Jim Kelly finally told me "Your not the as#*%# I thought you were." Today Jim and I are friends and have supported each other's endeavors and pursuits, but that was not always the case.
Rick Azar still laughs when I refer to those days and the Kelly story. Rick was always the gentlemen, but was as eager to break the big sports story as anyone who ever handled a microphone in Buffalo broadcast history. Hopefully the Mario Williams signing will bring the same results that the signing of Hall of Fame QB Jim Kelly did.
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