The USFL - The Rebel League
JIM KELLY - HOUSTON GAMBLERS
As the USFL’s future was in doubt in the summer of 1986, Jim Kelly’s professional football career was at a crossroads: He was the property of the New Jersey Generals after the merger with the Houston Gamblers, but the league's existence hinged on the $1.7 million antitrust suit against the NFL.
The Buffalo Bills owned his NFL rights. However, Kelly wasn’t eager to shuffle-off to Buffalo. In a 1986 with Sports Illustrated’s Rick Telander, Kelly said, “I’d love to play for the Raiders. I’d love to live in California.”
While the Raiders toiled with several different NFL retreads at quarterback over the next decade, Kelly would help bring a franchise back from obscurity.
Kelly, who grew up in Pennsylvania, loved the toughness of the Oakland Raiders and the Pittsburgh Steelers teams he watched in the '70s. Despite being drafted by the Bills in 1983 out of the University of Miami, Kelly bolted to the USFL where he brought his confident attitude and rifle-arm to the Houston Gamblers.
After two successful seasons of orchestrating the Run-n-Shoot offense under head coach Jack Pardee, Kelly was looking to ditch the Bills for a second time after the USFL lost its antitrust suit against the the NFL in 1986.
“We tried to work out a deal with the Raiders or Steelers,” Kelly said in 2005 from his Buffalo office. “I would have loved to play for either team.”
Owner Ralph Wilson was in a tough spot: Does he trade Kelly and alienate his already suffering fan-base in Buffalo? If he doesn't make a deal, Wilson runs the risk of not signing the former USFL star as Kelly prepared to sit out the '86 season?
The Bills were coming off a pair of 2-14 seasons. “I didn’t think the owner [Ralph Wilson] was committed to bringing in the players for a championship team,” Kelly said, who threw 44 touchdown passes in his first year in the USFL with the Gamblers. “The major reason I went to the USFL is that I didn’t want to play in Buffalo.”
If Kelly went to the NFL, he would end up with the Bills and face a long process of rebuilding the franchise. “Buffalo needs more than me, more than a quarterback,” he said in his SI interview from 1986. “I'd get the tar beat out of me, and it would shorten my career.”