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A Football Life: Jim Kelly's roller-coaster story gets epic NFL Network treatment

You want to let out a giant exhale at the end of the latest NFL Network special on the life of Jim Kelly.

First there's a slew of highlights of some of the brutal hits Kelly took while developing the well-deserved reputation as the toughest quarterback in the NFL.

Then there's the heart-wrenching recounting of his son Hunter's battle with a fatal disease and death at age 8. And the grief-stricken aftermath for Kelly and his family.

Then, of course, there's Kelly's recent battle with cancer.

It all makes "Jim Kelly: A Football Life" an emotional wringer. The hourlong show premieres at 9 p.m. Friday.

“I can go on and on, all of the ups and downs in my life," Kelly says in the film. "But the Lord was preparing me for what I’m doing now, and that’s hopefully making a difference for others out there.”

Of course, Kelly's life story is well-known to any Bills fan. There aren't any new revelations, and some of the anecdotes told by former teammates will be familiar to Bills Nation.

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But the emotional honesty of Kelly and his wife, Jill, along with their daughters Erin and Camryn, set the episode apart from most NFL retrospectives and make the special must-see viewing for any die-hard Bills fan.

"There were a lot of great memories, of course," Kelly said in an interview with The News this week. "And of course, the tears flowed when they were talking about my son and things like that."

Jill Kelly shines brightest among the interviews with her reflections on her family, from the time she first met her husband at one of his post-game parties through his cancer battle.

She talks openly about their marriage struggles after Hunter's death, a topic she wrote eloquently about in her book, "Without A Word," which was published in 2010. (Fans who watch the latest film and want more should read it.)

"We had everything stacked against us BUT Hunter," she says.

Regarding Hunter's death, Kelly says in the film: "Very simple: She seeked the Lord, and I ran from the Lord."

"There isn't a tougher woman that I've ever met in my life, besides my mother," Kelly said this week. "Everything, from raising Hunter to being married to a professional athlete, going through the tough times that we did, and then having to do it almost all over again with me when I was battling cancer. ... I could go on and on and it would be very tough, because I'd break down."

Of the perspective offered by his daughters, Kelly says: "They've been through it all. Their baby dolls when they were growing up had oxygen masks. Their baby dolls had a feeding tube. The norm was to have babies with that. They grew up a lot quicker than a lot of kids did, not only from having a father who's a professional athlete, but from having to see so many ups and downs."

The one aspect of the film Kelly is not particularly proud of is the fact it dwells on his reluctance to come to Buffalo after he was drafted in 1983.

"I'd say 99 percent of it was awesome, but that's the only part that kind of bummed me out a little bit," he said. "I think it was a little bit too much emphasized. And I even told them when they were doing the interviews, make sure you put in that one of the best decisions I ever made in my life was becoming a Buffalo Bill."

"It did not take me long to realize this is where I wanted to be," Kelly said of his arrival in Buffalo in 1986. "But it is what it is. I think people in Buffalo know that Buffalo is my home and we love it here, and that's why I'm going to spend the rest of my life here."

Great anecdotes from Steve Tasker and Frank Reich, in particular, help move the story along.

The hits on Kelly are wince-inducing. He says it doesn't bother him at all to re-watch them.

"Back then, you know you're getting hit, but you're young and you can take those hits," he said. "To be honest with you, I grew up in a family of six boys. That's all we did growing up, all we did was fight. ... I can honestly say I have the closest family you could possibly get and I'm so blessed I had five brothers who went through everything with me. Not one time were they ever jealous of me."

One of the biggest hits shown was in Kelly's Bills debut, when former Jets great Joe Klecko jumped offsides and flattened him into the turf. Klecko says in the film he apologized to Kelly immediately after. Kelly disputes it.

"He didn't say, 'Sorry, Jim,' " Kelly said. "He looked at me and he said, 'Boy, this is not the USFL!' I looked up at him and under my breath I said, 'Yes sir.'"

Kelly bounced right back up.

"It's all part of my life – getting up," Kelly said. "It's like my dad always told me every time I ever got knocked down as a kid: Get up, you'll be all right."

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