Jim Kelly's celebrity in Buffalo is unmatched.
In a Rust Belt city that lacks glitz or glam but shares an inveterate bond with its Buffalo Bills, Kelly is the most well-known sports figure. The Hall of Fame quarterback is larger than life.
After leading the Bills to an unprecedented four consecutive Super Bowls in the early 1990s, Kelly could have taken his fortune and fame just about anywhere else. He didn't.
Kelly retired in 1997, but he and his family continue to make Western New York their home. Even in Buffalo, a small city where everybody seems to know everybody, Kelly could have kept a low profile. He hasn't.
"If there are Western New York royalty, Jim and Jill Kelly would be king and queen," said Jerry Gillis, the Kelly family's pastor at The Chapel at CrossPoint in Getzville, N.Y. "He's an athletic hero in Western New York and people adore him and feel like he's part of their family."
Kelly has used his iconic status to benefit the community. From national efforts to raise awareness of Krabbe disease -- which took the life of his son, Hunter, in 2005 -- to contributing to local charities, Kelly has shown an openness and accessibility to a region where he is beloved.
"I knew him when he was a quarterback and I knew him when his playing career was over, as a member of our community," said Tony Masiello, who served as Buffalo's mayor from 1994 to 2005. "He's evolved masterfully and beautifully from a big, tough, rugged football player to even a community- and civic-minded contributor with a big heart and a big personality."
As Kelly, 54, prepared for cancer treatment at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, his friends and former teammates told the story of a tough-minded man with a knack for pulling people together, both before and after his playing career.
Kelly initially shunned Buffalo. Instead of playing for the Bills, who drafted him 14th overall in 1983, he spent his first two professional seasons as the prolific quarterback for the USFL's Houston Gamblers.
It was a blow to the Bills, who made just three playoff appearances in the previous 16 years.
"The team had been bad really for a relatively long time," explained former Bills general manager Bill Polian, who joined the team's scouting department in 1984. "We had all of the downturn economically in '77, the blizzard of '77, and the city and the team had become the butt of jokes on Johnny Carson and other comedy shows. It was really a dark time.
"There was actually talk in the media of, 'Oh, let the team move somewhere else. We're better off without them.' It was as though a black cloud had hung over the franchise and effectively over the area, as well."
After the USFL contracted in 1986, Kelly signed a five-year, $8 million contract with the Bills -- making him a star in Buffalo before he even played a down in the NFL.
"When Jim came back that cloud was lifted," Polian said. "It was blown away and the sun was shining."
The deal made Kelly the league's highest-paid player and Buffalo welcomed him in style. The Bills moved their introductory news conference to the Hilton (now the Adam's Mark hotel) in downtown Buffalo and gave Kelly a police escort from the airport.