After leading the Bills to an unprecedented four consecutive Super Bowls in the early s, Kelly could have taken his fortune and fame just about anywhere else. He didn't.
Kelly retired in , but he and his family continue to make Western New York their home. Even in Buffalo, a small city where everybody seems to know everybody, Kelly could have kept a low profile. He hasn't. Kelly has used his iconic status to benefit the community. From national efforts to raise awareness of Krabbe disease -- which took the life of his son, Hunter, in -- to contributing to local charities, Kelly has shown an openness and accessibility to a region where he is beloved.
As Kelly, 54, prepared for cancer treatment at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, his friends and former teammates told the story of a tough-minded man with a knack for pulling people together, both before and after his playing career. Kelly initially shunned Buffalo. Instead of playing for the Bills, who drafted him 14th overall in , he spent his first two professional seasons as the prolific quarterback for the USFL's Houston Gamblers.
It was really a dark time. We're better off without them. The deal made Kelly the league's highest-paid player and Buffalo welcomed him in style. The Bills moved their introductory news conference to the Hilton now the Adam's Mark hotel in downtown Buffalo and gave Kelly a police escort from the airport. It was a ballroom just filled with press and fans and guests of the club. If it had been the governor coming into town or a presidential candidate, it would have been treated the same way.
But that's Buffalo for you. It was a fun team to be on. After two rebuilding seasons, the Kelly-led Bills broke through in When bad things happen, he doesn't get discouraged.
He gets mad and fights over it. That's his way and that's the personality our team took. Nothing would ever deter him from his goal, which was being out there on that field and being there with his teammates. Teammates have always been like family to Kelly.
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Those close to Kelly, who was raised along with his five brothers in western Pennsylvania, say that he had a way of settling differences and drawing his teammates together. People respond to that, and he has the ability to make friends very quickly and very easily, and his friendships last.
He doesn't forget people. It's one of the rarest gifts I've seen in anybody. Two weeks later, his son was born. Hunter Kelly was diagnosed with Krabbe disease, a degenerative condition of the nervous system that left him only a few years to live. It was a sobering revelation that deeply affected Kelly. His halftime words might be more fondly remembered than some of the great passes he made during the late s and '90s.
Kelly, undoubtedly, was a hero to more than a few onlookers. Thing is, the former QB's hero was in attendance, too. Near the end of his speech, an emotional, choked-up Kelly expressed exactly how much his son, Hunter, meant to him.
15 years ago today: Jim Kelly's emotional Wall of Fame speech
Kelly called him his "soldier" and "hero" in front of the large gathering that included the late Ralph Wilson and former teammates. They embraced him, they criticized him, they idolized him for 11 years. Sunday, they cried with him. Kelly made yet another comeback when he spent 20 seconds regaining his composure when his appreciation turned toward his 4-year-old son, Hunter. Hunter suffers from Krabbe disease and has been his father's inspiration since Kelly retired after the season. He won't be able to do what Daddy does.
But with my son, so many kids are going to benefit from him. I love you, buddy. Kelly was honored during halftime of the Bills' loss to the Seattle Seahawks.
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He became the first player in team history to have his jersey number retired. Simpson was the last Buffalo player to wear No. Kelly is widely regarded as the best quarterback in team history after guiding the Bills to four straight Super Bowls.
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He'll be eligible for the Hall of Fame in February. Owner Ralph C. Wilson Jr.
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Kelly raised his jersey to the fans before using it to blanket Hunter, whom Kelly pushed in a stroller toward a makeshift stage. Kelly also was flanked by his wife, Jill, and their daughters, Erin and Camryn. Fans chanted, "Kel-ly, Kel-ly, Kel-ly," after he was introduced and again when his number was retired. It took everybody pulling together in this city.
This is one big family. Thank you very much.