Susan Braun, the chief executive officer of the V Foundation, has heard some incredible stories of perseverance in her six trips to the ESPYs.
The Jimmy V Award is bestowed annually to "a deserving member of the sporting world who has overcome great obstacles through perseverance and determination."
In 2013, Braun's first ESPYs, Dick Hoyt and son Rick, born with cerebral palsy, were honored. Dick pushed Rick in a custom-built wheelchair in more than a thousand long-distance running events over four decades. A year ago, she learned of Jarrius Robertson, a 16-year-old New Orleans Saints fan fighting biliary atresia and overcoming two liver transplants and 13 surgeries.
Every story is striking, but she said there's a special connection when the recipient is fighting cancer, just like the man the award is named after. Former North Carolina State men's basketball coach Jim Valvano battled cancer in the early 1990s.
On Wednesday, Buffalo Bills legend Jim Kelly will become the latest honoree, receiving the honor 25 years after Valvano's passionate speech urged, "Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up."
"It feels like a sense of connecting two stories, two people, two experiences," Braun said. "Jim Kelly's inspiration, like Jim Valvano, inspired us to keep going forward and keep moving."
Kelly is the 12th recipient of the award and the seventh to battle cancer. The ESPYs air from Los Angeles at 8 p.m. Wednesday on ABC.
"It's humbling, for sure," Kelly said Tuesday at his football clinic at St. John Fisher College. "When I look at the prior recipients, I know what they've been through. In order to get this award, you have to get through a lot. ... I hope that the words that I say come out right, that I'm able to inspire people to never give up."
The Hall of Fame quarterback is recovering from a second recurrence of squamous cell carcinoma in his upper jaw. He was originally diagnosed in 2013 and, despite a pair of cancer-free assessments, the disease returned again in 2014 and last March.
"In my opinion, the phrase 'Kelly Tough' is an understatement," ESPN host Chris Berman wrote Wednesday. Berman is hosting the pre-show for the ESPYs and plans to interview a pair of Kelly's draft classmates, Dan Marino and John Elway, about their friend's perseverance. "Even doctors have said, 'We’ve never met a patient this tough.' The stuff you think of as a slogan is real life. Jim has faced this three times, beating cancer head on. He’s a Hall of Fame quarterback, a Hall of Fame person and a Hall of Fame cancer survivor."
Kelly has been open through every step of the process, sharing updates and words of encouragement on social media.
"It's humbling because I know what Jimmy V has meant to so many people," Kelly said. "I just know how I'm brought up. I know to never give up on anything you ever do in your life. We're all going to be met with challenges in life."
Kelly said that mentality is something that dates back to his upbringing, but was strengthened by his son, Hunter, who suffered from an inherited fatal nervous system disease called globoid cell leukodystrophy.
"I watched what he went through for eight and a half years of his life," Kelly said. "I wouldn't wish that upon anybody. He's the one that really taught me to keep fighting. ... Even though he never spoke a word, he made a difference in my life."
Kelly has undergone multiple surgeries, most recently in mid-June to insert implants into the new bone in his upper jaw. He's scheduled to have permanent dentures inserted later this summer and told reporters on Tuesday he's scheduled for an additional unplanned checkup in New York City during the second week of August.
Despite the intense procedures, Kelly has tried to remain as active as possible. He's participated in a pair of camps sharing his namesake this summer, first in Orchard Park just three days after his last surgery and then at St. John Fisher on Tuesday. He showed his arm strength hasn't faltered while teaching young players how to run routes in Fisher's Growney Stadium.
"He's in a good place right now," former teammate Thurman Thomas said. "No matter what it is, he's still doing it. He's not letting his cancer hold him back from living his life."
"The image of going forward, not giving up, the sense of integrity in his fight is so inspirational," Braun, of the V Foundation, said. "When someone goes through what he's been through and still is out there leading and inspiring others, boy, it tells you a lot about a character of a person."
Kelly said he was told he's scheduled to speak for two minutes at the ESPYs, but admitted keeping his speech to the allotted time limit will be a struggle. He plans on emphasizing the "four F's": family, friends faith and fans.
"I unfortunately only have a couple minutes and I don't want to music to play," Kelly said. "I'm going to try and do it as fast as I can, but in order for me to get my point across it takes longer than that. ...
"I don't think I can do it in two minutes. They might be getting the hook."