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Jim Kelly gives inspiring speech at Lombardi cancer foundation dinner

MILWAUKEE – The obvious question came up Thursday with the people in charge of the Vince Lombardi Cancer Foundation when they, along with the rest of the world, learned Jim Kelly's oral cancer had come back for a third time.

Kelly was to supposed to receive the organization's award of excellence at its 28th annual dinner and ball Saturday night.

Would he cancel? How could he even think about something that, in the grand scheme of things, could now be easily regarded as trivial? The organizers would have understood, so they asked.

Kelly's answer was blunt and to the point.

"I go, 'Hey, I'm not dead. If I can still go, I'm going,'" the Buffalo Bills Hall of Fame quarterback told a crowd of about 300, consisting mainly of business leaders from throughout Wisconsin.

Kelly added that he also had a fishing tournament Sunday in Miami that he had committed to attend, and was going to make it there as well.

"Hey, my surgery (for the removal of a tumor in his upper right jaw and reconstruction of his entire upper jaw) isn't until the end of the month," he said. "If the good Lord decides tomorrow's my day, hey, I'm going out with a fish in one hand and a cup of beer in the other."

The main ballroom of the Pfister Hotel broke into laughter and gave Kelly a loud, long standing ovation.

Kelly said before his speech, he said he was thinking about how many people have come up to him to say he has been an inspiration to them.

"I want them to know that they inspire me to never give up," he said. "Because if I can make a difference for you, I know what you've done for me. I live by this motto: Make a difference today for someone who is fighting for their tomorrow."

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He talked about how devastating it was to be first diagnosed with cancer in 2013 and how it "came back with a vengeance" a year later, resulting in his receiving 35 radiation treatments and chemotherapy.

Kelly said doctors gave him less than a 10-percent chance of living.

"All of a sudden, I didn't know where it was going, wasn't sure I was going to make it," Kelly said. "But one thing my family did and I just urge everyone in this room, if you're going to see someone -- they don't have to have cancer -- not one time did my family ever walk into my hospital room with a frown on their face. They walked in with an attitude that they were going to make my day better by their presence and what they said each and every day. And, boy, did that make a difference.

"My family knew I was going to fight through, they knew I was going to beat it and, more importantly, me in my heart knew I was going to beat it."

He joked about receiving well wishes from fans throughout the NFL, even those who root for the Bills' biggest rivals.

"It was just amazing," Kelly said. "There really were Miami Dolphins fans, New England Patriots fans praying for a Buffalo Bill?"

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Within the last 48 hours, organizers of the dinner also received video well wishes for Kelly with which they surprised him by showing them on two large monitors.

The first was from his former backup with the Bills, Frank Reich, now the head coach of the Indianapolis Colts.

"There's no one that can throw the football like you," Reich said. "There was nobody, absolutely nobody, as tough as you. Ever. The things I saw you do, the plays I saw you make, the hits you took and kept getting back up time and time again, it's just rare. Hang tough, bro! Love you!"

From Green Bay Packers Hall of Famer Brett Favre: "If anyone can beat this, you can."

From Dolphins Hall of Famer Dan Marino: "Just stay Kelly Tough!"

From Houston Texans defensive end and former University of Wisconsin standout J.J. Watt: "You're such an inspiration to me and so many people across the country. Thank you for the inspiration. Sending you all the strength."

From another former Bills teammate and Hall of Famer James Lofton: "Toughest guy I ever played with, best quarterback I ever played with."

Others who sent well wishes included Hall of Famer Joe Montana, Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz, and broadcaster Chris Berman.

Since its inception in 1971, the Vince Lombardi Cancer Foundation has raised more than $20 million.

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