BATAVIA – The scene at Terry Hills Golf Course was familiar Monday morning.
Buffalo Bills legends and friends of Jim Kelly arrived by limo bus for the Hall of Fame quarterbacks' 31st annual celebrity golf tournament. Kelly, dressed in his best golf knickers, welcomed the likes of former teammates Bruce Smith, Thurman Thomas, Steve Tasker, Fred Smerlas, Cornelius Bennett and Darryl Talley along with ESPN's Chris Berman and actor Christopher McDonald, among many others.
After the carts dispersed to the course, Kelly addressed the assembled media, saying he continues to feel good after two battles with cancer.
"I fly to New York City every three months still. I'll do that for the rest of my life, so hopefully I'll be doing it for like 20 years," he said. "But yeah, I feel pretty good. I mean, I'm always going to have pain. That's part of my life. You talk to any professional athlete that's been in my position, you're going to have pain whether it's in your back, neck, head, and in my case it's in my mouth."
Kelly has become an inspiration for others going through the same fight he has.
"I travel now, thank God. I speak more than I ever have by far, but when you go places, you see people that have the same cancer you have had," he said. "You see other people struggling and realize you don't have it that bad. I'm blessed that I'm able to go out and hopefully make a difference for others. I do understand that some people have that attitude that they're done, no more, but if I can change their mind and give their family a little more hope, then that's what I'm going to do."
Kelly ended his press conference talking about why he's chosen to make Western New York his permanent home.
"I have so many reasons. No. 1, my family is here. My son's here. My son's laid to rest here," he said. "One of the top (reasons) is the people, how they embraced our team, even though we didn't win a Super Bowl, how they embraced us each and every year.
"You're always going to have the naysayers. I mean, that's everywhere. But the majority of people here are unbelievable. From not only my playing days, but after I retired, my son, and going through that and how many people rallied around us then. And then of course my battle with cancer. It's awesome. I wouldn't want to be anyplace but right here."
Bennett estimates that he's been to only "two or three" games since leaving the Bills more than 20 years ago.
For a player who very well could be the next one chosen for the team's Wall of Fame, that doesn't seem right. Bennett, though, plans to be around more in 2017, thanks in large part to new coach Sean McDermott.
"I've been gone away from here since 1995," Bennett said. "I haven't been this excited about Buffalo football in a long, long time. I'm planning to come up here to a couple games this year, which is something I haven't done."
Two months ago, Bennett was one of seven former Bills – along with Kelly, Smith, Andre Reed, Thomas, Talley and Tasker – to have dinner with McDermott.
Bennett left impressed with the Bills' new head coach.
"This guy seems to be genuine, truly cares about what he's doing," Bennett said. "Not just excited to be a head coach. He truly seems to enjoy coaching and making kids better kids."
Some of Bennett's former teammates have said McDermott reminds them of their coach, Marv Levy. While Bennett wasn't quite ready to go that far, he's nevertheless hopeful that McDermott is the man to lead the Bills out of their extended playoff drought.
"The thing I love about Marv, the biggest compliment I ever gave coach Levy was I told him if I didn't grow up with a father, I would have loved for him to be my dad," Bennett said. "So I think if you ever hear a kid say that about coach McDermott, then I would put him in that category. Right now I see him as a person who really truly cares about what he's doing.
"So I guess that is kind of father like, because he is overseeing a bunch of young men, grooming them to be hopefully great men at some point in time and not just great football players. I'm excited about coming up here to see some football after sitting down with him."
Thomas and Barry Sanders spent two years together as college teammates at Oklahoma State.
Now 30 years later, that probably still gives defensive coordinators from what was then the Big 8 Conference nightmares. Both running backs, of course, went on to have Hall of Fame careers in the NFL – Thomas with the Bills, Sanders with the Detroit Lions.
Thomas brought up Sanders when passing on some high praise for current Bills running back LeSean McCoy.
"I think he's a young 29," Thomas said. "I know everybody's going to be like, 'when you reach 30, that's when it goes down.' But with this guy, I don't see it."
McCoy won't actually turn 29 until July 12. Part of the reason for his longevity, though, has been his ability to avoid the big hit, a skill Thomas said reminds him of his former college teammate.
"He avoids it like Barry Sanders," he said. "I think the last time you saw him take a big hit was probably in London against Jacksonville a couple years ago when he came out, but he went back in the game. Aside from him missing games for his hamstring or whatever, the guy's been healthy throughout his entire career. I don't see him slowing down any time soon."
McCoy has spoken recently of his career goals, which include hitting 10,000 career rushing yards possibly this season (he enters with 8,954) and 12,000 yards in the years to come. Only 15 players in NFL history have ever reached that milestone, one of whom is Thomas. Of those 15 players, 13 are in the Hall of Fame (including Sanders), another has been a finalist (Edgerrin James) and one is still active (Frank Gore).
"He takes very good care of himself, works out constantly," Thomas said of McCoy. "If you look at his career, he hasn't been injured a lot. ... With his moves and all that, that's never going to go away. ... I hope he finishes his career here."