BUFFALO, N.Y. — Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly is considered one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks. He led the Buffalo Bills to a record four consecutive Super Bowls in the 1990s — and they famously lost all four. Nonetheless, he earned a reputation for a gridiron grit that became known as “Kelly tough.”
But for Jim and his wife, Jill, that Kelly toughness was tested most profoundly by what followed off the field: a terminally ill son, problems in their marriage and Jim’s struggle with cancer.
“You can only be tough so much. And I’ve just been very blessed that I have an open heart now,” Kelly told the PBS program “Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.”
“Those things that we go through that cause us to be tested, or to doubt, or to fear,” his wife added, “those things make us stronger in our faith.”
The thing that sustains them, they say, was and is their evangelical faith.
The Kellys met and married at the height of Jim’s football career and enjoyed the celebrity that came with it. They had a daughter, Erin, and then in 1997, just a few weeks after Jim retired from the Bills, their son, Hunter, was born. Daughter Camryn came along in 1999.
When Hunter was just 4 months old, he was found to have a genetic disease called Krabbe Leukodystrophy, which affects the nervous system. The Kellys were told he likely wouldn’t survive to his second birthday.
Both Jim and Jill had been raised Catholic, but neither was very religious. Jill said her devastation over the diagnosis sent her on a desperate spiritual search that ultimately led her to become a born-again Christian.
“It was Hunter’s suffering that caused me to seek after God,” she said. “Everything changed then.”
Jim Kelly said that at the time, he was angry with God and told his wife not to push her newfound beliefs on him. “I didn’t come to faith until after Hunter passed away,” he said.
Neither of their daughters has Krabbe. The Kellys were determined to help Hunter live the best life possible. They launched the Hunter’s Hope Foundation to promote awareness and research about the rare disease.
In 2004, the Kellys and the foundation helped found the Hunter James Kelly Research Institute at the University at Buffalo. Through their efforts, more and more newborns are now screened for Krabbe so they can be given an umbilical cord blood transplant in the narrow window of time when progression of the disease can still be slowed.
“The bottom line is, you want to make a difference,” Jim Kelly said.
Beating all medical expectations, Hunter lived until 2005, when he was 8 and a half, although he was never able to walk or talk.
“God used him in so many ways,” said Jill Kelly. “We learned patience and love, unconditional love, selflessness, all of the things that you don’t learn in books, and that neither of us had learned up to that point in our lives as an adult.”
Jim Kelly calls Hunter a role model: “Talk about people that you admire, I admired his toughness in what he went through, and how he changed my life.”
The Kellys have been open about their marital problems. They don’t speak about it in detail, but in Jill’s 2010 book “Without a Word,” they describe how after Hunter’s death, Jim confessed he had been unfaithful. He sought pastoral counseling and decided to embrace his wife’s newfound faith for himself.
“I wanted to be able, for my two daughters, to walk in that front door and when they do, to look at their daddy with respect. I was losing all that,” Jim Kelly said during a recent appearance at Liberty University. “I knew that if I didn’t change my life, I was going to lose everything that I worked so hard for.”
The Kellys still live in western New York, where they attend The Chapel, a large nondenominational church. They say their faith has been crucial in dealing with their latest battle. In June 2013, Jim was found to have cancer of the jaw. After surgery, he was proclaimed cancer-free. Last year, more cancer was discovered in his nasal cavity, and more aggressive treatments followed.
At first, Jim didn’t want to go public about their latest ordeal. But he said his wife convinced him the family needed as many prayers as possible. Jim’s former teammates and the western New York community have rallied around them. Although Jim still has some lingering health issues, a recent MRI declared him again cancer-free.
“I live every day to its fullest,” he said.
Jill and their eldest daughter, Erin, have written a forthcoming book about the family’s experiences. Called “Kelly Tough,” it’s scheduled for release next month.
“It’s not, ‘Oh, look at the Kellys.’ It’s ‘Look what God has done,’” said Jill Kelly. “Even though it’s our story, it’s really about the greater story.”
(A version of this story was first broadcast on the PBS television program “Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.” )
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