By Josh Weir, Canton Repository
CANTON, Ohio – Thursday night began as a celebration of Stark County high school athletics.
Eventually, thanks to Jim Kelly, it became a graduate-level lesson in toughness, courage and grit.
Less than three months after undergoing major surgery on his mouth to combat another bout with cancer – and facing two more surgeries in the future, including one next week that Kelly termed a "big test" – he was the featured speaker during the third annual Canton Repository Best of Stark Gala at Memorial Civic Center.
It wasn’t clear how much the Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback could speak. The 12-hour procedure on March 28 removed oral cancer and reconstructed his upper jaw. He was joined on stage by his wife, Jill Kelly, and daughter, Erin Kelly-Bean, in a question-and-answer session with Hall of Fame President David Baker.
But Jim Kelly is a gamer. A five-time Pro Bowler, Kelly shone in his first extensive public speaking engagement since the surgery.
Speaking with a noticeable slur but getting his message across clearly during the 30-minute Q&A, Kelly stressed the need to encourage others who might be going through struggles of their own, no matter how big or small.
“I remember when I was going through my second bout with cancer," he said. "As I was laying in my room after going to a banquet and speaking, (it struck me) how many people came up to me and said what an inspiration I’ve been to them.
“You cannot do this alone. That helps me continue to fight. … I just want people when you leave tonight to be an inspiration for somebody out there that might not be having a good day. They might not have cancer. They just might not be having the day they wanted.
"I came up with a saying and it goes like this: Make a difference today for someone who’s fighting for their tomorrow.”
Kelly said his life is based around the four “Fs” of faith, family, friends and fans.
Faith was a running theme throughout the night, followed closely by the importance of his family, which provided constant encouragement through his battles with cancer that began in June 2013.
“I probably looked really bad,” Kelly said about some of his hospital stays. “But every time they walked in they made me sit up in my bed and made me know there is a tomorrow.”
As Baker pointed out several times Thursday, Kelly has a way of taking negatives and making them positives. He wanted to attend Penn State out of high school, but the Nittany Lions only wanted him as a linebacker.
So he went to Miami (Fla.), where he got this collegiate start against, of course, Penn State. He learned he was starting only four hours before kickoff.
“The first thing I did was I walked away, went to the bathroom and threw up for like 20 minutes,” Kelly said. “I was so nervous.”
The Hurricanes won that day, and the Kelly legend began. And it kept growing once he got to Buffalo.
Kelly's next challenge is surgery June 21 when tissue is to be added to his upper jaw. Kelly's annual football camp begins June 24 and he said he plans to be there, even if he can't be as active as he usually is. He is scheduled for more surgery in September to have permanent dentures inserted.
Kelly's perseverance will be recognized when he receives the Jimmy V Award during the ESPYS on July 18 in Los Angeles.
Through it all, Kelly hasn’t lost his sense of humor.
When Jill said that the Bills still haven’t replaced him as quarterback, her husband responded, “Cleveland hasn’t replaced Brian Sipe, either.”
After some laughter, he added, “Just kidding. Bernie Kosar was pretty good.”
Jill is a big Jim Kelly fan for many reasons.
As she said, “He is not only my husband. But he’s my hero as well. So just to watch him and be here with him – no teeth and all – he’s just an incredible man.”
A major milestone for Kelly was Erin’s wedding. He got to walk her down the aisle and dance with her.
“To see that happen after everything he’s been through was just absolutely incredible,” Erin said.
Two months later, Kelly was diagnosed with cancer for a third time.
Many people might not be up for that fight again.
But Kelly expects to come out victorious.
“I have to say,” he added, “next on my bucket list is to walk my other daughter down the aisle.”