Jim Kelly formed a fist with the large right hand that once filled the air with spirals and excitement and gently tapped the top of a table just outside the main ball room at the Seneca Niagara Resort and Casino.
“Doing good, knock on wood,’’ the Buffalo Bills legend said Sunday night when asked how he was feeling. “My ankle is finally coming around after my ankle replacement surgery led to some complications. And, so far, so good with the cancer. No recurrence, and hopefully it stays that way when I have my annual MRI in two weeks.”
A year ago, his ankle was such a mess he couldn’t participate in his celebrity golf tournament to raise funds for his Kelly for Kids Foundation. And, a few years before that, he was dealing with a virulent form of jaw cancer that nearly took his life. But just as he did so many times after being knocked to the turf at the stadium formerly known as Rich, he’s demonstrated what it means to be Kelly Tough. He’s picked himself back up.
As he bounded about the other night greeting old Bills teammates, corporate donors and longtime Bills fans at his foundation’s 35th fundraising party in Niagara Falls, he seemed like his old self again. He was a ball of energy.
“When we started this all those years ago, I never envisioned it would still be going strong in 2022, but it is, thanks to the hard work and support of some really dedicated co-workers and some really generous donors,’’ said Kelly, whose foundation has donated more than $7 million to charities in the Buffalo and Rochester areas through the decades.
“When we hand a check to representatives from these organizations, they have this look on their faces like they just won the lottery. Each year, we invite five or six of them to tell us how they are putting the money to use, and when you hear those heart-felt stories about the kids who benefit from this, it just pumps you up even more, and makes you want to keep it going.”
This year’s gala featured scores of live and silent auction items, including high-end signed jerseys, helmets and photos from Hall of Famers in football and other sports. One of the most coveted pieces in this year’s auction was a limited-edition football signed by Kelly and current Bills quarterback Josh Allen, with the inscription: “Passing the Torch.” After going through 17 err apparent quarterbacks since Kelly’s retirement following the 1996 season, the Bills finally found a legitimate heir apparent when they drafted Allen four years ago.
As he had done with all the previous QBs who came to One Bills Drive, Kelly reached out to offer Josh encouragement, and the two hit it off immediately, forming a special bond that has grown stronger over time. On day one, Kelly told Josh to embrace Buffalo, and he has in a big way. “It didn’t take long for this kid from California to become one of us,’’ Kelly said. “That’s what Buffalo does to you. Spend a little time here, and you get hooked because the people are so supportive, especially of their football team.”
No one is happier with Josh’s rapid transformation from “questionable first-round draft pick” to leading NFL MVP candidate than Kelly. “Josh is only 26, so the sky’s the limit,’’ he said. “Heck, I was 26 when I played my rookie season in the NFL [after spending two seasons in the United States Football League]. Think about that.”
Kelly is rooting for Josh to do what he and his teammates couldn’t during their unprecedented run of four consecutive Super Bowls in the early 1990s: Win it all. “All of us alumni would love that, but the people I want it for even more badly than I want it for us are the fans,’’ Kelly said. “We came close, but we couldn’t close the deal. I’d love to see this team do it for the city of Buffalo. This place has supported the Bills through the good times and bad times like no other city ever has. These fans deserve that.”
The wizards of odds in Las Vegas believe this is the Bills year. They’ve established Buffalo as Super Bowl favorites. And while it appears the Bills have everything needed to bring that elusive Lombardi Trophy to Western New York, Kelly isn’t taking anything for granted. “I know it’s a cliché, but you really have to take it one game at a time,’’ he said. “You can’t overlook anyone, which they may have done against Jacksonville and a few others last season. But what it really comes down to is staying healthy. They have to keep No. 17 healthy because he’s the guy who makes it all go.”
For the first time in his young career, Josh will be working with a new offensive coordinator. Ken Dorsey, who, like Kelly, attended the University of Miami, is replacing Brian Daboll, who left to become head coach of the New York Giants. Kelly expects the offense to keep humming despite the change. “I’m sure Ken will be doing some tweaking and some things with Josh that Daboll might not have,’’ he said. “But I can’t see him reinventing the wheel, not after the kind of offensive production they’ve had the past two years.”
One thing Kelly would like to see Dorsey do is call fewer runs involving Josh. “I’ve already talked to both of them about that,’’ he said, chuckling. “Josh is a dangerous runner — a weapon. But I’d like to see him run only when necessary. I know he’s a big guy and he’s strong and fast, but we need to keep him in one piece.”
Kelly formed a fist again and tapped the table top once more for good luck.
Best-selling author and nationally honored sports journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.