Jim Kelly, From Quarterback to Survivor

By Lisa Welz

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After a long wait in line, you’re finally reaching your goal, a front row seat on a roller coaster with a big reputation for thrills. The lap bar snaps into place, the coaster takes a long time to climb the first hill, and then it crests. As your hair streams back, you catch your breath in a gasp, and then let out a scream as you plunge down 200 feet of rail at 73 miles an hour.
Three minutes later, you’ve survived the mile-long steel track of steep hills and hard-banking twists of Great America’s Raging Bull, the coaster with an altitude. You step off, breathless and energized, heart pumping, and ready to jump on again.
Sometimes people experience those extreme highs and lows, twists and turns, over the course of their life. Former NFL quarterback Jim Kelly is one of them, as his football career twisted and turned, and afterward, as he has endured some of the biggest personal highs and lows possible.
Kelly grew up in Pennsylvania, played high school football, and had high hopes of playing for Penn State during his college years, and he could have, if he wanted to play as a linebacker instead of quarterback. He turned them down and went to play for University of Miami. He recalled that time during an interview with Thomas Neumann for ESPN in 2010, saying, “My first start my freshman year was at Penn State, and coach [Howard Schnellenberger] didn’t tell me I was starting until about three hours before the game. First thing I did was I threw up…But we upset Penn State.”
In 1983, Kelly was drafted as the first round, 14th pick, by the Buffalo Bills, one of the teams he had hoped wouldn’t pick him because he dislikes the cold. It was a moment that almost didn’t happen, though. He had a shoulder injury during the Miami vs. Virginia Tech game and was told that not only would it end his collegiate career, but also that he would never throw the ball again. He proved them wrong and the Bills took a chance on a guy with rods in his arm.
Talking with Neumann, he recalled, “No, I didn’t want to go. I didn’t think Ralph Wilson was going to bring in the people it took to build a championship team there. So, I went to the USFL for two years. To be honest, I was very, very, very close to signing; if it wasn’t for a secretary interrupting our meeting, I would’ve been a Buffalo Bill in 1983. She interrupted the meeting, and it was Bruce Allen, George Allen’s son, [on the phone] and he told my agent, ‘Tell Jim, do not sign anything; we’ve got a deal he cannot refuse.’”
After playing with the USFL Houston Gamblers for two years and earning MVP in 1984, Kelly joined the Buffalo Bills in 1986 after the USFL folded because the Bills had retained his NFL rights. He played for them until he retired after the 1996 season. During those 11 years, he helped lead the team to four consecutive Super Bowls and six divisional championships.
Other notable accomplishments, as listed on JimKelly.com, include: five Pro Bowl selections, including one MVP award; fifth fastest quarterback to reach 30,000 yards passing; 500th player ever drafted by the Bills; and his career passing rating of 84.4 is the sixth highest in NFL history. He was also inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame his first year eligible, in 2002, joining only seven other quarterbacks to do so.
Life changed dramatically post-retirement, although not quite the way Kelly had expected. He and his wife, Jill, with their daughter Erin a toddler, were expecting another child. Hunter was born on Kelly’s birthday, Feb. 14, 1997, and within a few months he was diagnosed with Krabbe Leukodystrophy, a fatal disease.
Hunter died at the age of eight, having never spoken a word, yet, as Kelly said to Neumann, “Impacted so many lives. It taught us a lot about never giving up, never quitting. My son never did.” He inspired the Kelly’s to begin the Hunter’s Hope Foundation, making a commitment to give hope to families and those afflicted with Krabbe Disease through information, research, support and encouragement.
In the last few years, Kelly himself has had another personal fight on his hands, against cancer in his upper jaw in 2013, which they thought was gone following surgery. It recurred a year later, prompting additional treatment and a declaration in Aug., 2014, that he was once again cancer free. He didn’t have long to relax, however, before he was diagnosed with a MRSA infection in his bones that took another three weeks to battle before being freed of it.
He has also founded Kelly For Kids, to, in his words, “Help kids that are less fortunate and to make their tomorrows a little brighter and to, hopefully, make their dreams come true.” They work to help disabled and disadvantaged kids of western New York through grants. To date they have distributed close to $5 million.
The Jim Kelly Football Camp is another passion of his, serving over 10,000 campers since 1988 to teach them about football fundamentals, health, nutrition, drug awareness, sportsmanship, and teamwork.
Visit JimKelly.com to learn more about the legendary player and find links to the organizations he runs, a list of appearances and speaking engagements, pictures of his outdoor adventures, and much more.