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Jim Kelly was one of the toughest hombres ever to play quarterback in the NFL. Like the watches featured in those old Timex commercials, he took a licking and kept on ticking. He was a true football warrior.
But at age 53, the Buffalo Bills legend no longer feels invincible. Sixteen years after retiring from the game, Kelly has been forced to deal with the physical toll of all those blind-side hits. The past two years, in particular, have been hellish as he has endured back surgery, knee surgery, double hernia surgery and three operations on his jaw. Seven months ago, he received the scare of his life when he was diagnosed with bone cancer that required the removal of his upper left jaw.
Fortunately, the cancer surgery was successful. The diseased bone was extracted and subsequent scans have given him a clean bill. However, pain remains a frequent companion as Kelly adjusts to his prosthetic jaw. "I'm getting better," says the man who guided the Bills to an unprecedented four consecutive Super Bowls and wound up being immortalized with a bust at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. "The problem is I'm not a very patient patient. For the past couple of months, my condition has been the same."
Though frustrated by the pace of his recovery, Kelly feels blessed to have received several cancer-free diagnoses and the support of thousands of well-wishers, including many total strangers. "The volume of emails, letters, cards and prayers I've gotten has been overwhelming," he says. "People have been great."
Kelly suffered numerous sacks during his career. But the act of being brought down taught him about the importance of picking oneself back up. And that's what he's doing now, in a different arena.
"I've had my share of ups and downs in my life," he says, growing philosophical. "I've ridden that roller coaster. When I injured my shoulder my senior year at the University of Miami, they told me I would never play football again. And then I had to learn how to keep coming back after those Super Bowl losses. And then it was going from the joy of seeing my son, Hunter, born on my birthday, to watching him battle for eight years of his life before succumbing to a terminal disease. Then, there were the marital problems, but now Jill and I have a marriage that's stronger than it's ever been. We all have burdens to bear. It's how you deal with them that's important."
That's a lesson he tries to impart when he makes speeches. "I tell people that you can't just sit there and feel sorry for yourself," he says. "You've got to pick yourself up and go forward. You've got to do something for yourself and for others."
Jim and Jill have done extraordinary work through their Hunter's Hope Foundation. Not only have they provided support to scores of parents dealing with challenges similar to those they faced with their son, but they've lobbied for legislation in a number of states to institute comprehensive infant screening so that a variety of diseases and disorders can be diagnosed and treated sooner.
Kelly the entrepreneur is always searching for ways to increase funding for his foundation, and he recently stumbled on a product that has taken off like gangbusters. Like many people, Jim never had much use for wallets. He would instead bind his money, credit cards and license together with rubber bands or a money clip. At a recent Super Bowl, he came up with the concept of creating a multipurpose clip emblazoned with team logos. He broached the idea with the board of directors at Jim Kelly Enterprises, and quicker than you could say "The Bills make me want to shout!" MyFanClip was born.
Kelly has licensing agreements with the NFL, NHL, Major League Baseball, NASCAR and the NCAA. But the biggest coup may be the deals he's working out with high schools and youth leagues, which can use the clips as fundraisers.
"Every parent, athlete, cheerleader and band member has, at one time or another, been forced to sell popcorn or candy bars or cookies or coupon books or whatever to raise money," Kelly says. "I'm thinking, instead of that stuff why not sell these clips with your team's logo on it? The beauty about these binder clips is they are multipurpose. You can use them to close up a bag of potato chips or bind a bunch of papers or clip that rolled-up tube of toothpaste. The possibilities are limitless."
Kelly says he has sales agreements with local grocery chains, such as Tops and Weg-mans, as well as national retailers, such as Walmart and Bed, Bath & Beyond. He's had to add five employees and may need to hire more soon to keep up with demand.
Kelly still follows his old team closely. He feels the pain of Bills fans. Fourteen seasons without a playoff appearance is unfathomable. He, too, has grown dizzy watching the revolving door at quarterback. Thirteen different QBs have started games for Buffalo since Kelly's retirement in 1997. He's hoping the spinning finally stops with rookie EJ Manuel.
"I'm as tired as everybody else waiting for the next Jim Kelly," says the first Jim Kelly. "There are a lot of things I like about EJ. He's a good leader and a good ambassador for the team. But he needs to become more consistent and needs to make better decisions. There are times when we see flashes of brilliance and times when we want to pull our hair out. But he's still just a rookie. Whether we like it or not, we have to be patient."
And hope Manuel can lead a Kelly-like football renaissance at One Bills Drive.
Award-winning columnist and best-selling author Scott Pitoniak's 16th book, a collaboration with rock 'n' roll legend Lou Gramm titled "Juke Box Hero," is available at amazon.com and in bookstores. He provides analysis following Bills games on WROC-TV and is a correspondent for USA Today SportsWeekly.
12/20/13 (c) 2013 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email email@example.com.