Jim Kelly sped down a back road with one thought on his mind. His son was dying, and he had to get the hospital as quickly as possible. ¶ The former Buffalo Bills quarterback had just been to the wrong hospital in western New York. Now, he had to drive 45 minutes in the correct direction. The clock was ticking. ¶ As he pulled up to the building to park his car, someone stopped him and told him there was no time for that — he needed to get to his son as soon as possible. ¶ Kelly rushed through the doors and ran into his son's doctors. ¶ "They said, 'Jim, we're sorry to say this, but your son passed away five minutes ago,' " he said. "For me, that was probably the toughest part of my life."
His son's illness took Kelly through a personal journey marked by anger, frustration and finally forgiveness — which brought him Saturday to New Walk Church.
Kelly, who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2002, shared his story with about 300 men during a men's church event called 5th Quarter. The event included a tailgate-style party featuring "man food" like barbecue and chicken wings, upbeat music from the church band, several entertaining skits, and a message from Pastor Gary Baldus.
"This world needs men," Baldus said during the event. "Real men."
Wearing jeans and a Josh Freeman Bucs jersey, Baldus explained that a man shouldn't be defined by his social status, career or how much money he has. A real man provides for his family, is involved in the lives of his wife and children, and is an inspirational leader in his household.
It was a message that Fred Cole said he took to heart. Since coming to New Walk, the Dade City resident said he has realized that being there for his family is his most important responsibility.
"It's a heartwarming thing to realize you're not the man you think you are," he said.
Cole brought along his son, Cody Dykes, his Brooksville brother-in-law Ed Ribblett, and Ribblett's son, Stephen Ribblett. Both members of the church and men from the community were welcome to attend.
New Walk, located at the Zephyrhills YMCA, is a non-denominational, non-traditional church that goes the extra mile to make sure men feel comfortable there. The walls are black, and the lights are dimmed so no one is under a spotlight. The church music is rock-concert loud, and the sermons are straightforward. The church considers a man's perspective in everything it does, from its billboards to its Sunday messages.
"It does seem like it's a little more laid back, like they just want people to come here and experience the message of God," said Zephyrhills resident Dan Boyko, who attends Westside Baptist Church but came to the New Walk event to meet Jim Kelly.
Zephyrhills High students Dallas Guntert and Brian Matthews played cornhole during the tailgate portion of the event. Dallas admitted he was a troublemaker before he began attending New Walk and had a history of shoplifting.
"I think it's a blessing that I'm able to come to this church," he said. "Because of this church, I'm not in juvie."
Brian moved to Zephyrhills from Colorado less than a year ago and began going to New Walk in June.
"If you're having a bad day, you always leave with a smile on your face," he said.
Across the country, men go to church significantly less than women. On average, adult attendance is 39 percent men, 61 percent women, according to the 2003 U.S. Congregational Life Survey.
The ultimate goal of 5th Quarter was to give the men of New Walk their own event and get men in the community interested in the church. Member Matt Hulbert came up with the idea.
"From a church standpoint, we all need messages of hope," Hulbert said. "I had seen a video clip of Jim, and I just thought he had a message of hope."
Football has been a part of Kelly's life since he was a kid. As one of six boys, Kelly said he remembers tossing the pigskin with his brothers and his dad in his hometown of East Brady, Pa.
He was recruited and played quarterback for the University of Miami. He joined the Buffalo Bills in 1986 and led the team to four consecutive Super Bowls and six AFC East Championships.
He announced his retirement in 1997, the same year his son, Hunter, was born.
Hunter arrived on Feb. 14, 1997, Kelly's 37th birthday.
"I was as proud as you could possibly think," Kelly said.
But shortly after his birth, Hunter was diagnosed with Krabbe leukodystrophy, a disorder that affects the nervous system. The disease occurs in about one in 100,000 infants and is generally fatal. There is no cure.
People around Kelly encouraged him to focus on the positive in Hunter's life, but Kelly said he didn't want to.
"I was mad at God," he said. "I was mad at anybody who tried to make a bad thing into a good thing."
Kelly's wife, Jill, turned to Christianity. But Kelly said he refused to feel anything but anger at Hunter's everyday struggle. Hunter spent much of his life in a wheelchair and hooked up to a respirator and feeding tube. He communicated through a series of facial expressions.
"My wife continued to grow with the Lord, and I continued to grow apart," Kelly said.
On Aug. 5, 2005, he got a call from his father-in-law, who said Hunter had stopped breathing and was being rushed to the hospital. Kelly thought he was going to the Women and Children's Hospital of Buffalo; Hunter was actually at the community hospital in Warsaw, N.Y. Hunter's death devastated Kelly, but it sparked a turning point in his life.
Kelly said he saw his wife continuing to cling to the Lord for support. He said he knew his son was in heaven, and the only way he could get there too was to give his heart and soul to Jesus. In 2007, he apologized to his wife for his infidelity through the years, and promised to live a new life.
"For her to forgive me that day, and for me to accept Jesus, that was the greatest day of my life," Kelly said.
He told the men at New Walk that bad things will happen in their lives, but it will be how they respond to those negative moments that will make them men. The men responded with hallelujahs and amens.
"I know one thing," Kelly said. "I will see my son again."