Yes, Jill Kelly said. They’re going to be an emotional mess this weekend. She recalls how it was early this year at the NFL Honors Awards, the night before the Super Bowl, when word came that Andre Reed had finally been voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“We were all crying,” Jill said, “me, Jim,” Bruce Smith, “everyone. We were screaming, and when Andre came up on the stage that night, what a beautiful moment.”
Six weeks later, the Kellys went from that soaring high to an unthinkable low: Jim’s cancer had returned with a vengeance. And on the day the bad news hit, with Jill asking people to pray for a miracle, Ralph Wilson died. It was a double body blow to the Buffalo Bills community.
Kelly knew he was in for the fight of his life. He resolved to be “Kelly tough,” to battle the disease with all he had. He knew one thing for certain. Come August, he would be there for Andre.
“I’m sure it was part of the motivation for Jim,” Jill said. “Certainly, he’s motivated by his faith, his girls and his family, the things he holds very close to him. But every time Andre went to visit Jim, they talked about that.
“Andre was at the hospital,” she said. “He was at the house the day we flew to New York City. He came to New York and again when we got back. Every time Andre was there, Jim was down and out, struggling. But it was always the conversation. It was a given that Jim was going to be at the Hall of Fame.”
So on Saturday, when Reed gets inducted into the Hall, his old quarterback will be there. Kelly will drive down with Jill and his daughter, Erin, today. He’ll toss the coin for the start of the Bills-Giants game Sunday evening. On Monday, he’ll come home to Buffalo.
Kelly couldn’t come to the phone Tuesday. He was in the midst of an all-day session with the producers of ESPN’s “30 For 30,” who are doing a piece on the Super Bowl Bills.
“He’s pushing it,” Jill said. “Don’t get me wrong. It’s not as if he’s all better and good to go. There’s still the looming test in August, the not knowing if treatments worked, the fact that he’s still on a feeding tube.
“His life is still in that place of uncertainty, not knowing really what’s going to happen with all of this. So he’s still beat down; he’s still tired, he still gets sick quite a bit. But he would not miss this for the world.”
Jill said Jim wanted to be there for Reed, first of all. He’s also excited to get together with his teammates from the glory days. “And he wouldn’t miss it for the City of Buffalo,” Jill said. “It’s that way for all of us. He felt the same way when he went in.”
There’s an emotional intimacy when a Bill goes into the Hall. The place becomes a sea of red and blue. Buffalo fans flock to northeast Ohio to rekindle fond memories of the Kelly years. ESPN’s Chris Berman reminds us that no team circled the wagons like those Bills.
“It’s amazing,” said Dan Kelly, Jim’s brother. “There will be 15,000 Bills fans there. I remember when Jim got inducted. They had always done the Hall of Fame on the steps. We met with the Hall of Fame and said, ‘You don’t understand. There are going to be thousands of people on these steps. There’s no way it’s going to hold them.’
“They moved it to the stadium and it’s been there ever since.”
“I remember getting up to the podium the year Jim went in,” said Berman, master of ceremonies in Canton. “We’d never done one in the stadium before. I said ‘testing one-two’ or something and the whole place started cheering. I went in back and said, ‘Oh, my God, this is a Buffalo home game!’ ”
There have been some great Buffalo moments in Canton over the years: Marv Levy in 2001; Kelly in ’02; James Lofton and Joe DeLamielleure in ’03; Thurman Thomas in 2007; Smith and Wilson in ’09.
Now, Reed goes in on his eighth try and will likely be the last player from the Super Bowl teams to be enshrined. It’s like the closing of a book on an era. With Wilson’s passing and Kelly’s illness weighing on people’s minds, it should be the most emotional gathering of all.
“There’s going to be a lot of emotions in there,” Berman said. “It’s like a perfect storm. It’s a Buffalo weekend, there’s no question. And I’ll be thrilled to see how it goes and how many Bills jerseys I’ll see from the podium.”
The Bills have a way of rising to the occasion in Canton. Kelly spoke movingly of his son, Hunter. Thomas was witty and wise; Levy erudite and paternal, Smith humble and eloquent. I’m sure it will be emotional when Reed looks Kelly’s way and thanks him for his friendship and pinpoint passing.
“If you worked hard and tried hard, Jim was in your corner,” said Steve Tasker. “Andre responded to that. He was smart enough to know you run the route the way the quarterback wants you to run the route. That’s why Andre was Jim’s favorite guy. He’d do it the way Jim wanted it done, and Andre never failed him.”
They were one of the top tandems in NFL history. Kelly to Reed. In a way, Kelly was the perfect quarterback for Reed, a brash gunslinger who pushed a proud, unsung kid who burned to prove he belonged in the NFL.
Reed went over the middle with abandon, giving up his body for his team and his QB. He was always there for Kelly, so was there ever any question that Kelly would be there for Andre this weekend, his body willing?
Kelly wouldn’t let down his old teammates, either. Those teams were proud and egotistical, but they had a rare competitive bond. Kelly began having parties at his house after the Bickering Bills fiasco. He knew they needed to become more of a family.
That’s what Hall of Fame weekends feel like when a Bill goes in, like a Buffalo family reunion. It reactivates old memories and ignites old passions and emotions.
“I know, I know,” Jill Kelly said. “If you’re a Bills fan and a die-hard and you were around for those days ... we’re a mess of emotions! And rightfully so, because it’s a lot.”
Jill said the hoopla has been helpful because it forces Jim to stop and rest, literally for hours at times. He doesn’t want to miss a thing.
“I know he’ll go hard,” she said, “because he’s not going to miss any opportunity to be with his guys. I think he’ll be on such an emotional high that it won’t hit him until we get home. On the ride home, he’ll be physically wiped out. I hope that’s the case, because I want him to be able to take in every single bit of this.”
He won’t be alone.