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Jim Kelly had heard it before, like, just about every time the Bills' legendary quarterback broke the huddle during the 11 years he and wide receiver Andre Reed played together.

After Kelly would call a play, Reed would trot out to his side of the formation and he'd give Kelly a little piece of friendly advice.

"Andre's favorite saying was, 'Right here, right here Jim' meaning throw the ball to him," Kelly recalled several years ago.

But Kelly didn't think he'd hear that mantra from Reed on the 2002 summer afternoon when Kelly, Reed and other members of the Bills alumni took on a team of Dan Marino-led retired NFL players in a charity flag football game at the University at Buffalo to benefit Kelly's charity, Hunter's Hope, founded in honor of his son Hunter who died in 2005 after a long bout with Krabbe Disease.

"We break the huddle and Andre's saying, 'Right here Jim, right here,' " Kelly said. "Don Beebe's in the huddle laughing and he says 'Some things just never change.' That's why Andre was so good. He always wanted to be the best."

Saturday night, official confirmation that Reed truly was one of the best — not only in Bills history but NFL history — will come in the form of his long-awaited induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

"Andre may be one of the most underrated receivers that ever played the game," said his longtime Bills coach, Marv Levy. "He deserves to be in.''

Patience pays off

In other words, it's about time. It has taken longer than Reed, and anyone who calls themselves Bills fans — including Kelly and all of those guys who played for the Super Bowl Bills teams of the 1990s — could have ever imagined for this day to come.

While Kelly (2002) and Bruce Smith (2009) were elected in their first year of eligibility, Thurman Thomas entered in his second year (2006), and Marv Levy in his fourth year on the ballot (2001), Reed sat on the steps of the shrine for nine years, the last eight as a finalist, before finally getting the call he'd waited his whole life to get.

"It's sweeter, there's no doubt about it," Reed said last week, reflecting on his entrance after such a long and sometimes frustrating wait. "If it would have happened four or five years ago, it would have been sweet. But I think the longer you wait, believe it or not, I think it's better because you really appreciate it, to a certain point, what it means. It really means more after all these years, because it seems like it's even more deserving when you wait that long."

To his credit, Reed never bashed the voting process. Yes, he felt he should have been elected sooner, but he recognized that there were many deserving candidates in line in front of him, and though it was tough to come so close every year, he didn't stop believing one day it would happen.

"These last nine years I just went about my business," he said. "Of course it was always in the back of my mind because I heard it every year and there was times I was like, well, is it ever going to happen? I don't know."

What Reed did know, from the time he was a little boy growing up in Allentown, Pa., was that he was going to be a pro football star, though he had a tough time convincing his friends.

"Back when I was in school," Reed said, "I'd tell people I was going to play in the NFL and they'd say, 'Yeah Reed, sure, you're going to the NFL. What you're going to be doing is bagging groceries.' "

It's easy to dream it, easy to say it, but it's not as easy to make it. In fact, the odds are astronomical, but Reed was one of the exceptions because he did everything that those boys who teased him failed to do: He worked harder than anyone to make his dream become reality.

Andre Reed Talks About Being Inducted into the Hall of Fame

Sporting family

All four of Calvin and Joyce Reed's children — sons Andre, Tyrone, and Dion, and daughter, Teshia — were athletically inclined, and Calvin made sure they had every opportunity to put their talent to use.

The boys played several sports, but football was their passion, probably because it was Calvin's passion, and their introduction came in the midget league at the downtown Allentown youth center with their dad serving as coach. When they weren't involved with a team activity, the Reed trio spent countless hours being put through the paces by their dad. He would take them to Fountain Park, or Valania Park, or Roosevelt Park and they would run laps and sprints, do calisthenics, run pass patterns against each other, and fine-tune their skills.

"We all had a lot of athletic ability," Tyrone Reed told the Allentown Morning Call a few years ago. "What set (Andre) apart from the rest of us is that he worked harder than we did. We worked hard, too, don't get me wrong, but nothing like Andre."

Said Andre: "We were the most competitive family in the City of Allentown. Everyone knew the Reeds. Whether we were playing in our yard or at the park, we always had some sort of game going."

Photos: Andre Reed's Career in Buffalo

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Unique route

Andre was a quarterback in his youth football days and later at Dieruff High School, but the skinny 130-pounder didn't become the starter in high school until his senior year when he led the team to an undefeated season.

Division I schools such as Penn State, Pittsburgh, West Virginia and Temple asked about Andre, but scholarship offers came with a stipulation: There would be no free ride unless Andre went to a junior college to accrue more experience and bulk up his then 155-pound frame.

"They wanted me to go to a junior college and I just didn't want to do it," he said. "I wasn't gung-ho about going to a junior college."

So he stayed close to home and chose to attend Kutztown, 20 miles outside Allentown. While playing for a Division II school generally means your football career ends as soon as your eligibility expires, Kutztown served as a launching pad thanks to a critical personnel decision. The coaching staff took one look at Reed, saw the quickness, the explosive athleticism, the tough-minded determination, and decided he'd be better-suited to playing receiver than quarterback. Once he began catching passes instead of throwing them, his dream of playing in the NFL began to come into focus.

Elbert Dubenion, an original member of the Bills in 1960 as a big-play wide receiver, was working as a scout for the team in 1985, and after he saw Reed play, his first instinct was to get him enrolled in the FBI's witness protection program so other scouts wouldn't find him."I wanted to play quarterback, but we had a quarterback there who was a junior and he was a little All-American (Greg Ristick)," Reed said. "They told me they could probably use me at wide receiver (as a freshman) if I wanted to play there. I was like, 'OK, um, sure, whatever you want. Whatever you want me to do, if I can help the team in that way, that's fine.' I had never played wide receiver, but I adapted to the change pretty well. I guess that was a good move."

"Ray Charles could see he was a great player," Dubenion said of Reed, who set nine school receiving records at Kutztown and was named to the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference team three years in a row. "He was fast, caught the ball in traffic, he was just great. It didn't matter what level he came from, he could play."

Andre Reed Receives his Gold Jacket

Without the FBI's help, other teams did scout Reed, but it was the Bills who used their fourth-round pick on him, and he remembered the moment, early in his first training camp, when he knew he was going to be fine.

"Vince Ferragamo threw me a pass, it was kind of high, and I jumped up and I think it was Don Wilson cut my legs out from under me," he said. "I came down hard, but I still hung on to the ball, got up and went back to the huddle and I said to myself, 'If this is what the NFL is about, I think I just passed my first test.' "

He passed virtually every other test thereafter and 15 years later, when he was released in a salary cap move, Reed left Buffalo as the franchise leader in games played (221) as well as catches (941), receiving yards (13,095) and touchdowns (87, tied with Thomas).

Dynamic duo

Of course, he had Kelly to thank for much of his success, and vice-versa. From 1986 when Kelly joined the team, through 1996 when the quarterback retired, Kelly threw 67 touchdown passes to Reed, at the time the third-highest total for a quarterback/receiver combo in NFL history. Of the 41 games Reed surpassed 100 yards receiving in the regular season, Kelly was doing the pitching 29 times.

"When it came down to Sunday at 1 o'clock, I believed in him and he believed in me and we were all out there for the same reason, to win; that's what it was all about," Reed said. "The only way I got better is if he got better and vice-versa. We were one of the greatest combinations ever, let's face it."

"I knew he was my go-to guy, I knew where my bread was buttered," said Kelly.Kelly is expected to be in the stadium Saturday night when Reed dons his yellow sport coat and poses next to his bronze bust, and he will harken back to those days when No. 83 would flash over the middle, make catches amidst all that lurking danger, and then churn for extra yardage like so few ever have.

And Reed will surely nod toward his former quarterback's way, proud to stand side by side with him, immortalized forever because, just just like Kelly, he left all he had on the field.

"That'll be my legacy," Reed. "I know every time I went out on the field I tried to do my best and I came to play. When the chips were down and we needed a big play, I could always be called on, I could always make a play. Not too many guys can say they did that."

MAIORANA@DemocratandChronicle.com

Twitter.com/@salmaiorana

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