Jim Kelly relishes returning to Miami, even when his destination is Sun Life Stadium to serve as a Buffalo Bills ambassador Sunday while his beloved Bills take on the hometown Dolphins — a team he defeated several times during a bitter rivalry in the 1980s and ’90s.
That’s because Kelly, enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2002, also is known as the first modern-day Miami Hurricane to begin the lineage of quarterback greats at a program once nicknamed “Quarterback U.”
And now, the charismatic quarterback considered among the toughest to ever play the game, the on-field warrior whose body has been repeatedly carved by surgeons, is beating another nemesis — cancer.
“They had to remove my whole upper jaw and pretty much all through my left side of the cheek,” said Kelly, 53, of his squamous cell carcinoma. “I’m getting there, but I’m not a very patient person. I wanted things to feel good from start to finish. There’s still pain, but the only time it really bothers me is when I talk for a while.
“I’ve already taken my Advil, so I’m feeling a lot better now.”
Kelly had surgery in June to remove the cancer and wears a prosthesis connected to “a couple of teeth I still have left,” he said during a phone interview with the Miami Herald. “I know that sounds gross. I went to the recent Pro Football Hall of Fame ceremony and everybody was like, ‘What does it feel like?’ and I was like, ‘Man, you don’t need to hear my problems. You probably have enough of your own.”
Kelly’s prognosis for recovery is considered good because the cancer was isolated, and he didn’t require chemotherapy or radiation, doctors said in June. He sees an oncologist regularly to monitor his progress.
He said he never smoked cigarettes or dipped tobacco before getting sick, but smoked cigars occasionally. In the past two years, not counting previous football-related procedures, Kelly said he has had “back surgery — two plates and 10 screws — and double hernia surgery five months after that and at Christmas time, neck surgery — a plate and six screws in my neck.
“I had three jaw surgeries before they found out I had cancer, and I’ve gone through six root canals on my bottom teeth because some of my nerves were affected.
“But I’m actually doing well,” he said, laughing. “You have to confront your challenges head on.”
Even before those surgeries and the recent cancer, Kelly, who lives with his family in Orchard Park outside Buffalo, had begun his biggest battle off the football field. His son, Hunter James Kelly, was diagnosed as a 4-month-old with globoid cell leukodystrophy, a genetic disease that affects the nervous system.
Hunter died at age 8 in 2005. Jim and his wife Jill, who began the Hunter’s Hope Foundation in 1997, through their foundation established the Hunter James Kelly Research Institute at the University of Buffalo’s School of Medicine.
The memory of Hunter still inspires Kelly, whose life’s passion is to help find a cure.
“I’m a lot better person today than before Hunter was born,” said Kelly, who also has two daughters, 18-year-old Erin and 14-year-old Camryn.
Kelly’s life as a Miami Hurricane began in 1978, after he graduated from the now shut-down East Brady (Pa.) High School, about an hour’s drive north of Pittsburgh. Most expected him to play for the Nittany Lions of Penn State, at that time a perennial college football powerhouse. But Kelly, born and bred in bitter-cold Western Pennsylvania on the shores of the Allegheny River, chose the sun and surf of Miami.
Why? Because the Lions wanted him as a linebacker, and then-Miami coach Lou Saban let him be a quarterback.
“If it weren’t for the Hurricanes,” he said, “I’m sure I wouldn’t be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.”
Kelly’s first start as a redshirt freshman in the eighth game of 1979 is still considered one of UM’s greatest victories, a 26-10 upset of then 40-point favorite Penn State. Kelly passed for 280 yards and three touchdowns.
Art Kehoe, UM’s current offensive line coach, was Kelly’s left guard in that game. Don Bailey Jr., current UM football radio analyst for WQAM, was Kelly’s freshman center who made his first start in the same game. Bailey recalled coach Howard Schnellenberger telling Kelly just moments before the game that he was going to start.
“Jim walked into the bathroom and threw up,” Bailey said.
“To be honest,” Kelly said, “I thought I was going to that game to get chocolate chip cookies from mom and dad and hopefully get an opportunity to play when Penn State was beating up on us. But it turned out that I started and we beat up on them.”
Bailey, Kehoe and countless other Hurricanes fans, call it “the game that put Miami on the map” and spawned “Quarterback U.”
“What a football player, my God. Never one play, one minute, one quarter, one circumstance when Jim Kelly was in the huddle and you didn’t think you had a chance to win,” Bailey said.
“Jim Kelly is going to win against cancer.”
Kelly isn’t surprised his 5,228 passing yards at UM, which started this season as 10th all-time in the Canes’ record book, has already been surpassed by quarterback Stephen Morris.
“Remember, I only played two full years at UM,” he said.
Kelly severely separated his throwing shoulder when he was tackled during the third game of the 1982 season, ending his college career. Doctors inserted three rods into the shoulder and said he would never regain full range of motion.
Dolphins fans only wish that were true.
The Canes went on to win their first national title the season after Kelly left. Kelly went on to throw for 35,467 career yards with the Bills from 1986 to ’96 in leading them to four consecutive Super Bowls — all losses.
Against the Dolphins, however, he won a lot more than he lost — especially when it counted most.
Kelly beat the Dolphins in all three playoff games he quarterbacked: a 44-34 AFC East victory at Rich Stadium on Jan. 12, 1991; a 29-10 AFC Championship victory at Joe Robbie Stadium on Jan. 17, 1993 — Dan Marino’s final appearance in an AFC title game; and a 37-22 victory on Dec. 30, 1995, in a wild-card playoff that would be Don Shula’s final game as coach.
Despite the bad blood between the Bills and Dolphins, Kelly’s reception Sunday will likely be a warm one in the place he once dominated. These days, Kelly is on the Bills’ staff. Besides sharing his knowledge of the franchise with prospective players, he travels to some road games, schmoozes with fans and mingles with sponsors. He admits it’s a bit odd coming to a stadium that booed him as a Bill, yet has his name hanging in giant letters for UM games as a member of the Ring of Honor.
Something similar happened to him earlier this month when Allstate recognized him as a “Hometown Hall of Famer,” but had to hold the ceremony and erect the plaque in his rival high school because his school was closed down more than 20 years ago.
“Weird, but awesome,” Kelly said. “The Dolphins fans are great to me because a lot of them remember me as a Miami Hurricane.”
Kelly, whose nephew is a redshirt freshman quarterback for Clemson, still watches Miami games when he can — and still loathes the Gators. But even Nat Moore, a former Gator and prolific Dolphins receiver whose career with Miami ended when Kelly’s was beginning with the Bills, will be cheering for Kelly (but not the Bills) when the Hall of Famer visits Sunday.
“Jimmy is a fighter,” said Moore, the Dolphins senior vice president of alumni relations. “When you think of Jim Kelly, you think of a guy that never gives up.”