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NFL legend Jim Kelly's story of triumph and tragedy

Andy Serwer
Editor in Chief

One of our weaknesses as human beings is looking at others and thinking they have more than we do. And of course we discover time and time again that looks are deceiving and that those who appear to have everything really don’t.

It’s a reminder that we should be truly thankful for what we have, and it’s something to ponder this holiday season.

Consider NFL hall of fame quarterback Jim Kelly, who on the face of it has had a golden career as a football player and businessman. Kelly is a gregarious, seemingly happy-go-lucky alpha male. But if you dig down a bit, Kelly’s life has been filled with adversity and tragedy too. As Kelly would be the first to tell you, learning to cope with the setbacks and heartbreak has made him that much more appreciative of the world around him, and made him a better person.

I sat down with Kelly not long ago at Florida State University—an archrival school from his days as a college quarterback at the University of Miami—to talk about his life.

Kelly, 56, spoke about growing up in Pennsylvania and playing at the U—that was all good—and continued on to his days playing for the Buffalo Bills. He had some unforgettable years there, alongside teammates Andre Reed, Thurman Thomas and Bruce Smith. The Bills of that era appeared to be destined to become champions, and yet it wasn’t to be. Kelly led the team to four consecutive Super Bowls, from 1991 to 1994—and lost every single time.

“We did it four years in a row and did not win. But the thing about that was the resiliency, the togetherness—we are such a close-knit family. We never gave up,” Kelly says. “But you gotta power forward. We did it for ourselves and for the city of Buffalo. We had that leadership. Same as in business.”

Losing the Super Bowl four years in a row was tough, but it wasn’t even close to what was about to enfold. Life was about to take a much more difficult turn for Kelly, one that would put those football losses in perspective.

In 1997, Kelly’s son Hunter was born. Kelly had huge dreams for him; Hunter would be the next great athlete in the family. But “four months into his life, we realized he wasn’t reaching a lot of his milestones,” Kelly recalls. “The pediatrician told us ‘your son is showing signs of cerebral palsy.’ It was devastating. But my son continued to get worse.” Then came the tragic news. Hunter was diagnosed with globoid-cell leukodystrophy, or Krabbe disease, a deadly neurological disease. Average life expectancy is less than a year. “The doctors told us to take him home, make him comfortable and watch him pass away,” Kelly says. But Kelly and his wife fought and tried to give their son a real life.

Hunter lived long enough to see his father inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2002. Kelly dedicated his speech to his son. Hunter ultimately passed away on Aug. 5, 2005, at the age of 8. “This was the lowest point of my life,” Kelly says choking up.

Kelly acknowledges that he had problems with his marriage and wasn’t proud of his behavior. “I hit rock bottom. I was mad. I knew I had to change my life and in 2007 I finally did. I had to humble myself to admit I made mistakes,” he says.

Kelly had picked himself up and turned his life around. But he was about to get struck down again. “In 2012 I started feeling all kinds of aches and pains, and I had lots of surgeries,” Kelly says. He had terrible pain in his mouth but dental surgery didn’t work, and then the pain spread to his head. Kelly visited more doctors and finally was diagnosed with cancer. “I’m thinking, ‘not again.’ I drove down the road, stopped, got out of the car and I cried, thinking about my daughters and my wife. How am I going to tell them after all they’ve been through?”

Kelly had more surgeries and was pronounced cancer free, but the pain returned and in 2014 the cancer came back. After another round of chemo and radiation, Kelly beat back cancer a second time.

Kelly says that he relies on the four Fs. “Number one is my faith, number two my family, number three is my friends and number four my fans. It’s a journey of perseverance. I have found love all around me and that is a gift,” he says.

It all comes down to this one line Kelly came up with: “Make a difference today for someone who’s fighting for their tomorrow.” Kelly says it twice. “Make a difference today for someone’s who’s fighting for their tomorrow.”

“I would not have gotten through what I went through without all this support. Never walk into a hospital crying. Have an attitude that you will make someone else’s life better,” he says.

It’s something to remember this Thanksgiving, when millions of us gather with our families, and yes, watch football. Life is never easy, not for any of us. But with conviction and support, we can persevere—and find love, too.