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Sean Kirst: A lasting childhood moment, thanks to Jim Kelly

Bill and Kathy Kita do not kid themselves. They know Jim Kelly, retired quarterback for the Buffalo Bills, has crossed the paths of countless Western New Yorkers since arriving here more than 30 years ago, and chances are slender that he remembers their family.

Still, the Kitas were relieved to hear of the outcome of Kelly’s surgery last week, the latest phase of treatment for the cancer that in March required 12-hours of surgical reconstruction of his upper jaw. His wife Jill put up an Instagram post saying doctors believe they will not have to operate again, which leaves the Kitas with the same emotion they feel toward Kelly.

Gratitude.

“Obviously, I’ve watched him since his first game, and I’ve seen the way he matured as a player and a person, and it’s just remarkable and astounding to see the way he’s dealt with this terrible, terrible disease,” said Bill Kita, 67.

“If it were me,” he said, “I don’t know if I’d have the courage to fight it the way he does, with all those surgeries and all the pain. And this might sound a little nutty, but I admire him and some of the other guys he played with just for the way they stayed here, for the way they still look out for each other.”

That is pretty much the way Bill was taught to face the world.

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He and Kathy have four children. There is Matt, their oldest, a lawyer in Dallas, then Kate, Caroline and Kevin, the youngest, born seven years after Matt. Their encounter with Kelly happened because of Kevin, whose mother took him to the doctor almost 30 years ago for a standard appointment before kindergarten.

The results upended their day-to-day lives. Their little boy had an atrial septal defect, essentially a hole in his heart. He needed open heart surgery, and quickly.

Bill Kita had always seen himself as a fortunate guy, in this sense: If things went wrong, someone always offered selfless help. When Bill was a teenager in Colden and his father died, Bill's mother and older brother Tony both held down jobs to give Bill the chance to attend Boston College.

In their sacrifice, Bill found the ethic he tries to live out for his kids.

“Do good and good will come of it,” he said. “Try to help one another as you move forward, and don’t be too distracted by every new gimmick, and try to remember that it’s not about things, but about people.”

Bill Kita, left, with his sons Matt, center, and Kevin Kita, right, and his grandson John before the Bills home opener this year at New Era Field in Orchard Park. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

After college, Bill met Kathy in New England. They returned to Western New York, where Bill finished law school at the University at Buffalo. He built a life he could not have imagined amid his struggles as a teen. He and Kathy gave their kids things he never had, including the regular chance to see Bills games.

Amid all that, he found himself walking down a Buffalo Children's Hospital corridor next to a gurney that held his 5-year-old. As orderlies wheeled Kevin onto the elevator before surgery, the boy cried out to his father, “Don’t leave!”

Bill, who still has trouble speaking of that moment, does not forget.

“It’s what make you know, right then, what life is all about,” Bill said.

After the operation, he and Kathy were with Kevin in the intensive care unit when instruments started plunging, when doctors and nurses rushed to intervene, when Kevin underwent a second surgery to close off bleeding that threatened his life.

This time, the procedure succeeded. Kevin began his recovery while Matt, the oldest son, wheels always turning, decided on one thing that might cheer up his little brother.

He had an against-the-odds plan for Kevin to meet Jim Kelly, whose Bills were then beginning their football golden age, in which they dominated the American Football Conference.

Matt was the kind of kid who was not easily daunted. Kathy remembers driving home once with her husband after teaching a church school class, listening on the radio to a post-game Bills show with sportscaster John Murphy, when a caller came on who identified himself as “Matt from Hamburg.”

They knew that guy. It was their oldest, with a babysitter, when he was maybe 10.

A few years later, with his brother just past surgery, Matt came home from school one day, took pen and paper and wrote a letter to Kelly in care of the Bills, wondering if the quarterback might stop by the hospital to visit Kevin.

Nothing happened for weeks. Even now, Matt does not want to take credit for what might have been cosmic coincidence. All he knows is that after Kevin was allowed to go home, the phone rang at their home, and an official from Children's Hospital had a question.

Kelly was coming in to make a donation on behalf of his Kelly for Kids Foundation, and the staff wondered if Kevin would be willing to symbolically accept the check.

Are you kidding? Matt, at 12, remembers the meeting even more vividly than his little brother, only 5 at the time, who has vague images of Kelly towering above him.

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For the boys, the moment forged deep loyalty. Kelly gave Kevin a signed poster that he kept on his bedroom wall for at least a decade, until it fell apart. Kevin went on to play college hockey at John Carroll University, eventually going to law school at Akron and then to work as a lawyer in Cleveland.

His parents never forgot the visit at the hospital. The Kitas mourned for Kelly and his wife Jill when they lost their son Hunter to a disease of the nervous system. Even now, Bill Kita said, he hears quiet testaments from friends who know the Kellys away from the spotlight, who speak of their quiet empathy for others in hard spots.

“People help people,” Bill said. “A lot of people helped me along the way. When we’re hurting, when we’re reduced, when we’re all in the same boat, then we all need someone who will look out for us.”

As he once saw that for his own son, he is part of a community that now sees it for Jim Kelly.

A couple of months ago, just before the Bills home opener against the Los Angeles Chargers, Matt Kita climbed onto a plane in Dallas with his son John, a third grader and a Bills fan who had never attended a regular season game in Orchard Park. They landed in Cleveland, which gave them a chance to drive to Buffalo with Kevin, now 34.

At New Era Field they joined Bill Kita and his son-in-law, Dan Warren, and they watched the Bills end up on the wrong end of a game that was never really close. As things ground on in the second half, some people around them were getting up and getting out.

Young John Kita, at 8, knew he was not going anyplace. Play it safe, skip one minute, and you never know what you might miss, which is why his father, long ago, wrote that letter to Jim Kelly.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com or read more of his work in this archive.

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