Jim Kelly could have called an audible. He could have changed the play at the line of scrimmage, so to speak, and everyone would have understood. After being blindsided Thursday morning by news that his oral cancer had returned, the Buffalo Bills Hall of Fame quarterback would have been justified in staying put at his Orchard Park home. Kelly could have holed up with family and friends and begun preparing himself mentally, emotionally and spiritually for the onerous surgery he’ll soon need to remove a tumor and reconstruct his upper jaw.
Instead, he opted to honor two commitments.
And once again we learned that you may knock Jim Kelly down, but you can’t keep him down.
While accepting an award at the annual Vince Lombardi Cancer Foundation dinner Saturday night, Kelly told about 300 attendees that he never considered canceling. “I go (to the organizers), ‘Hey, I’m not dead. If I can still go, I’m going,’ ’’ he said.
He also mentioned how he intended to fly from there to Miami.
“Hey, my surgery isn’t until the end of the month,’’ he said. “If the good Lord decides tomorrow’s my day, I’m going out with a fish in one hand and a cup of beer in the other.’’
According to my friend Vic Carucci of The Buffalo News, the audience burst into laughter and gave Kelly a long, rousing standing ovation.
Growing up in East Brady, Pa., a dot-on-the-map town in the coal-mining hills north of Pittsburgh, Kelly dreamed of becoming a football hero. He became that—and so much more. Of course, his dream didn’t turn out exactly the way he envisioned. In fact, he experienced a series of nightmares along the way, the least of which were those four consecutive Super Bowl losses.
But through it all—the death of his son to Krabbe disease, the loss of his parents and his initial bouts with cancer—Kelly displayed the resilience and courage that were his football trademarks. This is the same unsinkable guy we chronicled at the old stadium known as Rich. No matter how many times he was knocked on his keister, he got back at up and came at you with more spirals, more grit.
Kelly Tough is much more than a hashtag internet phrase or something to be silkscreened onto T-shirts or embroidered onto baseball caps. It is an attitude, a way of life for him and his family. This toughness was ingrained in him and his five brothers at an early age by his late father, Joe, who grew up in an orphanage and overcame daunting odds 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 of 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.
Jim’s son, Hunter, also would provide a profile in courage while fighting 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 eight. 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.”
In his social media announcement about his cancer’s recurrence, Kelly mentioned “the four F’s: Faith, Family, Friends and Fans.” His devout Christian faith, his loving wife, daughters and brothers, and his legion of friends and fans helped pull him through his last battle with the disease, when he endured 35 radiation treatments, lost 51 pounds and was given a 10 percent chance of survival.
During that very public struggle, which was poignantly chronicled on Facebook by his wife, Jill, and their daughters, Erin and Camryn, Kelly discovered just how much people cared. He also discovered his true calling. He learned that he had been given a gift to inspire while being inspired.
There were times when he admitted he was ready to throw in the towel.
“I’ve had days when I wanted to say to God, ‘OK, enough’s enough. Please take me Lord,’ ’’ he told me a few years ago. “But then I’ll read those Facebook posts 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.”
Kelly recounted a heart-wrenching moment when nurses asked him to meet with a young man named Jason who was about to leave the hospital and go home to die. Kelly 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 me 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.”
Kelly is ready to rage against the dying of the light again. By beating the odds last time, the 58-year-old was able to see his oldest daughter, Erin, write a best-selling book, graduate from college and get married. He wants to be around for more triumphant moments like those.
Four years ago, he expressed gratitude about his life.
“I’ve fulfilled so many dreams,’’ he said. “I’ve got a beautiful family. But I still have a lot more to accomplish.”
Here’s praying he gets that opportunity again.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.