Jim Kelly Tough
From his hospital room and surrounded by family, Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly details his second—and more serious—fight with cancer. Plus, DeSean Jackson begins search for a new team and the King family suffers a great loss
NEW YORK — On a high floor of Lenox Hill Hospital Saturday afternoon, Jim Kelly, 54, lay propped up in a hospital bed, his head back, hair matted and tousled, a round of pain meds and antibiotics coursing through his veins. He looked tired. His daughter Erin, a freshman at Liberty University, held his hand as he ticked off what life has been like for him lately. Four Kelly brothers and father Joe ringed the room, along with younger daughter Camryn (pictured atop this story), and his wife, Jill, followed his every word from the foot of the bed.
“There is no way I’d be here without my faith,” Jim Kelly said. “It’s been such a roller coaster. So many things. The Super Bowl losses, the fabulous career, my son born sick, making the Hall of Fame, my son dying, two plates and 10 screws in my back after major surgery, one plate and six screws in my neck after another surgery, a double hernia, the cancer, surgery on my jaw, the cancer coming back, now what I’m facing. But …”
He looked at Erin.
“When you’re going through pain, you’re what?” he said.
Not even a millisecond elapsed.
“Kelly tough,” said the eldest daughter of Jim Kelly.
* * *
The story of Jim Kelly’s second, and more serious, fight against cancer is a complicated one. But toughness is a part of it, for better and worse. As is humor. Last June, doctors removed part of his cancerous upper jaw, made a prosthesis of six fake teeth and bone, and fastened it into the hole left by the surgery. They grafted a rectangle of skin from his upper left leg to replace the skin that was lost on the roof of his mouth. The prosthesis works like a giant retainer; Kelly can remove it, and he looks like an old man without his front teeth when it’s out.
“Have you met JK Swag?” Jill said Saturday afternoon. “After surgery, Jim said, ‘I will never pull this out.’ He didn’t want us to see him like that. Jim, introduce JK Swag.”
With that, Jim took the device out of his mouth and began talking like an unintelligible old geezer and scowling, and the room roared. Then he put his teeth back in.
“Sometimes,” Erin said, “we understand JK Swag better than JK.”
The family will need those moments in the coming weeks. Today, provided a slight fever is under control by this morning, Kelly begins a regimen of treatment—chemotherapy Monday and Tuesday, radiation Wednesday, Thursday and Friday—designed to stop the cancer that is dangerously close to the carotid artery in his head. It’s too perilous to operate now, even if the cancer that has spread up his infraorbital nerve can be neutralized, because there’s no guarantee all of it can be found and removed. If doctors operated and all the cancer wasn’t eradicated, weeks could go by before chemo or radiation could begin while he recovers from surgery, and that crucial time could allow the cancer to spread into his brain unabated. So for now, it’s several weeks of aggressive chemo and radiation. Kelly’s New York oncologist, Dr. Peter Costantino, called Kelly’s condition “very treatable and potentially curable” last week.
“If he’s saying it,” Kelly said, “I hope so. I just know there’s a lot of work to do, to shrink the cancer. I just pray it works. If you hear I’m about to have surgery, then you know it’s working. That’s the goal. But it won’t be an easy operation.”
It’s a complex cancer. There’s not a big tumor in his head, but rather countless microscopic ones. That’s probably a major reason why the cancer was tough to diagnose when it returned. Kelly was having headaches—“massive headaches and migraines”—and doctors thought it might stem from problems with the teeth that remained after the jaw surgery last June. He had six root canals on the left side of his mouth in the months after the surgery. But still the pain, the headaches, remained. “The pain became a blessing,” said Jill Kelly. Without the pain, doctors might not have been as aggressive in searching for the pain’s root cause. And because Kelly has a long history of clamming up about his pain, doctors took notice when he said his head was really hurting him.
After a while this winter, Jim Kelly knew there was something amiss. And further scans this month showed the little spots of cancer, many of them riding up the nerve leading to his brain.
“I guarantee the normal person wouldn’t have been able to take it,” he said. “Some days, I don’t know how I did. I complained about my headaches for months, and for a while I thought it was just part of the healing process from such a serious surgery. But obviously it was more than that. I’d look up to the Lord and say, ‘I give. Uncle. You got me.
“But now, this is just another river to cross. Now we know what it is, and we’ll keep fighting. Whatever I did in life”—now he motioned to the crowded room of family—“I never did alone. So we’ll fight. It’s in the Lord’s hands now.”
At times, the support system has him feeling a little guilty. He walks the halls here and sees patients, some very seriously ill, alone. “There’s a lady down the hall,” he said to his brothers the other day. “Anybody visit her? I never see anyone. We should bring her some of my flowers.”
“Part of that,” piped up Dan Kelly, “is the influence my mom had on us all. Mom would give away our winter coats. She’d say, ‘That kid needed it more. You boys will be fine.’”
The Kelly family follows that Christian message now. Sometimes, their message and belief is so strong it sounds like a gospel tent in the room.
“All the fame Jim had in football,” said Dan. “I honestly believe that is just an instrument for God to use his notoriety for a greater purpose. What was his plan? Not many people can endure the kind of pain Jim is enduring, and the pain—we despise it. But we know the purpose.”
“He can be a messenger of hope,” Jill said.
“You know it,” said Jim.
“It’s such a great opportunity for Jim to be on the same level as everyone else, for people to see him struggle and to identify with him. It gives everyone strength,’’ said Jill.
“You got that right,” said Jim.
* * *
On Friday night, I put out a message on Twitter to my followers. I asked if any of them had a message to send to Kelly, whose illness has been reported far and wide. I wanted to see what the level of compassion and concern was.
Here how the response started, from Samuel Nielsen of Wisconsin: “1,573 people live in North Prairie, WI and every one of them is praying for you, Jim.”
Then words came from Rochester, N.Y., Dallas; Princeton, N.J.; Peru, Ill.; the nation of Peru; Bullhead City, Ariz.; Boston; Windsor, Ontario; Lexington; Huntsville, Ala.; Bolivia; Edmonton; Delta Junction, Alaska; Brazil; Perth, Australia; Sweden; Red Deer, Alberta; Put-in-Bay, Ohio; Dublin, Ireland; Cork, Ireland; Sioux Falls, S.D. (“No one circles the wagons like Jim Kelly,” wrote Clay Beeker); Kuwait, the Philippines and Hyderabad, India. “Met him once at a Bills tailgate. Made me feel like I’ve known him for 15 years,” wrote Adam from Toronto. And: Qatar; Altoona, Pa.; The Woodlands, Texas; Newcastle, Wash.; Iceland; Zephyr, Ontario; Mumbai, India; Lone Tree, Colo.; Panama City, Fla.; the nation of Panama; Guadalajara, Mexico; Onaka, S.D.; American Samoa; Sydney, Australia; Tacoma; Hong Kong; Pakistan (Pakistan!); Donnybrook, Western Australia; and scores from Buffalo and Hamburg and the environs in western New York. Scores.
Why? Why the overwhelming love for Kelly? My theory: People love the fighter he was as a player. People loved much else about him as a player (called his own plays, never whined about losing the Super Bowl four straight years). People felt for him after his son died. People in Buffalo never had a bad thing to say about him. He never left Buffalo after his career for greener—or warmer—pastures. Blue-collar guy in an increasingly white-collar game.
And the overwhelming sadness of a good man’s life being threatened too soon.
Wrote Rich Gannon (yes, that Rich Gannon): “Please know brother that you remain in our thoughts and prayers. No hill is too tough for a climber like you.”
Wrote Allan Ruigu of Nairobi, Kenya: “Saw Kelly’s daughter’s pic with him in a hospital bed, heart wrenching. Get well soon & be strong.”
Wrote Julien Urgenti: “I started watching football in the early 90s in Lyon, France. My love with football began with Kelly’s Bills. Go Jim!”
Wrote Asif Malik: “Get well soon, Jim Kelly. A great player on the field and I’ve heard, an even better person off it. (from Istanbul) #beatcancer”
I read 15 or 20 of them to Kelly and to the room of Kellys. He took a moment to compose himself.
“Humbling,” he said. “Humbling. I had no idea. I mean, I don’t do Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, whatever. But they tell me about it. There’s a lot of ‘Get well, Jim Kelly,’ out there, and I am so appreciative of that. I really don’t know what to say.”
After a while, a doctor came in and said she had to clear the room to examine Jim. Camryn and Jill’s mom went to get a bite to eat. The brothers went to relax downstairs in a waiting room. Jill and Erin adjourned to a waiting room down the hall that they’ve filled with inspirational Bible verses (“The Lord is my helper … I will not be afraid”). It’s the Kelly women who have raised awareness of his disease and made it an international thing.
They’ve done it through social media. Particularly noticeable was an Instagram photo Erin posted last week of her and her father laying in his hospital bed watch the Syracuse NCAA game on TV. Jim looked as weak as a pup. Erin looked devoted, hanging onto his arm. It went viral, quickly. Erin was stunned at the reaction, but it’s a social-media world, and emotional pictures of struggling heroes and their clinging daughters … well, that’s going to be a home run. And it was.
“We’re a sports family,” Erin said. “I just wanted to hang out with him. I never thought it would [go global] the way it did, but I like it because it shows the realness of our family. And that’s the raw truth of what he’s going through.”
She puts out pictures for the world to see, she said, “so people will pray. We believe in the power of prayer.”
The college freshman is a mature kid. She is not a hunter, but her father is, and so, for a Christmas present, she told her dad she was getting her hunting license, and the two of them would go on a hunting trip. “He’s my buddy,” she said. “I want to.”
* * *
Earlier this month, when Jim and Jill Kelly had a moment alone, and they were digesting the news that the insidious cancer inside Jim’s face and head had returned with a vengeance, they began reflecting. When they reflect, the subject is often their late son Hunter, who died at 8 of a rare nervous system disease in 2005.
“Well,” Jim said, “I know where my son is, in heaven. And I’ll probably see him before you.”
“No!’’ Jill said. “NO! Do NOT say that again!”
Jill Kelly recalled the story down the hall from her husband on this rainy Manhattan afternoon. “That,” she said, “cut to my heart. I lost it.”
But the thought is unavoidable. The reality of their lives, all of their lives, is that Jim Kelly is fighting for his. He’s in the best hands he can be, and all they all can do is hope, and pray, that modern science works, and these microscopic cancer cells don’t continue the march to Jim Kelly’s brain.
“He’s never been through anything like this, obviously,” Erin Kelly said. “But I know the way he raised us. And I know who he is. He will fight this till his last breath. He’s a Kelly.”