We pride ourselves on toughness in Western New York. We don’t buckle under bad weather; we brush off economic downturns as temporary; and we present an image of blue-collar people who don’t shrink from a challenge. No one personifies the ideal of toughness more than Pro Football Hall of Famer Jim Kelly.
Kelly on Wednesday evening did our region proud with his speech at the nationally televised ESPY Awards in Los Angeles. The Buffalo Bills great was accepting the Jimmy V Award, honoring perseverance. The honor is named for former North Carolina State men’s basketball coach Jim Valvano, who delivered an emotional speech before a TV audience while battling cancer in 1993.
Valvano’s most quoted words that night were: “Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up.” It’s hard to think of any public figure who lives those words more than Kelly, who has undergone several treatments for cancer since having squamous cell carcinoma removed from his jaw in 2013. This past March and again in June, the 58-year-old had surgery on his jaw, from which he is still recovering.
The procedures have compromised Kelly’s ability to speak, but anyone who has followed his career knows that "compromise" is not part of his vocabulary. Kelly’s five-minute speech held an audience of star athletes and other celebrities transfixed. The basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was among those who sprang to their feet to give him a standing ovation.
Perhaps Kelly’s remarks won’t be immortalized along with Valvano’s, or Lou Gehrig’s when he told a Yankee Stadium crowd that he was the luckiest man on the face of the earth.
Kelly’s speech may be remembered not so much for what he said as how he said it, speaking with obvious difficulty after the procedures on his jaw and mouth.
Nonetheless, his words packed an emotional wallop. He opened by mentioning his late son, Hunter, who was remembered in a video prior to Kelly taking the stage.
Kelly frequently mentions that he learned more about the phrase “Kelly tough” from Hunter then he did from his 11 seasons playing for the Bills. Hunter died in 2005 of Krabbe disease. He was 8 years old.
"So many times I’ve dreamt and continued to dream about my son, Hunter, and what he’s meant in my life, and will never stop," he said.
Kelly also thanked his wife, Jill, and was accompanied to the stage by his daughters, Erin and Camryn. Kelly thanked his wife and daughters for their constant encouragement during his hospitalizations. He urged others to offer similar positive reinforcement to people in need.
"Make a difference today for someone who is fighting for their tomorrow," Kelly said. "When I look across this arena, and when I talk to people, you don’t need to be a Russell Wilson or an Aaron Rodgers to make a difference out there. Every single person in this room can be a difference-maker."
Some celebrities facing similar health challenges would retreat to a remote location and go through their struggles alone. But Kelly and his family have embraced the support of the public and the so-called Bills Mafia, taking to social media to share updates on Kelly’s condition and to ask for prayers.
Kelly is the first to admit that he was no Boy Scout during his playing days. He and his teammates from the Super Bowl years liked to work hard and play hard. Those of us who remember the sometimes cocky quarterback have watched Kelly evolve into a family man who openly discusses his religious faith.
Still sore from his surgery, Kelly was on the field in June for his annual football camp, throwing passes and teaching the game to dozens of youngsters. In true Western New York fashion, it seems that nothing can keep Kelly from showing up and getting his work done.