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Jim Kelly takes the snap and drops back in the pocket. Five rambunctious 11-year-old boys make like Andre Reed and run pass patterns. The greatest and toughest Buffalo Bill of them all surveys the situation before lofting a 15-yard spiral to a lanky youngster in the back of the end zone. Kelly raises both arms and grins as if it’s 1990 and the setting is an NFL game at Rich Stadium rather than a flag football camp scrimmage at a suburban high school practice field. “Nice catch, bro,” he says, exchanging high-fives with the recipient of his touchdown pass. It is difficult to discern whose smile is more incandescent—Kelly’s or the boy’s.
Slowly but surely, old No. 12 is coming back from the damage inflicted by the nastiest foe he’s ever encountered. After months of hospital confinement and numerous excruciating chemo and radiation treatments for the jaw and sinus cancer that caused him to lose 51 pounds, Kelly recently returned to a place that’s always been a sanctuary—the football field. It’s done him a world of good, feeding off the energy of young boys with big dreams. “I was going to be here no matter what,” he said of the camp he’s run for 27 consecutive years.
He says his battle is far from over. He still tires easily and gets most of his nourishment through a feeding tube while waiting and hoping for his taste buds to recover and his appetite to return. He’s been eating scrambled eggs and recently had some spaghetti with homemade sauce from his favorite Italian restaurant, Illio DiPaolo’s.
“I’ve never been a patient person; I wish I could just snap my fingers and be OK,” he said, seated in a golf cart while taking a break during his recent football camp at Sweet Home High School, north of Buffalo. “But it doesn’t work that way. It takes time.”
Resilience has always been a Kelly trademark. No matter how many times he was knocked on his keister, he got back up and came at you with more spirals, more grit. “Kelly Tough” is not just some fancy catchphrase silkscreened onto a T-shirt. It is an attitude, a mantra he and his family have lived by. Kelly Tough has enabled Jim to deal not only with sacks, interceptions, fumbles and Super Bowl losses, but also with off-field tragedy.
It’s a toughness that was instilled in him and his five brothers at an early age by their father, Joe Kelly, who grew up in an orphanage and overcame daunting obstacles of his own. But the Kelly boys also learned toughness from their beloved mother, whom they referred to as “Saint Alice” for her ability to “survive” a testosterone-fueled household filled with rough-and-tumble young males. In the later years of her life, Alice taught the Kelly boys courageous lessons while tethered 24/7 to an oxygen tank, battling emphysema. “I never heard her complain, even though she was often gasping for air,” Jim said.
Another profile in courage was provided by Jim’s son, Hunter, who endured Krabbe disease, an incurable, fatal disorder that destroys the nervous system. “Hunter became my hero,” he said. “A lot of kids with the disease die by the time they’re 13 months old. But Hunter defied the odds and lived to be 8. Sometimes, when I feel sorry for myself, I think of him and my mom. Both of them went through stuff a lot harder than I’m going through. They were the epitome of Kelly Tough.”
Jim’s devoted wife, Jill, and loving daughters Erin and Camryn also have been Kelly Tough. They’ve stood beside him every step of the way. It was Jill who convinced Jim to go public with his cancer journey on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. “I was reluctant at first because I’m a private person,” he said. “But Jill reminded me that as Christians we believe in the power of prayer. She was so right. The response from people, especially on that Twitter account (#PrayersforJK), has been overwhelming.”
Jim’s brothers also have pitched in. Dan Kelly continues to run Jim’s business ventures and has coordinated his brother’s often complicated medical schedule. Ray Kelly, who recently retired, came up to Orchard Park to maintain Jim’s house and lawn and help out with his football camp. As a show of solidarity, each of the brothers shaved his head bald shortly after Jim’s hair began falling out as a result of treatments.
There have been times when Jim’s toughness has been severely tested, when he was ready to throw in the towel. “I’ve had days when my head felt like it was going to explode and I wanted to say to God, ‘OK, enough’s enough. Please take me, Lord,’” he said. “But then I’ll read those Facebook messages and cards and letters, or I’ll run into someone who’s got it worse than me, and I’ll snap out of it and be determined to move on.”
One of those heart-wrenching, inspirational moments occurred when Jim was asked by nurses to meet with a young man named Jason who was about to leave the hospital and go home to die. Jim gave Jason a big hug, and the boy asked Jim if he minded if he prayed for the legendary Bills quarterback. “I had tears in my eyes,” Kelly said. “Here was this kid who had two weeks to live, and he was asking if he could pray for me. Once he finished his prayer, I asked him if I could pray for him. There have been so many unbelievable moments like that, where people are dying and they are taking time to think of you rather than themselves. Amazing.”
“Amazing” would be an appropriate word to describe the way Kelly has comported himself through the often debilitating pain and uncertainty. He says his next big step will come in mid-August, when he’ll undergo an MRI to see if he is cancer-free.
“I’m not scared to die,” he said. “I know I’ve done everything I can possibly do. I’m 54 years old. I’ve done more than most people do (by) the age of 80 years old. I’ve fulfilled so many dreams. I’ve got a beautiful family. But I still have a lot more things to accomplish.”
Here’s hoping that he will be with us for many years to come. Whether it’s convincing the new owner of the Bills to keep the team in Western New York or tossing touchdown passes to future Andre Reeds, he has plenty more to offer. He’s already given us so much. He was responsible for saving the franchise and for leading the Bills on an unprecedented Super Bowl run. But what he’s done in recent years is even more impressive and certainly more meaningful. He’s taught each of us, no matter what obstacles we are facing, to be Kelly Tough.
Award-winning columnist and best-selling author Scott Pitoniak has been covering Jim Kelly since the quarterback’s arrival in Buffalo in 1986.
7/18/14 (c) 2014 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.