With his daughters by his side and his wife in the audience, Jim Kelly accepted the Jimmy V Award for Perseverance on Wednesday night at the ESPYs.
The Buffalo Bills’ Hall of Fame quarterback, who has been battling oral cancer since 2013, was presented the award by two of his closest friends and fellow members of the famed quarterback class of 1983, Dan Marino and John Elway.
“There might be nothing harder in football than getting to the brink of what you dream of, and falling short,” Elway said during Kelly’s introduction. “Well, Jim Kelly led the Buffalo Bills to the Super Bowl four times, and each time fell just short. But time and again, Jim found a way to lead his team back next season, out of the darkness, ready to climb back to the top once more.
“Since Jim retired, he's traveled a tougher road than any of us can imagine,” Marino continued. “As you're about to hear, he's lived his life the same way he played the game of football.”
With that, a video recapping Kelly’s life began to play. In one of the first scenes, Kelly recalls the words of his late father, Joe, who died less than a year ago.
“Get up! You'll be all right,” Kelly screams. “He wanted us to understand that we're all going to go through tough times. We're going to fall down, but when you fall down, get up. That's how our dad raised all of us.”
The video continued with a look at the life of Kelly’s son, Hunter, who died in 2005 at the age of 8 from Krabbe Disease, an inherited degenerative disorder of the central and peripheral nervous systems.
“I thought about my son wearing No. 12,” Kelly said on the video. “All these dreams I had, but the good Lord had different plans for me.”
Hunter Kelly’s battle inspired his father’s charitable work.
“Every morning we woke up was like, is this the day that our son is going to heaven?” Kelly said. “Hunter never spoke a word, but he taught my wife and I the definition of toughness, the definition of never giving up, because he never gave up one day of his life.”
Kelly also recounted the moment he first learned he had cancer. He had surgery to remove squamous-cell carcinoma found in his jaw in 2013. Then the following year, he went through chemotherapy treatments when the cancer returned in his maxillary sinus.
The 58-year-old endured a 12-hour surgery in March to once again remove oral cancer and reconstruct his upper jaw.
“When I was first diagnosed, I was by myself, and I just broke down,” he said. “It wasn't because I had cancer. It was because how am I going to tell my wife? How am I going to tell my two daughters that they just lost a son, their brother, and now they're going to lose the other man in their life?”
“I witnessed Jim be devastated and broken as a person, so I just prayed,” his wife, Jill, said during the video. “I prayed that there was more to our story.”
The video ended with Kelly again reminiscing on the words of his father.
“I've lived through a lot in my life,” he said. “Good days, bad days, heartbreak. But it doesn't matter. I will never give up. I will keep fighting until the end. ‘Get up. You'll be all right.’ ”
Following the video, Kelly took the stage with his daughters, Erin and Camryn, by his side.
With his voice cracking, an emotional Kelly started his speech by saying “it is never easy watching video about my son. So many times I’ve dreamt and continue to dream about my son, Hunter, and what he’s meant in my life. They will never stop.”
Kelly then reflected on the yearly battles he used to have with Marino, and thanked Elway on behalf of the quarterback class of 1983 for winning a pair of Super Bowls.
“We appreciate that,” he said. “Especially me and Dan.”
Kelly could not hold back his emotions when discussing the support he’s received during his battle.
“My family, wow, I don't know what I can say,” he said. “My daughter Erin, every single time she walked into the hospital, not one time did she ever have a frown on her face. It was always, 'Daddy you look so good.' She'd give me a hug. My daughter Camryn, so many times she would hug me, and I didn't want to let her go. Even today, when she hugs me, I don't want to let her go.
“And my wife Jill, you are my heart. You are my soul. You are my everything. I love you Jill.”
Kelly also said that his five brothers – Pat, Ed, Ray, Dan and Kevin – “have been through everything with me. The good times and bad times. The Super Bowls, we had fun. But I tell you what, I wouldn't be here today if it wasn't for my five brothers. I love you guys.”
He also thanked founding Bills owner Ralph Wilson, as well as new team owners Terry and Kim Pegula, as well as his “wack-a-doodle” buddies – teammates Bruce Smith, Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed, Cornelius Bennett and Steve Tasker.
“All you guys, every single day you continue to have group text messaging. It drives me crazy because you always put me in it, but keep doing it,” he said. “It makes me laugh, it puts smiles on my face.”
Kelly said he would return to Buffalo on Thursday to continue to support the 60 local families who have a child with Krabbe Disease.
“I just want to let them know that I will be home tomorrow, me and my family, to go with you and be able to go out there and make a difference,” he said.
Near the conclusion of his 5-minute speech, Kelly urged those listening to “make a difference today for somone who is fighting for their tomorrow.”
“When I look across this arena, and when I talk to people – you don't need to be a Russell Wilson, an Aaron Rodgers – to make a difference out there,” he said. “Every single person in this room can be a difference-maker. You can be just a normal person that gets up and goes to work, but you can be a difference-maker, putting a smile on those faces.
“My kids, my friends, when they came to see me, not once did they ever have a frown on their face. So I just urge anybody out there, if you have somebody out there who's suffering – it doesn't have to be cancer – it could be somebody not having a good day. It could be your mom, your dad. It could be your grandparents. What you say to them and the smile that you have on your face, that could be the difference in them making it to the next day. Remember that. Always, always persevere. Like Jimmy V said, 'never, ever give up.' ”
The Jimmy V Award is named for late North Carolina State men’s basketball coach Jim Valvano, and is given annually to “a deserving member of the sporting world who has overcome great obstacles through perseverance and determination.”
Kelly is the second former member of the Bills to receive the award, joining tight end Kevin Everett in 2008.
Kelly’s fight isn’t over. He said Tuesday he’ll travel to New York City next month for an unexpected checkup after “something came up” during his recovery.