His name was Jason, a frail man in his 30s whom Jim Kelly befriended in the hospital while both were undergoing cancer treatment in March. Jason knew he was dying when Kelly dropped off flowers one day. He stopped the Hall of Fame quarterback on his way out the door.
“Jim,” he said, “can I pray for you?”
Kelly was floored.
“That brought tears to my eyes,” Kelly said Thursday during a break from his annual football camp at Sweet Home High. “Here’s a guy who only has two weeks to live, and he wants to pray for me.”
It’s for people like Jason that Kelly decided to publicly share his battle against cancer over the past four months. They are people from across the country and around the world, people who passed along their prayers and words of comfort, people who cared more about Jim Kelly the person than Jim Kelly the quarterback.
Some are fans. Some are patients. Some are parents. Some are selfless. Some are helpless. Some are all of the above.
Once there was a time in Kelly’s life in which he was none of the above, when the world seemed to revolve around him and his football career. He was the big kid from the small town who turned down a chance to play linebacker at Penn State and instead wound up playing quarterback for the University of Miami.
He was the one who shunned Buffalo and the NFL for Houston and the USFL before he was paraded through town like a king. He was the name and face of the Bills and led them through their glory days. He was the big man on Buffalo’s small campus, the football god in a football town.
It was all about Jim Kelly back in the day, ironic because now, in his time of need, he’s become about everyone else. He couldn’t stop thanking people who supported him while supporting others who needed him.
“My hat goes off to the people going through it,” he said. “There are people who are a lot worse than I am. I don’t know where I’m going to be. I’ll find out in August. I pray for the other people.”
Kelly was a sight to behold on the first day of the 27th Jim Kelly Football Camp. Cancer may have sapped his energy, but it did not remove the ants from his pants. He was in full command, as usual, while traveling from station to station in his Buffalo Bills golf cart and never spending too much time in one place.
Of course, he made himself official quarterback while playing with groups scattered across various fields. He barked out directions and slapped high fives and encouraged his tiny teammates. He even showed glimpses of greatness that carried him into the Hall of Fame. He owned the joint.
Anyone familiar with cancer patients and the treatment they endure knows they often want one day, or one hour, without worrying about the disease. They talk about things in life that allow them to escape the physical pain and mental stress. Kelly had a chance to feel normal Thursday.
He spent a day teaching and leading kids who were too young to remember his time in the NFL and too oblivious about the workings of cancer to understand his battle. He celebrated touchdown passes to boys who failed to realize they had something in common with Andre Reed.
“It’s nice when you can just run around and be yourself,” Kelly said. “I’m not saying I’m running around, but I’m moving as quickly as I can. If you’ve seen me move in the past, I never really was that quick. In due time, it will all come back. It was fun to just sweat. I haven’t done that in a long time.”
Yes, cancer has taken its toll on Jim Kelly.
His body has never been worse. He lost 51 pounds while undergoing radiation and chemotherapy treatments. He still has a feeding tube in his stomach. Chemo and radiation left him with only a few loose strands of gray hair on an otherwise clean scalp. His muscles have deteriorated.
Kelly said he gets tired after about 10 minutes of exercise. His training regimen these days is going for daily walks and trying to eat solid food. He graduated from scrambled eggs to pasta last week. Next month, he will undergo an MRI to see where he stands in his fight against the disease.
A recent exam in Houston showed no signs of the cancer spreading, a shred of good news for a change.
“You get scared, especially when they tell you it has moved to maxillary part of your brain,” he said. “You just hope it doesn’t move any further. They start talking about radiation-chemo, I think about everybody I know, the people I know with cancer. I never thought about myself.”
And yet cancer also has brought out the best in Jim Kelly. No matter how many games he won, no matter how many touchdown passes he threw, he was respected in Buffalo mostly for his soul. Fans admired what he had inside, characteristics that couldn’t be measured, his stubbornness and competitiveness and drive.
That much has not changed at age 54.
If it were about mental toughness, Kelly would live forever. Cancer doesn’t know that this isn’t his first test. He already lost a son. He survived a plane crash. Real courage, not the kind found on a football field, has been on display for months. There was a sense Thursday he was gaining ground on the disease.
He keeps plowing forward, waking up to the smiles of his wife and daughters, counting his blessings for the support he received from his father and brothers, stacking each day atop another and thanking the people, many of whom he has never met, who have been behind him in the biggest fight of his life.
For all the prayers for J.K., people should know that J.K. is passing along prayers to others. He’s paying it forward and inspiring people around him. That’s what Jason taught him before he passed.
“I never take things for granted,” he said. “I never thought it would happen to me. Anything is possible in this life. I thank the good lord for each and every day. When it’s my time, it’s my time. I feel I have so many more things to accomplish.
“The good lord knows that. You have to keep your faith and keep pushing on and just know that tomorrow is right around the corner. I’m going to live today to the fullest and see what happens. I’m not scared to die.”