TAMPA -- To hear Jim Kelly tell it, there isn't something in the water that produces quarterbacks by the armload from the hard hills of western Pennsylvania.

There's something in the peanut butter.

"It's the peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches," Kelly said by way of explaining how a multitude of topflight quarterbacks -- including yesterday's starters for the Buffalo Bills and New York Giants -- have been spawned in and around Pittsburgh.

Farfetched as it might sound, Kelly could be on to something. Peanut butter and jelly is the staple of many a working man's lunch pail. Western Pennsylvania is a lunch pail crowd. Kelly and Jeff Hostetler learned early, long before they left for the world beyond the mountains.

It is a lesson that has served well the other quarterbacking sons of western Pennsylvania's scarred hills. Joe Montana and Dan Marino. Johnny Lujack and George Blanda. Johnny Unitas, who deserves to stand alone, even in a sentence. Terry Hanratty and Joe Namath. Jim Kelly and Jeff Hostetler. Even Frank Reich and Matt Cavanaugh, the men who backed up Kelly and Hostetler yesterday, although Reich spent most of his time in Wilkes-Barre, a coal town a little east and a tad south of the real spawning grounds.

Together they represent a quarterbacking tradition that seems to qualify Pittsburgh as the Mecca of the forward pass.

But why?

The question persists and no one seems quite able to answer it.

"I don't really know what it is, but you can't find anything to compare with western Pennsylvania as a hotbed for quarterbacks," said Terry Henry, who coaches at Seneca Valley High School and once did some coaching of a guy named Kelly at East Brady High, 60 miles outside Pittsburgh.

"Guys like Jim Kelly at East Brady or Joe Namath, who Larry Bruno had up at Beavers Falls, they are once-in-a-lifetime quarterbacks for a high school coach. But you see some quarterbacks in this part of Pennsylvania.

"It's a hotbed of quarterbacks. It's just a great brand of football out here."

When people talk of those quarterbacks, the first thing they seem to say -- over and over, whether the subject is Montana or Unitas or Kelly or whoever -- is the word "tough," a word not often associated with quarterbacks from California (hello, Tony Eason) or Natick, Mass. (what's up, Doug Flutie?), or anywhere else.

"They're actually pretty close in a lot of ways," Buffalo linebacker Darryl Talley said of Hostetler, with whom he played at West Virginia, and Kelly. "They're both tough-minded, physical quarterbacks with a burning desire to win. They'll do whatever it takes."

The same can and often is said about Montana and Marino. Certainly it was the case with Unitas. And who was ever tougher than George Blanda, who received his paycheck and Social Security check in the same envelope?

When Kelly was a boy -- one of six who daily destroyed the home of Joe and Alice Kelly -- things were tough. His father worked hard as a machinist and then took on second jobs to stay even. He got his hands dirty and his back sore, and he didn't get much for his effort but less money than he needed.

In western Pennsylvania, you find a lot of people in the same leaky boat. You learn something about yourself in such situations. What you learn most is that you work for what you get in this part of the U.S. of A.

"We grew up probably having as hard a life as anybody," Kelly said. "A lot of times, we didn't have any food on the table. We ate a lot of peanut butter. We knew we had to work for everything you get. That's how you're brought up.

"We had three brothers to a room. Two bunk beds and a single bed. When you grow up in a family like I did, where your brothers are bigger than you, you learn not to back down. If you did, you got your butt kicked. That toughened me up. I learned to accept challenges."

The first big challenge of his life was thrown at him by his father every day at lunch. Unlike future quarterbacks from Manhattan Beach or College Station, western Pennsylvania quarterbacks don't eat lunch.

At least a lot of them must not, because Unitas will tell you about the rubber tire in the back yard and Namath will, too. And Kelly has his own story.

Not long after his son first said he wanted to be a quarterback, Joe Kelly ordered Jim home from school at lunch time. Before he could eat, he was told to roll out in the back yard and throw footballs at Alice's clothesline.

Throw for 40 minutes. Every day. Cold days. Warm days. Wet days. Dry days. Every day, Jim Kelly would throw on the run at a thin clothesline.

Then, if he was lucky, he would eat.

"I never got to eat lunch," Kelly said. "I never got to do anything until I was done throwing the football. I had a dream to be a professional quarterback, and my dad said the only way to get there was by pushing myself.

"Nuttin' came for free. Nuttin'. Sometimes you hated it, but you look back and say, 'Thank God you had a father who did this.' He was right."

You listen to Kelly talk of hard times and clotheslines when he is making nearly $2 million a year to play quarterback for the Buffalo Bills, and you wonder how often Southern Cal's troubled Todd Marinovich -- the boy who was bred to be a quarterback in the sun with all the right nutritionists and all the right exercises -- missed lunch to throw a football. You conclude not often.

"I imagine some of it is strictly by chance," Reich said of the western Pennsylvania passing phenomenon. "But there's no doubt Pennsylvania has great high school football.

"In cities like Pittsburgh, there's a really strong work ethic. I'm sure that blue-collar thing has resulted in guys from there working harder.

"It's like in Wilkes-Barre. That was a coal town. Pittsburgh is a steel town. The heart and soul of those cities is the blue-collar work ethic. Young players are nurtured and coached by people with that same work ethic. Maybe that results in great football teams and great football players. There has to be something to what's gone on."

In Kelly's case, the East Brady, Pa., work ethic was so deeply embedded it sent him to Buffalo at a time when he could have, with a little patience, called his own shots.

After the U.S. Football League folded, Kelly was Bills property for a year. He could have waited them out, refusing to go to a team that had no idea what a winning season looked like. All he had to do was stop working and wait. It would have been sound business. Some say that despite his landing in this year's Super Bowl, it would have been smart too.

But that's not what they teach you in western Pennsylvania.

"Before I met him, I figured he'd sit the year out and hold an auction," said Bills all-pro center Kent Hull, who also played in the USFL. "But after I met him at the {New Jersey} Generals' mini-camp, I knew there was no way he could be out of football for a year. He's a football player. He wanted to play."

And he has, ever since he began drilling Alice's clothesline instead of eating in Alice's restaurant. Jeff Hostetler had no clothesline to worry about in Hollsopple, Pa. He had 18,000 chickens on his hands.

Each morning, Hostetler and his brothers Ron, Doug and Todd would gather eggs from those chickens on his father's dairy farm near Johnstown.

When he wasn't collecting eggs or doing enough homework to become valedictorian at Conemaugh Township High School over in Davidsville (where he would never get less than an A), Jeff Hostetler was roughhousing with his brothers.

"We used to play in the cow pastures adjacent to the back yard," recalled Ron Hostetler a week ago, the day his brother helped knock the San Francisco 49ers out of the playoffs. "It was always two on two.

"The day I knew Jeff would be a football player was the day he did what he did here in San Francisco -- came back after getting hit. I was in college {linebacking at Penn State with his brothers} at the time. I think he was in the ninth grade.

"One play, I decked him. He got up. The next play, I decked him again. He got up and looked at me, but he didn't say a word. Next play, he hit me as hard as anybody ever hit me."

Obviously, Jeff Hostetler was western Pennsylvania tough long before he stepped into the Giants' huddle five weeks ago to replace an injured Phil Simms.

He had to be or he would never have survived the NFL long enough to have his uniform retired at Conemaugh Township, as it will be next week, or to have had his name added to the roll of honor among western PA's QBs.

After a remarkable two-sport career in high school, when he was a Parade all-American at linebacker, a 1,000-yard rusher and a basketball player so prolific he scorched two of Kelly's brothers at East Brady for 28 points in the 1979 Class A semifinals, he went to Penn State to play quarterback and was told after a year that someone else could handle it.

Todd Blackledge took over the offense Hostetler thought he was running after he'd made three starts as a sophomore and won two games, so Hostetler looked for somewhere else and settled on West Virginia's coal hills.

He married the coach's daughter, earned a degree in finance with a 3.85 GPA, earned both all-America and academic all-America mention, led the Mountaineers to two 9-3 seasons, was nominated for a Rhodes scholarship and became the Giants' third-round draft choice in 1984.

Then he stopped playing football for four years.

During that time, Jeff Hostetler was a man without work. Layoffs are a sad part of western Pennsylvania life. You learn to accept it. What you can't accept is a paycheck with no work attached, and that's what Hostetler has had for six of his seven NFL seasons.

For the first four he rode the bench, never throwing a pass until 1988. By then, he had already blocked a punt, caught a pass, rushed with the ball and qualified for an NFL pension.

What he hadn't done was his job.

"You think about quitting, but I've never done that," Hostetler said. "I didn't want to quit and be sorry about it later. I was frustrated, but what can you do? It's not like you can go to some competitor when you're frustrated.

"I asked to be traded many times. I always wondered if the opportunity was going to come, but I kept on plugging. I asked to play special teams just to get involved.

"When I look back at my career, nothing's come easy. I never dreamed I'd be taking a team to the Super Bowl. But I believe if you work hard and continue to work hard and believe in yourself, good things will happen. You just try to make the best of it and be prepared.

"That's how I was raised. That's what kept me going."

Work hard. WORK hard. WORK HARD.

That's what they teach in western Pennsylvania. Ignore the bad side because there's plenty enough of it to go around. Keep your nose to the grindstone and your back to the wheel. Work.

Above all else, they seem to teach their quarterbacks, never forget the glamour position is no different than your dad on the dairy farm or at the machine shop. It's work.

"There's a great emphasis on football in western Pennsylvania," said Cavanaugh, who has served 13 years as an NFL backup. "It's an important part of life there.

"I think so many great quarterbacks come from there because you learn how to work and you get good coaching from the start. Even before high school."I really think my grade school coaching was the most important thing because it laid down the fundamentals. The earlier you learn them and master them the better.

"Out there, they expect you to know certain things by the time you reach high school. I knew a lot by the time I got to Pitt. I rely on those things even today. I'm thankful I had that. There's such an emphasis on football at a very young age that the coaching is very good from very early on."

So you have coaches teaching football and families teaching you about hard work and, in Hostetler and Kelly's cases, you have big brothers teaching you about something else Unitas had and Marino has and Namath had.

"Jeff takes control," said Giants center Bart Oates. "I've seen quarterbacks in the huddle, and their eyes are real wide, a little glazed over. They don't want to be in that situation. You want the quarterback to want to be in that situation. You want a guy who relishes the chance to be a success as opposed to being afraid to fail.

"Jeff is the first kind. He wants to be in there. He has confidence."

If he does -- and Hostetler's 6-0 career record as a starter, including two playoff wins the past two weeks, supports that theory -- he knows where it came from.

All through his trials, a farmer used to talk to him from Hollsopple, Pa.

"I called him almost every day," said Norm Hostetler, the quarterback's father. "Anything to occupy his mind and give him some encouragement. We always believed his time would come, although the years were passing him by, it seemed.

"In my heart, I always knew he wasn't a backup. He was always a starter. In his case, he was trapped within the system. So you keep working and wait. That's what I told him."

In western Pennsylvania, you don't destroy yourself fighting the system. You keep working. And if your're lucky, one day they give you the job and you remember what Matt Cavanaugh's grade school coaches taught you about footwork. You remember picking up 18,000 eggs or missing lunch to hit a clothesline with a football for 40 minutes. You remember what it means to be a blue-collar worker. You remember how to get up after you get hit in the chin and hit back the first chance you get.

You lead by doing, not by talking or finger-waving. You go out and play quarterback the coal-hard, steel-hot western Pennsylvania way.

Then, if you're very lucky, you join the roll of honor next to Lujack and Unitas and Blanda and Marino and Montana and the rest, and they talk about you in coffee shops all over western Pennsylvania.

Jim Kelly is there now. And close to it is a backup named Jeff Hostetler.