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Kelly, LaFontaine are recognized in D.C. for service to community

Years after their triumphs on the gridiron and the ice, Jim Kelly and Pat LaFontaine on Tuesday won an award billed as the "Nobel Prize of Public Service."

The former Buffalo Bills quarterback and former Buffalo Sabres center both formed successful charities in their retirement, and the example they set placed them in high company.

Other award winners honored at a black-tie dinner Tuesday included CIA Director David Petraeus, jazz great Branford Marsalis and singer Harry Connick Jr.

Jefferson Award organizers said all the award winners did amazing things to better their communities or their country.

Kelly, for example, founded the Hunter's Hope Foundation, which aims to boost research on and awareness of Krabbe disease -- which claimed the life of Kelly's young son, Hunter -- and related conditions.

And LaFontaine founded Companions in Courage, which established interactive game rooms and kiosks in children's hospitals across North America.

"It's hard to find two people as dedicated" as Kelly and LaFontaine are to the charities they founded, said Alex Beard, a member of the board of selectors for the award.

Founded 40 years ago by philanthropist Sam Beard, former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Sen. Robert Taft Jr., the Jefferson Awards are presented annually to the famous and the little-known alike.

The founders intended the awards as an honor for good public deeds, and in interviews after a luncheon in Hyatt Regency Capitol Hill, both Kelly and LaFontaine said they were thrilled with the honor.

"It's a very humbling experience," Kelly said. "But you don't do this sort of thing to win awards. You do it to make a difference."

Kelly said he's been pushing states to increase screening of rare conditions such as Krabbe disease and has met with success on a state-by-state basis.

In addition, the Hunter J. Kelly Research Institute, at the New York State Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics and Life Sciences in Buffalo, is making progress in its research of Krabbe disease and related leukodystrophies.

LaFontaine's charity has established game rooms in 18 children's hospitals across North America, including Women & Children's Hospital in Buffalo, and has 400 smaller-scale kiosks at other hospitals.

"They give kids a chance, when they're in isolation, to play games, to connect with the other kids when they're going through a very difficult time," LaFontaine said.

Recovering from a knee injury while with the Sabres, LaFontaine started visiting young patients at what is now Women & Children's Hospital and left inspired to help them.

First he bought a suite for use by such children at Sabres games, and then he started Companions in Courage.

To Kathleen Neville, a onetime news staffer at WGRZ television in Buffalo and now a communications consultant who nominated Kelly and LaFontaine for the awards, the two Buffalo sports stars were natural choices for the honor.

Sports stars who help their communities in retirement are important to recognize, she said, because they are role models to so many young people.

"And who does it better" than Kelly and LaFontaine? she asked.

email: jzremski@buffnews.com