Jim Kelly belongs to several exclusive fraternities.
He is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
He is one of only six quarterbacks to play in at least four Super Bowls.
He was part of the fabled 1983 draft class.
He was atop the deepest quarterback depth chart in college football history.
The impression Kelly has been making on his colleagues over the past few months, however, puts the Buffalo Bills giant in an even more extraordinary category for them.
“Sports allow you to live your dream,” said 1983 draft classmate Ken O’Brien of the New York Jets, “but more important is the legacy you leave by affecting people along the way as a husband and a father and a friend and a teammate.
“That’s much more impressive to me. I don’t think about football as much as the relationships. That’s what sets him apart.”
Kelly’s journey has inspired those who knew him first as a relentless competitor.
Some former opponents, coaches and teammates told The Buffalo News that whatever Kelly did to marvel them on the field back then has been trumped by how he has carried himself through the death of his son and recurring cancer.
“His greatness has been in the last 10, 15 years, way more than the 15 years before that,” fellow USFL alum and Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young said by phone from California. “Life throws things at you, and I’ve learned a lot from Jim about dignity.
“Just watching how he’s handled the last 10 years teaches you that fame and fortune don’t insulate you from problems in life and don’t keep you from dealing with things in a really spiritually sophisticated way.
“He definitely has shown me a courage and faith that are really powerful. I’m grateful to him.”
University of Georgia coach Mark Richt has known Kelly for over three decades. Richt was among an amazing University of Miami quarterback group that included first-round picks Vinny Testaverde and Bernie Kosar.
There were wild times on campus, sure. Kelly played with a certain arrogance about him and for many years wasn’t afraid to enjoy the spoils that fame and wealth brought him.
“We were all naive,” Richt said with a laugh from his office in Athens, Ga. “We grew up together and made our share of mistakes together.
“That’s the beauty of what Christ did for us. He frees us of all sin if we believe in him and we repent and have faith. Jim did that. His slate is clean.”
Howard Schnellenberger was Kelly’s and Richt’s coach at Miami. He visited Kelly last month at Erie County Medical Center with another member of the 1983 draft class, Miami Dolphins icon Dan Marino.
“We’re trying to energize him, and he’s motivating us,” Schnellenberger said of their visit. “There are only a few people that are either blessed or cursed with a natural, glorious presence. They want to give to everybody. They want to help everybody.
“Like, in the hospital. They tell me that when his visitors leave he’ll inevitably get out of bed and ask the nurses who the sickest people are in the ward. He goes and peps them up.
“His God has given him that need. He needs to do that.”
Richt’s remarks about Kelly were religious and deeply philosophical, emphasizing how much Richt has thought about his old teammate since the cancer re-emerged.
Kelly, 54, was diagnosed with jaw cancer 13 months ago. The cancer returned and spread aggressively. He underwent chemotherapy and radiation treatments this spring.
“I’m concerned about him and the pain that he’s going through,” Richt said. “I hate that for him and his family. But he’s got a tremendous family, and that’s really all a man can hope for his life sometimes.
“The reality is we’re all terminal. A lot of people wonder, ‘What’s next?’ I know Jim believes in everlasting life. There will come a time when him and all of us believers will not be in our bodies anymore and there will be no more tears and no more pain, and it’ll be a glorious time.
“No matter when it’s going to happen, all of us are going to have that day. There’s some peace in the end. Whenever it is for him, it’s going to be a good thing.”
Such solemnity is where Kelly’s admirers find solace while they wait to learn more about his condition and whether treatments curtailed the cancer’s growth.
When Kelly’s wife or daughters show pictures and videos, he’s pale and bald and obviously has lost weight. He looked frail at a recent Bills practice.
But he smiled, chatted with a few old friends and delivered a moving speech to the players.
“He’s going through it,” Young said. “Life’s never easy for anybody, but Jim handles it. In the challenges he’s faced, he’s undaunted.”