Jill Kelly had to laugh at the irony. There was a time, as a young man, when her husband resisted the idea of coming to Buffalo. Now, 30 years later, Jim Kelly has become the epitome of what we like to call the “Buffalo guy.”
“I know,” Jill said in an interview this week. “Isn’t that interesting? Well, clearly God had other plans, because it goes way beyond the football field.”
Kelly has called Buffalo home since his retirement from the Bills in 1996. But his wife says it has never been more evident than during his battle with sinus cancer.
Two weeks ago, Kelly had the first of his chemotherapy treatments at Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan. When he returned to Buffalo for Easter weekend, the original plan was for him to return to New York City. Instead, he decided to stay and resume his treatment here in Buffalo.
The initial treatment rocked Kelly, whose body has been ravaged over the years by a variety of injuries. Jill said they’re “kind of slam dunking him” with the most potent chemo. But when he and his family discussed the possibility of continuing treatment here, Kelly’s spirits brightened considerably.
“I think the most clear and obvious change was when Jim was told he could go home,” Jill said. “I think that although the care in NYC was impeccable, we started looking into our options to make sure we could do the exact same thing back in Buffalo.
“As soon as Jim knew there was a green light, and that everything would go smoothly and there wouldn’t be any hiccups in his care, he just ... changed.”
As a football player, leading the Bills to four straight Super Bowls, Kelly became a symbol of Buffalo’s resilient, fighting spirit. Now he is in the fight of his life, and he and his family realized that he wanted to go toe-to-toe with cancer in the place where he feels strongest, in Buffalo.
“He’s been being ambushed in his mind,” Jill said, “and this was a turning point for him, absolutely. He’s a different person now, being home and surrounded by family that love him and are with him. His brothers each taking a turn. And they were doing this in New York as well.
“But you’re home,” she said. “You can look out the windows of your home and see your dog. You can see the wild
animals in the backyard and just know that you’re home. It’s just such a difference, and I’m so thankful.”
Dan Kelly said his brother has undergone outpatient radiation treatments five days a week in Buffalo. He said Jim is scheduled to return to Erie County Medical Center on Tuesday for the second of his three intensive chemotherapy treatments over a seven-week period.
Doctors say attitude is always vital in the fight against cancer. In Kelly, the disease has a powerful adversary. Dan Kelly says it has been extremely difficult watching his brother and best friend go through the agony of cancer. But he’s confident Jim can beat the odds.
“Your body responds to someone who is a fighter versus someone who is going to give up,” Dan Kelly said. “We know Jim is never going to give up.”
Dan said he gave his brother some “tough love” Thursday, telling him how important it was to keep eating, even though the surgery he had in June affects his taste buds and saliva glands, to keep up his weight and strength for the fight.
He said Jim was on his way to the offices of Jim Kelly Enterprises – driven by their brother, Ray – to discuss business matters. Kelly still wants to be involved in buying the Bills and ensuring that they remain in Buffalo.
Dan said it will be a couple of weeks before the family will know if the treatments are working. But he is encouraged.
“We’ll have an indication of whether the cancer is starting to retreat or shrink or whatever term you want to use,” Dan said. “We like to say ‘retreat’ because his cancer is along the nerve line.
“If it starts to retreat, you’re going to see a reduction in pain. We can clearly, clearly see that by the amount of medication Jim is having to take to be comfortable with the pain. We’ve been all excited about this. Jim hasn’t had to take nearly as much pain medication as he had to two weeks ago.”
The Kellys have a powerful religious belief. Dan said he believes God is using his brother as an instrument of faith, to inspire other people who are enduring life’s struggles.
He said the family has been overwhelmed by the letters of support from around the world, confirming that belief.
“I’m optimistic,” Jill said, “only because I trust that God holds Jim’s life in his hands. Although I’m optimistic that chemotherapy and radiation will work, I have to go beyond the medicine and machines. It’s a choice to believe in someone greater than what we know of and what we see here on Earth.
“Jim does the same thing, and yet the battle of faith is very real. There’s a tension there between fear and faith. Every day, you’re battling something that is unknown. None of us know tomorrow.”
Jill said she uses a lot of football metaphors. No doubt, Buffalo fans can relate. Jim is the bleeding, wounded warrior, going back on the field, refusing to admit defeat. She said he’s “wounded to the core of who he is” but not willing to back down.
She knows one other thing.
“He knows that he doesn’t fight alone,” Jill said, “and that’s what is so incredible about living in Western New York, and being surrounded by the people who have been there for him and continue to be there for him.
“Above and beyond our family, there’s the football community,” she said. “The players, the teammates. The Fabulous Three – Andre (Reed), Thurman (Thomas) and Bruce (Smith). They were at the house when we flew to New York. They were in New York City. They’re here again. Oh, those three are amazing.
“Every single day, Frank Reich sends Jim an inspiring message. These guys have rallied around him in an incredible way. I knew they were fantastic men before this, but I have seen them rise to this occasion, and it’s helped Jim more than words can possible describe.”
The family talks about being “Kelly tough.” When the cancer returned last month, Jim said they were praying for a miracle. Jill says she’s taking it “one minute at a time, one prayer at a time.” She says they feel the prayers out there, the Kelly toughness that he gave the Buffalo community all those years coming back to him. She said it’s come “full circle.”
“We don’t know what tomorrow holds,” she said. “If I had to bank everything on medical understanding, I would be a complete wreck, because it changes every day. Some days it’s good, some days it’s bad.
“But our faith is more powerful than fear.”