Jim Kelly was sitting in a medical center prep room in New York City recently, intravenous needle in arm, awaiting to undergo an MRI, when he noticed a man with no legs in a wheelchair. Although this was an anxious time for Kelly as he prepared for quarterly tests that he prayed would show him to be cancer-free, he decided to strike up a conversation in hopes of boosting the stranger’s spirits. The legendary Buffalo Bills quarterback discovered the man was about to undergo a procedure similar to Kelly’s, and before long the two were shooting the breeze and carrying on like long-lost friends.
“He said it’s all about attitude, and how you have to have good people around you who are laughing and having fun and putting your mind at ease,’’ Kelly recalled over the phone. “I said, ‘Amen to that, brother.’ He put me at ease and I put him at ease. We brightened each other’s day.”
A quarter century after bringing fans to their feet with touchdown passes at the stadium once known as Rich, Kelly elevates people in different, more profound ways — with acts of kindness and selflessness that can’t be measured on a stat sheet or scoreboard.
“When I was dealing with some really hard times, whether it was the four straight Super Bowl losses, or my son Hunter’s death, or my own health issues, I always had people helping me out,’’ he said. “I know how good that made me feel. So, I want to give that same feeling to other people. I think that’s what the good Lord intended for me to be doing at this stage of my life. I realize that what you say and what you do, no matter how small, can make a difference in someone’s day and life.”
Kelly, who received another cancer-free diagnosis last week, feels truly blessed. And he believes the best way to celebrate these extra shots at life is by inspiring others to keep fighting the good fight, to rage, as Dylan Thomas wrote, against the dying of the light. That’s why he spends much of his time canvassing the country, speaking to people about the importance of perseverance, faith and kindness.
“I credit Hunter and I credit (former Bills coach) Marv (Levy) and my teammates for inspiring me to never quit, no matter how bad things get,’’ said Kelly, who will be signing autographs before Friday evening’s Rochester Americans game at the Blue Cross Arena. “I never questioned that Bruce (Smith) and Thurman (Thomas) and Steve (Tasker) and Andre (Reed) and myself would be ready physically to give it another shot after our second and third Super Bowl losses. But I wondered if we all would have what it takes mentally. Well, we did. After just one training camp practice following those defeats, I knew we were mentally tough enough to go for it again. And we didn’t care what people were saying about us, how they didn’t want the Buffalo Bills back again. We kind of made that our motto. We were going back just to tick off our critics.”
Kelly, who turns 60 on Valentine’s Day, still bleeds Bills red, white and blue. Much has been made of the number of err apparents that have suited up at quarterback for the Bills since Kelly’s retirement following the 1996 season. There’s hope that, in current QB Josh Allen, Buffalo has finally found a signal-caller worthy of carrying on where Kelly left off a quarter-century ago. “I pray that he’s the guy,’’ Kelly said. “Josh definitely has all the tools and the toughness and the work ethic. And he’s really embraced the community and the community has really embraced him.”
He’s also gone out of his way to embrace Kelly and seek his counsel. The two recently had dinner and will watch film together before off-season workouts begin in two months. Allen made big strides this season while guiding the Bills to 10 victories and a playoff berth. But the 23-year-old wound up having a rough second half as Buffalo squandered a 16-point lead in the second half of its wildcard loss to the Houston Texans. “I told him: ‘You don’t always have to be an athlete; there are times in the football game that you need to be a quarterback and stay in the pocket and make plays from there,’ ’’ Kelly said. “He’s a fantastic athlete, but sometimes he relies too much on his athleticism and takes off and starts running instead of looking for that second or third receiver.”
That’s something he can still learn.
“People forget just how young he is,’’ Kelly said. “I told Josh, when I came into the NFL (after two seasons in the old United States Football League), I was 25 years old. And in my second year with the Bills, I didn’t play very well. I told Josh he’s a lot further along than I was at that age. My advice is to just keep working hard, and always listen to your Uncle Jim. He laughed when I told him that, and promised he would. He’s a good kid. You can’t help but root for him.”
Of course, the path for Allen and the Bills will be easier if arch nemesis Tom Brady departs the New England Patriots. “I’ve tried convincing Tom to retire for several years in a row, but he wouldn’t listen,’’ joked Kelly of the future Hall of Fame quarterback who owns a 32-3 record against Buffalo. “We’re friends. I know he remains passionate about the game and still has the tools at age 42. It’s tough to give it up. Unlike Tom, I had no choice. My shoulder was bad and I had just suffered my fourth or fifth concussion. Looking back, I made the right decision, even though Ted Marchibroda, my old offensive coordinator, tried to get me to sign with the Baltimore Ravens. Whatever Tom decides, I wish him well — just not against the Bills.”
Kelly is looking forward to returning to Rochester, a community that’s always been extremely supportive of him and his Hunter’s Hope and Kelly for Kids foundations. It will be another opportunity to interact with people. Another opportunity to lift some spirits.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.