Jim Kelly was walking toward the clubhouse at Terry Hills when he ran across a group of current Bills gathered at the football toss game. Kelly stopped, grabbed a ball from one of the players and fired a perfect strike through the hole in a cardboard figure about 25 yards away.
“One throw, score!” Kelly said, thrusting his arms in the air. “Hey, I do feel pretty good right now!”
“So you still got it, Jim?” a reporter said when Kelly arrived at a makeshift interview area.
“I never lost it,” Kelly replied.
Granted, Kelly has suffered his share of physical loss in recent months. But after a two-year battle with jaw cancer, his fighting spirit remains intact. He has lost none of his faith, or his indomitable will, or his natural gift for lifting the hearts of everyone around him.
It was inspiring on Monday morning to see the Bills’ Hall of Fame quarterback on hand for the 29th edition of his annual celebrity golf tournament. Kelly had missed the event a year earlier while undergoing treatment for cancer. You could tell by the skip in his step and the gleam in his eye that this one had a special significance.
“It’s awesome,” Kelly said. “I never miss it. But last year when I was in the hospital, how many people came to see me — it humbled me so much. Being able to come back here and see how many people showed up, even last night’s (Gala) event, it was so unbelievable. It was overwhelming for me.
“But that’s Buffalo. I’m starting to get used to — well, I’m already used to the way people are here. Their hearts are so huge. That’s why I call Buffalo home, and that’s why I’m spending the rest of my life here.”
Rex Ryan hasn’t been in town that long, but he gets it. He showed during his first news conference as Bills coach that he understands the special bond that exists between the community and the team — especially the Bills of Kelly’s era.
So Ryan made an executive decision: Rather than run his team through another dreary OTA practice, he brought them to Batavia for Kelly’s tournament. It was a powerful moment when three buses rolled into the parking lot at around 9:45 a.m., bearing the entire Bills team.
“It’s not just lip service,” Ryan said. “I want to do things that bring the team together. This is an opportunity to get guys out and take a break away from the X’s and O’s.
“This is a great event, one of our own. We wanted to do it to support Jim and also to build our team a little bit.”
Kelly and Darryl Talley have been outspoken about their desire to see the modern players become more engaged with the community, and more bonded as a team. Kelly’s wife, Jill, brought it up to me on more than one occasion. They believe it was that connection, as much as their rare talent, that made them great.
It’s a theme that resonates with Ryan, a passionate coach who inspired a fierce loyalty from his players with the Jets. He wants his teams to be tough, physical and defiant. It’s no surprise that he would want them to embrace Kelly as a symbol from their team heritage.
“I think it’s important to know what the guys in front of us have done,” said Pro Bowl defensive tackle Kyle Williams. “Not just on the field, but in the community. You always want to get a sense of history. It helps you understand the passion of our fans if you know more about it, especially what Jim and all those guys did.”
A year ago, at a grueling point in his treatment, Kelly went with Thurman Thomas to a Bills practice and gave the players an emotional moving speech about team bonding. He wanted them to know how precious a time it was. They should embrace it, because you never know when it might end.
“Last night, I talked with Matt Cassel and EJ (Manuel) about it,” Kelly said. “I told them they do make a difference. The key for all of us is to understand, ‘Make a difference today.’ I know it’s an old cliche, but nobody knows what tomorrow holds.”
Once you’ve looked death in the face, you gain a certain perspective. You realize how every day is a gift. The end of a pro athlete’s career is an early death of a sort. Maybe an athlete has a more refined sense of how fleeting the good times are, and how you need to embrace them.
Talley and Kelly were the toughest players I ever saw. Talley has suffered through his own well-publicized struggles after retirement. All those collisions on Sunday as a linebacker took a physical and mental toll. Talley was there Monday. He said he takes it a day at a time. He’s incredulous at what Kelly has endured.
“He’s gone through some serious stuff,” Talley said. “I told him in the hospital, ‘Look, you can’t check out on me,’ plus some other choice words. I said, ‘I ain’t going to be your lonesome polecat sitting around here. It’s not allowable. Keep your head down and whatever you have to do, do it.’
“He said, ‘I don’t want to know what’s coming. I’m just going to go through it.’ ”
Kelly has come through it. He’s cancer-free, though he can’t say for sure what lies ahead. On Wednesday, it will be exactly two years since he went public with his illness – fittingly, at the start of his annual golf tournament.
Monday was a miserable first day of June in Western New York, with gray skies, a misting rain and temperatures that were struggling to get out of the 40’s.
“Hey, it’s part of life,” Kelly said. “Who cares? They’re going to go out and have fun. We call this a serious Caddyshack. We have bands, we have DJs, we have massage tables. We have everything. Food, a few beers, have some fun with your buds. Why not?”
Why not, indeed? When did bad weather ever stop a Buffalo guy from having fun?
“It shines the sunlight, him being here,” said former running back Kenneth Davis. “It’s good for these young men, who have heard and seen what he’s gone through, to see where he is today. He was always that way. You got to pick yourself up and keep moving. Same as ever.”