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MIKE PENNER

Bills' Kelly Is Filling the Airwaves

January 22, 1992|MIKE PENNER

MINNEAPOLIS — They were armed (they had microphones), they were dangerous (they had media accreditation) and they were in uniform. That's what separated them from the rest of their colleagues on Super Bowl photo day. Jim Kelly was the one in the oversized blue jersey. Downtown Julie Brown was the one in the pink Lycra cones.

Once upon a time, a Super Bowl press pass used to mean something, but no more. Kelly, quarterback for the AFC champion Buffalo Bills, has his own television show. So does Brown, video jockey for MTV. Both had their camera crews with them Tuesday morning, going mobile, interviewing everything that breathed in their own inimitable style.

Brown to Buffalo linebacker Cornelius Bennett: "So, how fast are you going to go?"

Kelly to ESPN sportscaster Andrea Kremer: "So, what did you do to deserve this game?"

They were wired for sound, and they were wired. Kelly snuck up on camera-shy teammate Carlton Bailey, grabbed him around the neck and yelled, "Told you I'd get you on my show. Just like Candid Camera." Brown snuck up on a Metrodome worker toting a pastry tray out to the media feed and told him, "Like your buns!"

Inevitably, there was going to be a meeting of the mikes. Jules and Jim. They met at the 20-yard line, two talking heads, one football and, rather regrettably, an audience.

Kelly: "Are you ready to get tackled?"

Brown: "Yeah, how do I do it?"

Kelly: (To the camera) "Do you like that question? 'How do you do it?' (To Brown) Well, we'll talk about this later. I just want to ask you a quick question. I know you live in New York, Buffalo being right there. Now, remember, this is for the Buffalo Bills fans who will be watching, so the pressure's on. What's your prediction?"

Brown: "Well, both teams really deserve it. Both teams are working hard. But blue is my color."

Kelly kept telling his crew, "This is good stuff." His crew nodded enthusiastically. They know Kelly's viewers. They know them to be undemanding.

For instance, they live in Buffalo.

Kelly kept the cameras rolling. He kissed Brown. He hiked the football to Brown. He tackled Brown. All in good fun, oh sure, although Brown did hit the ground yelling, "Don't touch me! Don't touch me, man!"

Kelly and his crew then packed up and jogged off the field, presumably to get a good jump on security.

Such is the bane of the cable era and the Buffalo Bills' era. Kelly is a hero in an outpost starved for them--heroes and sunshine--and when you put the local football team into back-to-back Super Bowls, you can pretty much have your run of the place. At the very least, you can have your own half-hour slot on local prime time.

Kelly would go Hollywood if he weren't snowbound. He has been on Letterman, apparently not a good influence. He has co-starred with Jimmy Connors in a Nuprin commercial. He pitches Domino's Pizza. Besides the TV show, he has his own radio show. And now he has a look .

The shaggy mane that once passed for a haircut has been shorn and greased, combed back and slicked down. Gordon Gekko now runs the Buffalo no-huddle.

Pretentious? A tad. But Kelly, reared in East Brady, Pa., hasn't dyed all his roots. He has gelled for a practical reason--that reason being the spreading bald spot on the back of his head, crying for cover.

The Kelly image also got a make-over, for better (on the field) or for worse (in an interview). Kelly used to fire off quotes with all the zing and sting of a crossing-pattern pass. He ripped his running backs. He ripped his offensive line. He ripped until the Bills, loaded with the best talent in the AFC, fell short of the Super Bowl in 1988 and '89.

Team disharmony cuts in two ways. What worked for the Oakland A's in the 1970s ruined the Toronto Blue Jays in the 1980s. The Bills only assumed they could win divided. When they didn't, Coach Marv Levy pulled Kelly aside and told his team leader to pull things together or pull out of town.

Hence, the 1990-91 Buffalo Bills: Success through blandness.

Between his first Super Bowl and the second, Kelly jumped from 2,829 passing yards to 3,844 and 24 touchdown passes to 33. "I think I've gotten better," he says, "but then, the whole team has gotten better. After (1990), everybody asked us, 'How can you guys get any better?' We broke every record this year, but we did it with each individual contributing."

Thurman Thomas? "He's our big play man. We had to find more ways to take advantage of him." His offensive line? "Thurman Thomas was MVP of the league, Jim Kelly was the top quarterback, Andre Reed and James Lofton are in the Pro Bowl--and it's all because of those five guys up front." The Washington Redskins? "I haven't found a weakness yet."

Kelly was hailed as a savior when he arrived on the Bills' porch in 1986, a CARE package from the USFL liquidation sale. He relished the role then, as he does today, but now he hedges during the acceptance speech.

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