published Monday, August 4th, 2014

Wiedmer: Kelly an inspiration to us all

They are questions to keep those of faith, whatever their faith, awake late into the night.

How could any great and good higher power do this to so loyal a follower as former Buffalo Bills quarterback Jim Kelly? How could the Kellys' son Hunter, struck down by Krabbe's disease, be taken from them as a young child? How could Jim be forced to endure debilitating surgeries on his neck and back? How can he now be asked to fight cancer in his sinus region for a second time in 11 months, the prognosis shaky at best? Why should one man, any man, but especially so God fearing a man as Kelly be asked to shoulder so much?

On the other hand, would it not take a good and great higher power to oversee the making of such a good man?

Or as Kelly told Sports Illustrated a few months ago:

"There is no way I'd be here without my faith. 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. ..."

The story's been out there since March, a story almost too sad to repeat.

But then came Saturday night's Pro Football Hall of Fame ceremony and there stood Kelly's former battery mate with the Bills, Andre Reed, delivering a touching induction speech as a frail Kelly watched from the giant stage in Canton, Ohio.

"I was known for my toughness, going across the middle, making that catch, breaking tackles," Reed said. "But the toughest individual I've ever met in my life was Jim Kelly, No. 12. Jim, you have endured a lot in your life. The loss of a son and, most recently, your battle with cancer. You're an inspiration to all of those you touch."

Then Kelly threw a final pass to Reed, easily the most memorable and emotional moment of a memorable night.

Of course, Kelly and Reed and the rest of the Bills would have endured a lot if all they'd done was be the only team to lose four straight Super Bowls, never winning one.

But football's a game, even at that high level, the financial compensation for those who make it arguably canceling out the later pain and suffering so many endure.

But losing a child and fighting cancer is a whole different level of pain and suffering, and most who would experience such heartbreak could understandably grow bitter and distant and distrusting of their faith.

Instead, Kelly, his wife and two daughters wear T-shirts that proclaim "Kelly Tough." They attempt to count their blessings. They continue their vast dedication to charity work, such as FCA Outdoors, which brought Kelly and his wife Jill to Chattanooga three years ago to speak to an FCA fundraiser at the Trade Center.

Want a small glimpse into what kind of guy Kelly is? He and Jill's luggage were lost on their flight to the Scenic City. So the coat and tie he'd expected to wear to the banquet, as well as her cocktail dress, were nowhere to be found. Think you might be upset?

"No big deal," he shrugged. "We just went out and got some more clothes. Could happen to anybody."

But what's happened to Kelly shouldn't happen to anyone. Ever.

So how has he done it? How does a guy who's lost over 50 pounds since March, a guy who had to have his yellow Hall of Fame blazer taken in a few inches, find the strength to fight off the chemo and the radiation well enough to attend a kid's clinic last week?

"I came to be a Christian fairly late," he said that night in our town. "God has forgiven me a lot of things I've done in my life."

That was before the cancer, however. Commitments can change. Yet at last week's clinic he told USA Today, "I was a kid once, and I know what it's like to look forward to doing something and look forward to meeting somebody. If you say you're going to be there, you be there. That's pretty much how I was raised."

No one is raised to deal with this, however, to be fighting for your life at 54, so much sorrow and hurt already in your rearview mirror.

"I guarantee the normal person wouldn't have been able to take it," he told SI when the cancer returned. "Some days, I don't know how I did. I'd look up to the Lord and say, 'I give. Uncle. You got me.'"

But no one has him yet. In a couple of weeks more tests will be run to see if the intensive treatment is working. He's still fighting, still Kelly Tough.

"If it's my turn, if the good Lord decides that 55 is my age, so what," he said last week. "I'll be going to see my son [Hunter] a little earlier than I thought I was going to. But I know I have a lot more to do, a lot more lives to change and a lot of people out there are going to change my life. I'm still a long ways away [from dying], I hope and pray."

Born on Valentine's Day, Kelly has to have the biggest heart imaginable. The question for the ages is why it keeps getting broken.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com

about Mark Wiedmer...

Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...

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