“The former Buffalo Bills QB [Jim Kelly] has endured more pain, grief and disappointment than many nations, and it’s only getting worse.”
ESPN March 4, 2014
“Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”
Andy Defresne in The Shawshank Redemption
Jim Kelly changed my life.
Indirectly—and I’ll explain in a minute—but now that he’s facing surgery tomorrow for an aggressive form of cancer I wanted you to keep him in your thoughts and prayers.
Kelly’s not a screenwriter, but once said he’d written the script for his life that included coaching his son Hunter one day. But Hunter was born with a genetic disorder and died in 2005 when he was 8-years-old. Jim and his wife Jill founded Hunter’s Hope Foundation in honor of their son. In times like that I’m always reminded of the words of Roy Hobbs in The Natural, “My life didn’t turn out the way I expected.”
To one degree or another that’s true of every person who’s ever lived on this planet. I think that’s why stories dealing with struggle are so universal. Our culture celebrates power and strength, but it seems to be in moments of weakness where real and lasting impact takes place.
“His ability to lose, and lose big, and yet handle it, is so impressive to me. This has all made him an even better person than before, more patient even. It’s made him want to help even more people than before.”
Jill Kelly on her husband Jim who had part of his jaw removed last year due to cancer
For those of you who don’t follow football, Kelly is a member of the Pro Football Hall-of-Fame and from 1986 to 1996 was the quarterback for the Buffalo Bills.
My path crossed Kelly’s in August of 1981 at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida. I was a first year football walk-on and Kelly was the starting QB. I was so low on the totem pole that as practices first started I didn’t even have a “U” on my helmet. That’s the truth. But I did have “Smith” written on tape across top front of my helmet, and perhaps the only conversation I ever had with Kelly was when he said, “Hey, Smitty” and he threw me the ball to warm his arm up before practice.
For Kelly who would later be the only QB to take a team to the Super Bowl four years in a row, that moment probably doesn’t make his highlight memory reel. But if you’re a first year walk-on and you’re catching a football from the starting QB you don’t forget that moment. But that’s not how Kelly changed my life.
In high school I was an all-conference football player but lacked size, grades, and about anything else that would make a college offer me a scholarship. But I still had this desire to play major college football. I went to a community college for a year to improve my GPA and also worked at a small newspaper as a sports writer and photographer. So as I looked for a college that had a good passing program (and a solid film school) I landed on Miami as the perfect fit.
Because Miami has won more national championships in football than any other school in the last 30 years, people forget before Kelly led the Hurricanes to a Peach Bowl victory after the 1980 season—Miami hadn’t even won a bowl game since 1966. I liked the direction head coach Howard Schnellenberger was taking the team and dreamed about catching passes from Kelly who was fresh off being the offensive MVP in that Peach Bowl.
So to a certain extent I lived that dream on a very, very micro level. I often joke that I had a the shortest career of any player who ever wore a Hurricane uniform in a game. I dressed out for exactly one JV football game playing exactly zero downs—and then dislocated my shoulder in practice, had surgery, and walked-off. (Didn’t even make the team picture that was taken later in the season.) About the only other thing Kelly and I have in common is we both had shoulder surgery done by the team physician Dr. Kalback.
But if it hadn’t been for Kelly I don’t think I would have chosen the University of Miami. So that’s indirectly how he changed the course of my life. With playing football out of my system I decided to head to California to finish film school, met my wife, etc. etc, etc.
So if you’ve enjoyed any aspect of this blog over the years–know that Jim Kelly played a part in all of this. There’s a wake behind great leaders where they have a positive impact that they are totally unaware of.
Please keep he and his family in your thoughts and prayers because he’s one of the good guys. And consider donating to Hunter’s Hope as they seek to alleviate the pain children are suffering from Krabbe Disease.
P.S. When Kelly was first drafted by the Buffalo Bills he says he actually cried, because he did not want to play in a cold weather climate. And before he joined the Bills, he played in the USFL in the Astrodome for the Houston Gamblers. But as the USFL folded he reluctantly joined the Bills. Lesson there is sometimes when we go to the places we don’t want to go magical things can happen.
Update 4/8/14: Doctors decided they could treat Kelly this time with radiation and so this week he begin radiation treatment five days a week for the next seven weeks for his skin cancer (squamous cell carcinoma).