BUFFALO, N.Y. — Jim Kelly, loser of four Super Bowls, one son and an upper jaw, stands in the pool in his backyard, water up to his midsection.
About 25 family members and friends from his fellowship group circle the pool. Next to him is Matt Gold, the pastor of Alden Community Church.
“To see today happen is such a sweet, sweet day, brother,” Gold tells him. “I love you and I think we can all say we’re proud of you and how far you’ve come. And where you’re going is even better.”
As Gold alludes, Kelly is not who he was.
The charisma and presence that once made him a leader of leaders is still there. His left fibula is not.
It was removed in 2018, broken into four pieces, and used to reconstruct his upper jaw which had been infested by squamous cell carcinoma. In a 12-hour surgery, arteries and blood vessels also were taken from his arm and moved to his jaw. A prosthesis with false teeth was implanted.
When the cancer was diagnosed, it was Stage 4. A doctor gave Kelly less than a 10 percent chance to beat it because it was so close to his brain.
“I know you’re a Christian and you believe in miracles,” the doctor told him. “That’s a good thing because you’re going to need one.”
Kelly has heard about miracles since he crashed through a glass door when he was 6 years old. A shard slashed his neck, requiring 40 stitches.
On the last play of his college career, his throwing shoulder was torn apart on a violent hit, jeopardizing his ability to ever complete another pass. Nearly 4,000 completions and four decades later, the shoulder remains held together with three metal rods.
The jaw surgery was one of four cancer surgeries and 20 surgeries overall, give or take. Kelly has two plates and 10 screws in his back as well as one plate and six screws in his neck. There’s a screw in his left knee and mesh in his abdomen where he had double hernia surgery twice.
Two years ago, Kelly had ankle replacement surgery, but the joint became badly infected. Last year doctors opened him again. He says it looked like lasagna and can provide graphic photographic proof. A second ankle replacement was necessary.
Between the first and second ankle replacements, there were pimples on his nose and chin that wouldn’t go away. Basal cell carcinoma. One surgery removed half his left nostril, and the other took a significant chunk of his chin.
In May, he had a stroke in his left retina. Then his blood pressure was taken — 210 over 120. He had to return from a trip to Ireland eight days early. Then came a hospitalization, a heart monitor, a sleep study, meds — doctors are still trying to figure it out.
In the meantime, he needed an esophageal dilation to expand his esophagus because food often got stuck in his throat.
He enjoys conversation, but it isn’t always easy. Kelly adjusts his hearing aids frequently. His jaw and mouth hurt if he talks too much.
Almost everything hurts. At one point doctors had him taking 16 Advil a day. “Drink lots of water,” they told him.
Now he’s on more potent pain pills and they take the edge off.
Somehow, with or without his meds, Kelly smiles easily and broadly. The smile looks a little different than it used to, but it’s never conveyed more joy.
He has a zeal for every opportunity, probably every breath.
Gold puts one hand on Kelly’s chest and the other on his back.
“It’s a privilege to baptize you, my brother, in Jesus,” Gold says. “In the name of the Father, and the Son and Holy Spirit.”
Kelly holds his breath. Gold guides him backward and under.
This wasn’t the first time Kelly was baptized, but it was the first time he had a say in it. He was initially christened 63 years ago at St. Eusebius Catholic Church in East Brady, Pa., a no-stoplight town on the Allegheny River that’s 57 miles from Pittsburgh and 30 miles from the closest McDonald’s.
When he was about 4, Kelly, the fourth in a line of six brothers, picked up a football and threw it to his father with so much force, his father said, that it stung his hands.
There was an audacity about him, even as a kid. Kelly and his thrill-seeking brothers would jump off a 75-foot-high steel bridge into the Allegheny, which was 20 feet deep. When he was 11, he met his hero Terry Bradshaw and told the Steelers quarterback he would take his job one day.
For most of his childhood, Kelly was an altar server at St. Eusebius. When he grew to 6-foot-3 — seven inches taller than the parish priest — he was allowed to become a lector instead.
By then, Kelly was an athlete of renown at East Brady High. He scored more than 1,000 points in basketball — making the sign of the cross before every free throw — and earned all-conference honors in football as a quarterback, safety, punter and kicker.
Athletically, he believed he could do anything, and he rarely was proved wrong.
Penn State, Linebacker U, wanted him as a linebacker, and it was easy to see why, given his grit. But Kelly wanted to be a quarterback — he wanted to be a star — so he went to Miami. With Kelly breaking school passing records, the Hurricanes began a new tradition. Miami became known as Quarterback U.
When the Bills drafted him in 1983, he was despondent at the thought of moving to Buffalo. He didn’t try to hide it, which offended their loyal, downtrodden fans. Palm trees seemed to have a better chance of taking root and thriving in Buffalo than Kelly.
Badass that he was, Kelly pictured himself as a Raider. There was talk of a trade, but the Bills would not give him up. The Houston Gamblers of the USFL offered an option, and Kelly took it for two years until the league folded.
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When Kelly finally arrived in Buffalo in 1986 to announce he was joining the team, the past was irrelevant. Fans, holding signs and cheering, stood on overpasses above Kensington Expressway on his route from the airport to the news conference. During one game at Ralph Wilson Stadium, fans hung a sign that read, “Kelly is God.”
By his second season, Kelly was a Pro Bowler, unnerving opponents with brazen decisions and high, arcing, pinpoint passes that were equal parts art and science.
His trademark, though, was toughness. Early in his career, he sacrificed his well-being for any possible gain. Eventually, he embraced the concept of selective self-preservation. By then, though, it was the only option. Kelly had roughly nine concussions by his brother Danny’s estimate.
“There is, in my mind, zero doubt who the toughest football player I’ve ever seen is,” says Frank Reich, his backup. “That’s Jim Kelly.”
For six seasons, Kelly was the NFL’s only quarterback calling most of his own plays in the Bills’ revolutionary no-huddle offense, known as the K-Gun.
“He was at his best when you just gave him the keys and said, ‘Take us down the field,’” says Reich, who now is the coach of the Carolina Panthers.
He led game-winning drives and then he led the party train. In the leadups to Super Bowls, Kelly was accused of having too much fun. But he wasn’t behaving differently than usual. After practices, the Big Tree Bar beckoned. The typical routine after a home game was dinner at Ilio DiPaolo and then a rip-roaring party at Kelly’s house or “Kelly’s Irish Pub,” as the sign behind the bar said.
Reich knows Kelly like few people. Before Kelly’s senior year of high school and Reich’s sophomore year, they attended a camp at Penn State with hundreds of other football players. Over the week, they bonded, even though they were as likely companions as a cat and dog.
“He’s wearing a bandana,” Reich recalls. “He’s this flashy, obnoxious, brazen, really confident guy. And I’m a quiet kid from this little farm town. But we connected on a lot of levels, especially our passion for the game of football and our love for our families.”
They were reunited in Buffalo eight years later and for the next nine years they spent more time with one another than they did with anyone, spouses included. They were road roommates and had a lunch date every Friday at the Orchard Park Cafe, where the waitress didn’t need to ask what they wanted — soup for Reich, a cheeseburger for Kelly. Reich, all humility and grace, was the ideal backup to the flashy quarterback, balancing Kelly with practical ideas about football and life.
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Those close to Kelly knew his faith diminished as his status grew. Kelly avoided discussing spiritual matters with most teammates, some of whom tried to press the issue. Reich, who spent seven years in a seminary after his playing career and became a pastor, was more subtle than most, which led to more openness from Kelly.
But even with Reich, there was resistance.
“He was like, ‘Maybe someday, but not right now,’” Reich says. “I’ve got too many fun things to do to think about things like that.”
Fortune always smiled on Kelly. Until it scowled.
He took the Bills to four straight Super Bowls, making him one of a kind. But he lost all four, also making him one of a kind.
In the first, Super Bowl XXV against the Giants, Kelly led a 61-yard drive that began with 2:16 left and the Bills trailing by one — what should have been the game-winning drive. Only the infamous 47-yard kick that sailed wide right prevented his victory.
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In Super Bowl XXVI, Kelly threw 58 passes and might have taken as many hits in a thorough loss to Washington. He didn’t know where he was when he threw two of his touchdown passes that day.
“Then he went to Hawaii and played in the Pro Bowl when he still had a concussion,” says his brother Danny, who lived with Jim for 10 years, served as his manager and was best man at his wedding.
Next came two losses to the Cowboys. In Super Bowl XXVII, Kelly was knocked out of the game in the second quarter by a Ken Norton tackle that bent his knee and his steel knee brace in ways never intended. In his final chance, the Bills led the Cowboys at halftime of Super Bowl XXVIII but gave up 24 second-half points.
Those Super Bowls made him mad. Losing one was one thing. But two? Three? Four? Didn’t he and his teammates do everything they could do?
Nearly 30 years later, he still hasn’t watched those games.
Kelly ended his career with a concussion, carted from the field.
At his retirement news conference, he acknowledged a “little void” from not winning a Super Bowl but said the good from his career outweighed the bad tenfold. He could always screen out what bothered him. Still can.
At his side that day was Jill, who became his wife the previous May. Already parents to a daughter, Erin, they were expecting a second child soon. More than anything, Jim wanted a son. Two weeks later on Jim’s birthday, Jill gave birth to a boy — Hunter James — and Jim was the happiest he’d ever been.
“It was awesome, totally awesome,” he says. “My brother Danny had a son born 11 days before Hunter named Zac, and I already knew Hunter would play quarterback and Zac would play wide receiver.”
As an infant, Hunter cried and cried until the cries turned to screams. At 4 months, he had difficulty swallowing and experienced seizures. A blood test revealed he had Krabbe leukodystrophy, a fatal genetic disorder of the central and peripheral nervous systems.
Doctors told Jim and Jill their son wouldn’t live to see his second birthday. Hunter proved them wrong, living 8 1/2 years, but he never walked, talked or even smiled. He required constant care.
Devastated, Jim prayed for a miracle. While Jill relied on her faith and grew in it, Jim retreated from his. Jill wanted to be present for her son always, but Jim, in his desperation, looked to escape. He immersed himself in his work, first as a game analyst for NBC, then as a studio host for ESPN. He didn’t say no to many speaking engagements or appearances.
Jim was in a dark place, doleful, he says, that he never would be able to play catch with his son. Reich told him Hunter would have a resurrected body in heaven, a body that would enable him to play catch with his father. To Jim, the concept was light.
But Hunter’s plight put a strain on the Kelly marriage. Divorce, they both believed, seemed inevitable.
In 2004, Jill’s mother, Jacque Waggoner, became aware that Jim had cheated on Jill. For one week, Jacque prayed and fasted. Then she wrote a letter to Jim and asked him to meet her in a mall parking lot. She handed him the letter. He glanced at it and drove away. Then he pulled over and wept while reading every word.
He confessed to his wife and asked forgiveness from her and from God. It was then, he says, that he felt the weight of a piano lifted from his back.
“I was certainly angry at him,” Jill says. “But I was more joyful and thankful than anything else because Jim saw this need for God, and moving forward, everything would change.”
From then on, Jim wouldn’t call himself a Catholic. He would call himself a Christian.
After Hunter’s last strained breath in 2005, Jim was angry and understandably confused. But he also was growing.
A while later, Kelly told Reich they needed to talk. On the way to a dinner at Ilio DePaolo, Kelly told him he was in the midst of a transformation. When they arrived at the restaurant, the conversation continued in the car for about an hour. “He was the same guy — funny, brash, still liked to have a good time,” Reich says. “But he was different.”
In 2013, some of Kelly’s teeth hurt. Multiple root canals didn’t help. That’s when his dentist figured out teeth weren’t the problem.
As much of a struggle as it would be physically, Kelly’s cancer diagnosis was another spiritual challenge.
“With everything that happened in my life, from losing the Super Bowls, Hunter, and now this, I was mad at God,” Kelly says. “I wondered why he was doing all these things to me. … It was really hard for me to totally accept it when I was diagnosed with cancer.”
The first step in his cancer treatment was surgery to remove the tumor. Things looked good for a while, but the following March, the cancer came back. He had 35 radiation treatments and four bouts of chemotherapy, was put on a feeding tube and lost 66 pounds.
Jim wanted it to be a private battle, but Jill knew he needed support. She went public with his condition and he was blitzed with kindness, messages, good thoughts and prayers from people he didn’t know, people from places like Afghanistan and Germany, and even New England and Miami.
Danny oversaw everything. The brothers Kelly pushed Jim to fight. Reich sent daily inspirational texts. Thurman Thomas and Bruce Smith brought jigsaw puzzles; Dan Marino brought stone crabs. Donald Trump, with whom Kelly was familiar from his USFL days, offered the use of his New York apartment during Kelly’s treatment there. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell wrote checks. Kelly’s daughters, Erin and Camryn, brought smiles, laughs and hugs, and didn’t let him see the rest.
In the summer of 2014, Kelly was declared cancer-free. Four years later, it was back. In March of 2018, his jaw was reconstructed. More surgery followed in June.
In early 2019, doctors told him the cancer was gone.
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In cold-weather games, Kelly didn’t wear a glove. He liked the feel of his big bare hand on the ball, ring finger on the second lace, pointer finger near the tip.
These days, that right hand is still forceful. When he shakes hands, Kelly still can make knuckles crack.
He is stronger than he should be, as if the strength comes from somewhere else.
Given his history, Kelly’s energy is beyond remarkable. He is a pinball bouncing off bumpers — bing, bing, bing. There is his work for Hunter’s Hope charity, overseeing Jim Kelly Enterprises, inspirational speaking engagements, appearances, his football camp, his golf tournament, hunting trips, fishing trips, keeping up with old teammates (they have a group text that pops during Bills games) and hosting regular family get-togethers at the second home he calls “Hunter’s Lodge,” a cabin on 150 remote acres about an hour south of Buffalo.
The competitiveness that helped him become a Hall of Famer remains but now it manifests itself in pool, cornhole, poker, darts — whatever you’d like, he’s game. And he’s good, really good.
Kelly is like that old tree that has lost branches and bark but somehow has grown more robust.
Back in the day, Kelly knocked back his share, maybe more than his share, of Crown Royal. Beer, too.
Not anymore. He’s given up alcohol except for the occasional glass of wine.
His vice these days? Chocolate shakes. When he calls ahead to George’s Hot Dogs with an order in the name of Hunter, they know to bring the shake out to his truck.
He and Jill are in a good place.
“We are more in love and closer than we have ever been,” Jill says.
“She prays for me,” Jim says. “She prays over me. She’s my everything.”
Jim’s heart, understandably, still aches for Hunter.
He has a special relationship with Zac now. He’s brought him to Super Bowls, a national championship game, New Zealand and on hunting trips.
“He’s taken him under his wing like he’s his own son,” Danny says.
“If Hunter was still here, my prayer would be that he would turn out to be like Zac,” Jim says.
Jill says Jim has been intentional about showing love to his daughters, including caring for Erin in her current struggle with Lyme disease.
“Maybe it’s because he wasn’t able to do as much with Hunter,” Jill says. “But he’s a different man, a totally different man, more humble, compassionate, mindful and concerned. Sometimes, I sit back like, ‘Who is that person?’”
At least 12 times a day, Jill hears it.
Sometimes it’s a whisper. Sometimes it’s as loud as a quarterback’s play call.
“Lord, help me,” Jim says.
Over time, he believes prayers have been answered. The way he sees it, the first Super Bowl loss prepared him for the second, which prepared him for the third, which prepared him for the fourth. All of them prepared him for the loss of Hunter. Which prepared him for the loss of his health and his physical wholeness.
And all of it made him ready for spiritual elevation, and the opportunity to elevate others.
“If God decides tomorrow is my day, I’m ready,” Jim says. “In the past, of course, I would have been mad. I would have been scared. But now I’m not worried one bit. And I know I will see my son again.”
Kelly initiated his fellowship group about 15 years ago. About 20 men — many who were not Christians when they showed up — meet on Monday evenings. They study the Bible. They talk about their lives. They watch “The Chosen.” And “Monday Night Football.”
Kelly had been thinking about getting baptized for years. Jill did it shortly after Hunter was diagnosed with Krabbe disease. But the timing was never right for Jim until September.
So finally, Pastor Gold raised Kelly from the water.
And as if he scored the game-winning touchdown in a Super Bowl, Jim Kelly lifted his arms in the air.
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(Top illustration: Eamonn Dalton / The Athletic; photos: Bryan M. Bennett / Getty Images, John Iacono / Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)
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