There are a couple of reasons Hall-of-Fame quarterback Jim Kelly never enrolled at Penn State, the school he once dreamed of attending. First of all, then-coach Joe Paterno recruited him as a linebacker, not as a quarterback, and that was a no-can do. Second, Kelly consulted one of his brothers for advice … and what he heard not only changed Kelly’s career, but it altered history, too.
Both Penn State’s and the University of Miami.
You see, Kelly always wanted to play quarterback, but, because Paterno had other plans, Kelly wound up at the University of Miami where he not only turned the football program into “Quarterback U” but, as a 19-year-old freshman, beat Paterno in his first start for the Hurricanes.
Then, two years later, he beat them again in a stunning upset of the top-ranked Nittany Lions. By then, Paterno … and Penn State … should have had enough of the Hurricanes’ quarterback. But all that could’ve been avoided if Paterno had simply given Kelly a shot at the position he wanted to play.
And it wasn’t linebacker.
“To be honest with you,” Kelly said on the latest Talk of Fame Network broadcast, “where I’m from, and that’s the south sde of Pittsburgh, you’re either a Pitt or Penn State fan. And I’ve always been a Penn State fan, always loved Joe Paterno (and) always wanted to play for the Nittany Lions.
“I went to his football camp my junior and senior years of high school, thinking I showed him enough that I could play the position of quarterback. But, unfortunately (for me) … I guess I should say, ‘Unfortunately for Penn State’ … he recruited me as a linebacker later on. He called me and he said, ‘We’ve already signed two all-state quarterbacks, but we’ll give you a scholarship as a linebacker.’
“Of course, the first thing I did was … I have three older brothers… (I) called my oldest brother, Pat, who played in the NFL. He didn’t play a long time, but he was drafted by the Baltimore Colts. I called him, and I said, ‘Pat, coach Paterno just called me and he told me they’ve already signed two all-state quarterbacks, but they will give me a full ride as a linebacker. What do you think I should do?’
“And he said, ‘Brother, I have a few words of advice for you. Before you board those chartered flights for the away games, the flight attendants never want to know who the linebackers are. They always want to know who’s the quarterback.’ I said, ‘That’s enough said. I’m a quarterback.’ And the rest is history. I went on to the University of Miami and had a great, great time.”
Kelly, of course, went on to become such an accomplished quarterback there that he was a first-round draft pick of the Buffalo Bills in 1983. Instead of going to the NFL, however, he signed a big contract with the USFL Houston Gamblers where he led Mouse Davis’ Run-and-Shoot offense to a league-record 618 points in 1984.
Kelly has said that most of what he learned about the passing game happened in Houston, but imagine if never had the chance to play quarterback there. I guess what I’m saying is … imagine if he had taken up Paterno on his offer.
But he didn’t, and there’s a reason he had such a strong conviction about not switching positions.
“I played linebacker in high school,” he said. “I really enjoyed the position. I loved hitting and not getting hit. But I knew in my heart I wanted to play quarterback. Even though my brother said that … probably more as a joke than anything … that’s what I wanted to do.
“I was in my backyard, (and) I wore number 12 (that I) put on with a magic marker. Growing up in Pittsburgh, I was a big Terry Bradshaw fan on the field. And then, off the field, I wanted to be like Joe Namath. I think everybody did back in those days.
“For me it was fun. That’s what my goal was. (I) come from a little dinky town in Pennsylvania, not sure what the situation was going to be in my future, but I had big dreams, and you never know. I worked hard enough. Thank God, it all came to the forefront, and I wound up fulfilling a lot of dreams.”