Jim Kelly Pays It Forward

Jim Kelly. Courtesy photo

Jim Kelly. Courtesy photo

Jim Kelly is many things, among them a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame and a cancer survivor. I recently spoke with the former Buffalo Bills quarterback via satellite. He is working with Merck and the Head and Neck Cancer Alliance on Your Cancer Game Plan. It provides support for patients and caregivers who are battling head and neck cancer and assists them in dealing with the wide range of concerns and challenges. Kelly was diagnosed with squamous cell cancer in 2013. In 2014 doctors told him that they could no longer find any evidence of the cancer. You can find more information at headandneck.org or SPOHNC.org.

What is that day like when the doctor tells you that you have cancer?
Kelly: I remember when my son was diagnosed with his disease, called leukodystrophy and how that devastated our family. We went through that battle with him for 8 1/2 years and then all of the sudden, when I went to the doctor and he told me that I did have cancer.

What was your initial reaction?
Kelly:  To be honest with you, I drove away, pulled off to the side of the road, and I cried. I didn’t cry because of me personally, because I knew, no matter what I do in life, I’m going to conquer it, I’m going to beat it, that was my attitude until I started thinking about my wife, my two daughters. How am going to tell them? It was hard for me to sit them down, but our faith pulled us through.

How important is that support system?
Kelly: A lot of people don’t have that supporting cast. I was blessed because my family stayed positive through the whole thing.

What is the main advice you give someone who is going through that struggle?
Kelly: Make sure to go see your doctor. It’s very important to diagnose it early. Early detection is so key in all diseases, but especially in head and neck cancer.

Did you watch that Louisville-Clemson game?
Kelly: I was pulling for them. It’s just one loss, I looked at the schedule. They should be able to win them all and make it interesting.

What do you think of Lamar Jackson?
Kelly: He’s pretty impressive. He reminds me of myself, the quickness, the fast speed. I ran a 4.4, that’s what I heard he ran, I ran a 4.4, in the 30. He’s impressive, he’s got a lot to learn but I like what I see.

How about Will Wolford; your former lineman is now a football coach, is that what you expected him to do?
Kelly: That’s my boy. Ken Hull and Will Wolford are my two best friends. It doesn’t get any better. Will is one of those guys who was there when I had cancer, always checking to see how I’m doing. I love the guy to death, I love him like a brother.

How excited did you get when you saw the Buffalo Bills shut out the Patriots a few weeks ago?
Kelly: I’m still employed by the Bills. I’m an ambassador. I travel to some games with them and do a bunch of different things, but it’s always good to see Bill Belichick throw his iPad around. Anytime you beat the Patriots, because they are still are the team to beat.

What did Howard Schnellenberger mean to your career?
Kelly: He was like a father, not only to me, but to so many people. He was that drill sergeant. For all those kids that go from high school to college, the egos, he brings that way down. He said, we’re all on the same playing field, we’re all together now.

Is there a memory that stands out from those Miami days?
Kelly: When Howard Schnellenberger speaks, you listen. I remember my first start, freshman year, taps me on the shoulder in pregame before the Penn State game, he said, “Son I need to talk to you.” I walk off thinking, okay, what did I do wrong? He said, “You’re starting today, get ready.” He tells me three hours before the game and the rest is history. Here I am sitting here today a Hall of Famer. I had some great people around me, Coach Schnellenberger definitely is at the top of the list. VT