Originally Published: April 10, 2014
Mike Rodak | ESPN.com
Jim Kelly’s celebrity in Buffalo is unmatched.
In a Rust Belt city that lacks glitz or glam but shares an inveterate bond with its Buffalo Bills, Kelly is the most well-known sports figure. The Hall of Fame quarterback is larger than life.
After leading the Bills to an unprecedented four consecutive Super Bowls in the early 1990s, Kelly could have taken his fortune and fame just about anywhere else. He didn’t.
Kelly retired in 1997, but he and his family continue to make Western New York their home. Even in Buffalo, a small city where everybody seems to know everybody, Kelly could have kept a low profile. He hasn’t.
“If there are Western New York royalty, Jim and Jill Kelly would be king and queen,” said Jerry Gillis, the Kelly family’s pastor at The Chapel at CrossPoint in Getzville, N.Y. “He’s an athletic hero in Western New York and people adore him and feel like he’s part of their family.”
Kelly has used his iconic status to benefit the community. From national efforts to raise awareness of Krabbe disease — which took the life of his son, Hunter, in 2005 — to contributing to local charities, Kelly has shown an openness and accessibility to a region where he is beloved.
“I knew him when he was a quarterback and I knew him when his playing career was over, as a member of our community,” said Tony Masiello, who served as Buffalo’s mayor from 1994 to 2005. “He’s evolved masterfully and beautifully from a big, tough, rugged football player to even a community- and civic-minded contributor with a big heart and a big personality.”
As Kelly, 54, prepared for cancer treatment at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, his friends and former teammates told the story of a tough-minded man with a knack for pulling people together, both before and after his playing career.Kelly initially shunned Buffalo. Instead of playing for the Bills, who drafted him 14th overall in 1983, he spent his first two professional seasons as the prolific quarterback for the USFL’s Houston Gamblers.
It was a blow to the Bills, who made just three playoff appearances in the previous 16 years.
“The team had been bad really for a relatively long time,” explained former Bills general manager Bill Polian, who joined the team’s scouting department in 1984. “We had all of the downturn economically in ’77, the blizzard of ’77, and the city and the team had become the butt of jokes on Johnny Carson and other comedy shows. It was really a dark time.
“There was actually talk in the media of, ‘Oh, let the team move somewhere else. We’re better off without them.’ It was as though a black cloud had hung over the franchise and effectively over the area, as well.”
After the USFL contracted in 1986, Kelly signed a five-year, $8 million contract with the Bills — making him a star in Buffalo before he even played a down in the NFL.
“When Jim came back that cloud was lifted,” Polian said. “It was blown away and the sun was shining.”
The deal made Kelly the league’s highest-paid player and Buffalo welcomed him in style. The Bills moved their introductory news conference to the Hilton (now the Adam’s Mark hotel) in downtown Buffalo and gave Kelly a police escort from the airport.
“As we came down [Route] 33, on every overpass it seemed like they were just jammed with people with signs: ‘Welcome Back, Jim,’ ‘Welcome to Buffalo,’ ‘We’re for Kelly,’ and stuff like that,” Polian said. “It was the largest press conference to this day I’ve ever seen. It was a ballroom just filled with press and fans and guests of the club.
“It looked exactly like a political campaign. If it had been the governor coming into town or a presidential candidate, it would have been treated the same way. But that’s Buffalo for you.”
Dennis DiPaolo, owner of Ilio DiPaolo’s restaurant in nearby Blasdell, N.Y., later become a close friend of Kelly’s, but admitted that not everyone embraced Kelly at first.
“He had a confident arrogance,” DiPaolo said, recalling how longtime Bills center Kent Hull, who arrived from the USFL the same day Kelly did, rode with the quarterback’s bags in an equipment van from the airport as Kelly was feted.
Cocky or just plain confident, Kelly had a persona that won over his teammates.
“He’s a tough guy and he had a huge arm,” former Bills receiver and special-teams ace Steve Tasker said. “He was a fighter and his personality became the personality of the team. It was a fun team to be on.”
After two rebuilding seasons, the Kelly-led Bills broke through in 1988. Their AFC East title that season was just the team’s second since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, and while the Bills fell short of the Super Bowl, it was a precursor to the most successful period in franchise history.
Armed with offensive weapons Thurman Thomas and Andre Reed, both now in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Kelly and the Bills won four consecutive AFC championships from 1990 to 1993 — losing in the Super Bowl each season.
“[Coach] Marv [Levy] said one time after one of the Super Bowl losses that when something bad happened, we didn’t get discouraged,” Tasker said. “We got pissed off, and that’s Jim to a T. When bad things happen, he doesn’t get discouraged. He gets mad and fights over it. That’s his way and that’s the personality our team took.”
Dan DeMarco, who has owned the Big Tree Inn next to Ralph Wilson Stadium for 33 years, remembered Kelly’s Friday team meetings in a back room of the Orchard Park landmark.
“Everybody would sit down and work out their differences,” DeMarco said. “They were saying, ‘If you don’t want to play football on Sunday, don’t even bother putting your shoulder pads on.’ So [Kelly] was a leader-and-a-half.”
Among those players who used to gather at the Big Tree Inn was Hall of Fame defensive end Bruce Smith. He and Kelly played against each other when Smith was at Virginia Tech and Kelly at the University of Miami.
“He just had this incredible desire to win, that tenacious inner strength,” Smith said. “I’ve seen situations where guys were deliberately trying to hurt him after [a sack] or he had thrown the ball. Nothing would ever deter him from his goal, which was being out there on that field and being there with his teammates.”
Teammates have always been like family to Kelly. Those close to Kelly, who was raised along with his five brothers in western Pennsylvania, say that he had a way of settling differences and drawing his teammates together.
“I don’t necessarily know that there’s a word that describes Jim better than ‘inclusive,'” said former NFL quarterback Boomer Esiason, a contemporary and friend of Kelly. “There was nobody excluded, and I think that’s what truly made him the great leader he was in Buffalo.”
“He’s one of the few guys that you’ll ever run across that just really tends to win people over with how genuine of a guy he is when they meet him,” Tasker said of Kelly. “Even when they have preconceived notions or don’t think they’re going to like him when they meet him or whatever, he has the ability to disarm them and just make them feel as comfortable as possible.
“He loved everybody. People respond to that, and he has the ability to make friends very quickly and very easily, and his friendships last. He doesn’t forget people. It’s one of the rarest gifts I’ve seen in anybody.”Jim Kelly announced his retirement from the NFL on Jan. 31, 1997. Two weeks later, his son was born.
Hunter Kelly was diagnosed with Krabbe disease, a degenerative condition of the nervous system that left him only a few years to live. It was a sobering revelation that deeply affected Kelly.
“His focus changed after that,” said Kelly’s friend deacon Tim Maloney of Blessed John XXIII Parish in West Seneca, N.Y. “He thought he would watch Hunter grow up and play sports. … Jim was still that fun-loving, young guy, but things became serious.”
Jim and Jill Kelly — who have two daughters, Erin and Camryn — founded Hunter’s Hope Foundation in 1997 and began to raise awareness about Krabbe disease. Maloney said Kelly gave up television opportunities to focus on the foundation, which had him traveling across the country.
One of the foundation’s primary initiatives is to advocate newborn screening. In 2006, New York became the first state to mandate newborn screening for Krabbe disease.
“When Jim came to Albany to petition [former New York governor] George Pataki to adopt Krabbe disease testing, the whole city would stop,” explained former New York state senator Bill Stachowski, a Buffalo native.
Tasker, who has known Kelly since 1985, has seen his friend go from being a “rock star” quarterback to a family man to the founder of a national charitable foundation.
“It’s been a real transformation over the course of time,” Tasker said.
Kelly’s local charitable efforts, however, date back to his playing days.
After Dennis DiPaolo’s father, Ilio, died in 1995, Kelly and longtime Bills head trainer Bud Carpenter were among those who created a scholarship fund in the elder DiPaolo’s memory.
“Nobody knew what a scholarship fund was,” Dennis DiPaolo said, recalling how Kelly collected $10,000 from his teammates to make the idea a reality.
In the early 1990s, Kelly became involved with Cradle Beach, a summer program in Angola, N.Y., for children with disabilities and those who come from low-income families.
Cradle Beach CEO Tim Boling said Kelly, through his Kelly for Kids Foundation, committed $500,000 to a capital campaign that helped the camp move to a new site in 1996 after outgrowing its original location, built in 1888.
Kelly has since made regular trips during the summer, giving a motivational speech and bringing gifts to children.
“There’s usually no fanfare or anything, no media. Just something that he’s always wanted to do and he’s done it since 1993 or 1994,” Boling said. “It’s a really, really big deal for the kids.”When Kelly was diagnosed with a recurrence of oral cancer in late March, it led to an outpouring of local and national support that has continued as Kelly began chemotherapy and radiation treatments.
Jill Kelly has used social media to document the battle for the public.
“It’s becoming a very public struggle, but Jim has always been a pretty public guy. He’s always been out in the community. He’s never hidden in the shadows,” Gillis said. “They’re doing [it] publicly in a way that they’re demonstrating their faith, demonstrating their trust in Christ, so I have a lot of respect for that.”
One of Erin Kelly’s photos posted to Instagram last month shows her lying in her father’s hospital bed, latched to one of his arms as an IV is seen in his other arm.
“Watching the Syracuse game with daddy he’s my buddy! Love him so much!! #daddysgirl #prayersforjk #Kellytough,” she captioned the picture.
The bedside photos have brought Kelly’s fans and supporters closer to his family, reflecting a greater connection between the former Bills quarterback and the region where he once played.
“[The] connection between Jim Kelly and Buffalo Bills fans and Western New York is unmistakable,” Smith said. “It’s very powerful. It’s real. It’s within you. That’s what he embodies. That’s what he instills: the belief, the belief that you can win, above all odds.”
Kelly’s cancer remains “very treatable and potentially curable,” according to his doctor. Kelly was well enough to attend a New York Knicks game at Madison Square Garden on April 4.
As Western New Yorkers and the NFL watch closely and pray, Kelly continues his fight in the same way that he has approached the other battles of his life.
“This is the biggest fourth-and-1 fight of his life,” Esiason said. “I think that this current situation just truly shows you his faith and shows you who he is.
“He’s going to fight every minute of this and hopefully somewhere — and I’ll use his words, not mine — a miracle will be found.”Previously covered the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com
Providence College graduate