One of the toughest men on the planet said he isn’t afraid to die.
But that same man is embracing life like never before.
Now, that’s “Kelly Tough.”
“God only knows what tomorrow holds,” NFL Pro Hall of Fame quarterback and Miami Hurricanes great Jim Kelly said this week during a phone interview with the Miami Herald. “I live every day to its fullest.”
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Kelly, who has fought an almost unfathomable battle with cancer of the jaw and nasal cavity, and now, a severe infection that invaded his bones and necessitated yet another surgery, will return to Sun Life Stadium at 12:30p.m. Saturday to serve as honorary captain for the Miami-North Carolina homecoming game.
“Kelly Tough” is the theme of the day, with fans urged to wear all green as the 54-year-old former Buffalo Bill attends his first UM football game since he entered UM’s Ring of Honor in 2008. He came to Sun Life Stadium last October to serve as a Bills ambassador during a game against the Dolphins, a team he helped slay many times during a bitter rivalry in the 1980s and ’90s.
But even the Dolphin fans are nice to him.
“A lot of them remember me as a Miami Hurricane,” he said.
Accompanied by his two daughters and wife, Jill, Kelly will be toting plenty of pain pills and an array of medical equipment that make it possible to receive antibiotics intravenously three times a day as part of an eight-week regimen to combat the methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) infection.
“My wife helps out,” Kelly said. “She’s a godsend. She went through all the things with my son for 81/2 years, and now she has to take care of me. I’ve been very blessed.”
Kelly’s 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. Kelly and his wife, who live in Orchard Park outside Buffalo, began the Hunter’s Hope Foundation in 1997. Through their foundation they established the Hunter James Kelly Research Institute at the University of Buffalo’s School of Medicine.
Following several radiation treatments and chemotherapy sessions that he originally bypassed when he was first diagnosed with the cancer in mid-2013, biopsies and his bi-monthly MRI in September revealed that the cancer, which returned last March, was no longer evident.
The original cancer resulted in the removal of his whole upper jaw “and pretty much all through my left side of the cheek.” He wears a prosthesis connected to “a couple of teeth I still have left” and had at least six root canals because of nerve damage.
But Kelly recently began to feel pain again.
“I came down with MRSA,” he said. “I was cleared in September of the cancer — I have another MRI in two weeks. The toughest part for me was I was almost ready to take out my feeding tube, I was feeling good and they said they need to do some biopsies. Those 12 biopsies put me back so far.”
Kelly said he then underwent surgery “to shave some of the bone down so the biopsies can heal over.”
He said he still mostly uses a feeding tube because his mouth is too sore and he can’t open his jaw wide enough to chew food. He has had to cancel his beloved moose hunts and several family trips.
“But I wouldn’t miss going to the ‘U’ for anything,” he said.
“I’m excited, especially because it’s my alma mater and I look forward to seeing a bunch of buddies I haven’t seen in a while.”
Those buddies include his former center Don Bailey Jr., who made his first start with redshirt freshman Kelly against Penn State in the eighth game of 1979. The Hurricanes beat the 40-point favorite Nittany Lions 26-10 for what is still considered one of their greatest victories.
Kelly, who grew up in East Brady, Pennsylvania, and spurned powerhouse Penn State because it wanted him as a linebacker, passed for 280 yards and three touchdowns.
“I’m pumped, man,” Bailey, UM’s radio analyst for WQAM, said this week of his pending reunion with Kelly. “How are you not excited when one of your heroes is coming home? How do you not smile from ear to ear when a guy that laid one of the first bricks of this foundation comes home and has accomplished so much on and off the field?
“He’s such an example for every Hurricane that has ever walked through these doors.”
Current offensive line coach Art Kehoe was Kelly’s left guard in that Penn State game.
“He’s one of my best friends,” Kehoe said Wednesday. “I think we drove home from Miami to Pennsylvania about six times and back. He’s just a terrific man. He came here and did so many spectacular things.”
Kelly started the modern-day lineage of quarterback greats at Miami, passing for a career 5,228 yards from 1979-’82. He separated his throwing shoulder when he was tackled during the third game of the ’82 season, ending his college career. Doctors inserted three rods into the shoulder and said he would never regain full range of motion.
The Canes went on to win their first national title the next season, and Kelly proceeded to throw for 35,467 career yards with the Bills in leading them to four consecutive Super Bowls — all losses.
On Saturday, Canes fans will no doubt give him a hearty thank you. In turn, Kelly promises to stay strong.
“One of the things on my bucket list is walking my daughters Erin (19) and Camryn (15) down the aisle and being a granddaddy,” he said. “They’re young, but I plan on being around for a while.”