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During a recent tour of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, class of 2014 inductee Andre Reed spent a little extra time near the sculpted bust of his longtime teammate and friend, Jim Kelly.
“I rubbed his head a little bit,” Reed said, his voice choked with emotion. “It was kind of a way for me to say, ‘Hey, Jim, we’re in your corner, we’re here. Never gonna leave you, praying for you and your family,’ that kind of stuff.”
The most prolific pass receiver in Buffalo Bills history paused to clear his throat and compose himself before continuing. “Jim is like a brother to me,” he said. “I know that’s the way all of us who played with him feel. He isn’t just a teammate. He’s family.”
The news last week that Kelly’s cancer has returned less than a year after the legendary quarterback underwent surgery to remove part of his jaw hit Reed and his former Bills teammates especially hard. Yes, those Bills Super Bowl teams from the early 1990s boasted some powerful egos that occasionally clashed, but the bickering was only temporary. Over time, they became a close-knit fraternity, and the bonds they formed during that unprecedented run have only grown stronger through the years and decades.
The connection between Reed and Kelly began not long after the quarterback showed up in the summer of 1986 and helped save a franchise that was on the verge of running a down-and-out-of-town pattern. Reed caught 53 passes for 739 yards and seven touchdowns in their first season together. It took a little time for the two to really gel, but once they did, they became one of the most prolific passing combinations in NFL history. The dynamic duo helped get the moribund Bills into the Super Bowl and each other into the Hall of Fame.
“It was a match made in heaven,” Reed said. “We developed a great chemistry, a great trust in one another. He knew he could count on me to be in certain spots in certain situations to make plays. And I knew I could count on him to find me at the right time in the right place.”
A lot of behind-the-scenes work contributed to their success.
“We studied a lot of film together, and for a number of years we worked out together in the offseason,” he said. “A lot of people didn’t know that we did that, but it was an indication that we both wanted to be the best. No question, the belief Jim had in me made me better.”
In recent years, Kelly continued to believe in Reed, lobbying hard for the man with 951 catches, 13,198 receiving yards and 87 touchdown receptions to receive his own bust in Canton. The day before this year’s Super Bowl, Reed received the news that he had been voted in after eight years as a finalist.
“I appreciate Jim and the others, not only for pushing for me to be in but for keeping me grounded throughout the process,” he said. “It was disappointing at times, coming so close and not getting in, but Jim kept my spirits up, told me my day would come, and it did.”
Reed wishes he could somehow rid his friend of the cancer cells that have returned and reportedly are spreading aggressively. Kelly recently headed to New York City for more treatments.
Jill Kelly has asked people to pray for her husband, and they have responded. The support on social media has been overwhelming, with thousands writing prayers, Bible verses and words of encouragement on the “PrayforJimKelly” Facebook page and with the Twitter hashtag “PrayersforJK.” Support also has come from people throughout the NFL, including Kelly contemporaries John Elway and Dan Marino, as well as current stars, such as Peyton Manning. That doesn’t surprise Reed.
“Jim is beloved in the football community,” he said. “All that support means a lot to him, especially the support from the football community. Those guys really respect Jim. The guy has had to deal with so much, but he and his family have great faith. They remain positive. It’s pretty remarkable.”
Kelly has gone through hell in recent years, surviving a plane crash during an Alaskan hunting trip in 2000, the death of 8-year-old son Hunter from Krabbe disease in 2005, and a series of health problems that have required surgeries on his back, knee and jaw. As a player, he was known for his resilience, a trait that enabled him to pick himself up after a sack, an interception or a loss and come back strong. And now he’s facing the toughest opponent he’s ever faced, for a second time.
“Jim is a fighter; the guy is tougher than nails,” Reed says. “If anybody can beat what he’s got, it’s him.”
Reed, Thurman Thomas and Bruce Smith visited Kelly in his Orchard Park home last week before he left for New York, and their old teammate seemed upbeat. Reed said they were telling jokes and old war stories from their playing days. “It was like we went back in a time machine,” he said. “I think that was good for Jim, took his mind off of what he’s facing for a bit.”
At the news conference introducing new Hall of Fame inductees before last month’s Super Bowl, Reed sought out Kelly and gave his quarterback a bear hug. “It was so great to be able to share that moment with him and Bruce and Thurman. And I want to be able to share my joy with Jim and the guys again at the induction ceremonies (on Aug. 2). I want to look back from the podium and see Jim sitting there with the rest of the Hall of Famers in their yellow blazers.”
That’s a sight we all hope to see—Kelly and Reed connecting again.
Award-winning columnist and best-selling author Scott Pitoniak covered the entirety of the Buffalo Bills careers of Jim Kelly and Andre Reed. That included chronicling numerous completions, touchdowns and wins by one of the greatest passing combinations in football history.
3/28/14 (c) 2014 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email email@example.com.