It seemed somehow fitting for Jim Kelly to tell the world about his jaw cancer at the start of his annual golf tournament Monday.
The Kelly for Kids Foundation has raised tens of millions of dollars to help kids during the last 25 years. Kelly brought the Bills to four Super Bowls, but his greatest achievement in life has been bringing hope and support to countless children in their battle against life-threatening illness.
When I heard the news, the first thing I thought of was his late son, Hunter, whose eight-year fight with Krabbe disease inspired Kelly to found the Hunter’s Hope Foundation to fund research into rare childhood diseases.
We all have our fond moments of Kelly on the football field. But perhaps his finest moment as a man and father came at his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Aug. 3, 2002, when he talked about Hunter’s courage and told the world how glad he was that Hunter was still alive to be there.
“A lot of people say toughness is my trademark,” Kelly said in Canton. “Well, the toughest person I’ve ever met in my life is my hero, my soldier, my son, Hunter.”
I cried during Kelly’s speech that day, and when I heard about his jaw cancer Monday morning, my first thought was of Hunter. I wanted to believe that Hunter’s battle, and Kelly’s many years of dedication to children, had somehow prepared him for the battle he faces.
Like Bill Polian, I believe people’s kindnesses come back to them in life. As the news spread Monday, you could almost feel the accumulated hopes and prayers of Bills fans in Western New York and around the world, rooting for their indomitable Hall of Famer to knock cancer on its ass.
“I think it (Hunter’s fight) prepared him to deal with stuff like this,” Darryl Talley said by phone from Florida. “Jim knows what kind of fight it’s going to be. One thing you could always count on with Jim. He’s not going to shy away from a fight. I know that, and everyone who knows him knows that.”
Talley heard the news from his wife, Janine, as they were working at an estate sale. She asked if he’d heard about Jim. He said no. Talley flashed back to that fateful night in October of 2011, when he heard the news that Kent Hull had died.
Please, don’t let it be that.
“I was blown away,” Talley said. “I just looked at my phone. Then I called Bruce (Smith). He said, ‘His mouth probably hurts, send him a text.’ So I texted him, ‘We love you, and you’ll get through this.’ ”
Then Talley, who was always the emotional conscience of those Bills teams, started thinking about Jill Kelly. All these years, she has stood beside her husband, or behind him. She was there for all of it, for Kelly’s last days as a Bill, for Hunter’s illness, for Jim’s surgeries. Now this. Cancer.
“The person who I really feel bad for is Jill,” Talley said. “Because she has to be the anchor with this. She dealt with Hunter for so many years. Now, she has to turn around and deal with this. She’s truly been an anchor for him, the one holding him down to reality.
“As a group, I think we did a pretty good job of picking our women when we were younger. We picked some very strong, supportive women. We’ve done some heroic things, some rough-and-tumble things and very crazy things. But at the end of the day, we have to be grounded in what we do.
“Jim is like my brother. He has cancer. He lost a son. He has an awful lot to bear right now. For he and Jill to have to go through something like this again, it’s just wrong.”
Of course, you won’t hear Kelly feeling sorry for himself. In the last two years, he’s had back surgery, neck surgery, double hernia surgery. He called his illness “one more river to cross.” Sound familiar? Those were the very words Kelly used after he led the Bills past the Raiders, 51-3, in the 1991 AFC title game, putting them in their first Super Bowl.
Kelly said the doctors got the cancer – squamous-cell carcinoma – early. He said it’s isolated to his upper jaw and hasn’t spread. It sounds as if he’s well on his way to crossing that river to recovery.
Cancer can be a sinister foe. I found that out last October when it took my mother. The disease wins its share. But doctors say a positive attitude counts for a lot, and if that’s the case here, cancer picked a formidable opponent in Jim Kelly, who was as tough a football player as I ever saw.
My most vivid memory of Kelly was in defeat, when he refused to stop competing in the last Super Bowl against Dallas. There was a poignant nobility in the way he kept fighting. To me, he became a perfect symbol for Buffalo – stubborn, proud and unrelenting.
No matter the circumstances, Kelly never gave in. Like the city he played for, he seemed to have a chip on his shoulder. He had a linebacker’s mentality. When he got hit, he bounced right back up. When he threw an interception, he chased down the defender, as if avenging an insult.
“That’s the only way he knew,” Talley said, laughing. “If he threw a pick, he wanted to go down and tackle the guy. We told him, ‘No, that’s not your job. You throw the ball. We need you to stay healthy.’ ”
But he didn’t listen. “No,” Talley said. “He didn’t.”
This is Jim Kelly we’re talking about here. He never backed down, never conceded an inch. That’s one of the reasons he needed so many surgeries. People come to admire their sports heroes when they’re young and strong and seemingly indestructible. We want them to be immortal for us.
Eventually, we face the fact that they become old and broken, all too human. When Kent Hull died at 50, it was jarring. Fifty isn’t old, but when a former star athlete hits that number, you realize how much time has gone by.
Kelly is 53. It has been more than a quarter-century since he rode into town on the Kensington in a limousine, with Hull following behind in an equipment van. Hull is gone. Kelly’s time as an NFL player is done, but his unyielding competitive soul is still very much alive.
The players from the Super Bowl teams have told me that, in retrospect, they felt a great sense of pride in getting there four times. They believe they showed something essential about the human spirit, something bigger than winning or losing a football game.
Kelly brought that quality to Buffalo. He passed it along to thousands of kids and adults, through his charitable works. I can feel all those people out there, a rousing and powerful force, rooting for him now.
Cancer has quite a battle on its hands.
Kelly never took a team like this into the big one before. This time, how can he lose?