Saturday, June 23, 2018
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Jim Kelly faces his toughest fight against cancer

With other quarterbacks, you would start off by talking about the way he could throw the ball downfield. You would write poems about that arm.

Jim Kelly could always sling it. Even in Buffalo, Kelly was always cooler than the temperatures. It didn't matter how hard the wind would swirl, and it didn't matter how bitter the cold might be. He could always burrow a football through the elements and find success in the end zone.

With other quarterbacks, you might prefer to talk about his success. After all, he changed the way people thought about his franchise.

More than anyone else, Kelly brought winning to Buffalo. More than anyone else, he provided hope for a forgettable franchise. Yeah, yeah. He lost four straight Super Bowls. But he made it to four straight Super Bowls. That's the point. In 11 seasons, he won 101 regular-season games. The 11 years before he got there, the Bills won 62.

With other quarterbacks, you might talk about his flair, and you might talk about his fire. You might talk about his legs, and you might talk about his heart.

With Kelly, however, you start with this: The guy was always the toughest son of a gun in the room.

Good thing, because life keeps demanding it of him.

Kelly made it back to a football field last week, and even that was impressive. These days Kelly is fighting sinus cancer, and the sheer unfairness of it leaves a knot in your insides. But Kelly had promised that he would be there, and so he showed up, and he made a brief appearance in the game.

Why? Because that's the way tough guys live.

Kelly is 54 now, the age a respected warrior should begin to ease comfortably into middle age. A golf tournament here, a Hall of Fame appearance there. The old teammates around him. The old stories at the ready.

Look at John Elway, who is now calling the shots for the Broncos. Look at Dan Marino, who just left the television airwaves. Look at Troy Aikman. Look at Boomer Esiason. Look at Phil Simms. Look at Warren Moon. Look at Joe Montana. All of them still have the quarterback look to them.

Kelly? His weight is down by 51 pounds, and his hair is gone. Next month he has an MRI exam scheduled to tell him just how much good the chemotherapy has done. Even for a tough guy, these are tough times.

How tough?

"I'm not scared to die,'' Kelly says.

It is a grim thing to say, and it is sobering to absorb. Then again, Kelly always was an in-your-face kind of quarterback. He isn't going to dance around the stakes here. He is fighting for his life.

In Buffalo, it is as if the city itself is fighting alongside him. There was a time the team was his and the town was his. That's odd, because Kelly didn't want any part of Buffalo. He went to the USFL for two years to avoid it.

Eventually, however, Kelly became the quintessential Bill. Once, his teammate Thurman Thomas threw a hissy fit because an assistant coach referred to Kelly as "the Michael Jordan of the Bills,'' but it was true. Kelly's toughness represented the town's toughness. In some ways, it still does.

Oh, did he take a pounding. When he was in high school, Penn State wanted to recruit him as a linebacker. No one ever had to ask why. The way Kelly played the game demanded that he absorb punishment, and he never flinched. If it took wearing a linebacker as an overcoat to complete a pass, why, that's the way the game was played. As simple as a shot to the ribs.

How tough was Kelly? In his third Super Bowl, Kelly finished the game on crutches. He didn't want to come out.

How tough was he? His career ended with him being carted off the field after suffering a concussion against Jacksonville.

How tough was he? As a broadcaster, he once referred to quarterback Jim Harbaugh — now the 49ers coach — as a baby. The story is that Harbaugh took a swing at Kelly for it … and broke his hand when he hit Kelly.

That's a different toughness, of course. Deep down, we all know that standing up to a pass rush is nothing compared to what life will throw at you. Kelly knows that more than most.

Since he left the game, things have been a struggle for Kelly. His son Hunter was born with Krabbe Disease and died before his ninth birthday. There are screws in his back. There are screws in his neck. He survived a plane crashing into the cold waters of the Bering Sea. Most of his jaw has been removed. He cannot taste.

And, of course, tomorrow is unpromised.

Jim Kelly fights on. You bet your last dollar that he does. Cancer never fights fair.

But if Kelly can will his way back onto the field because, well, he promised, then there is hope. Who knows? Perhaps someone saw him there. Perhaps someone's own fight got a little easier. Perhaps someone claimed a small victory.

Perhaps, just perhaps, someone shared a prayer with Jim Kelly.

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